1. One - A Mutant by Maggie
2. Chapter 2 - Promises by Maggie
3. Chapter 3 - Experiment by Maggie
4. Four - When Life Gives You Lemons, Make Lemonade by Maggie
5. Five - Flight by Maggie
6. Six - Son of Akela by Maggie
7. Seven - One Lost, One Found by Maggie
8. Eight - Reunion by Maggie
9. Nine - Closer Relationships by Maggie
10. Ten - Unexpected by Maggie
11. Eleven - Slow Recovery by Maggie
12. Chapter 12: In Sickness and Health by Maggie
13. Chapter 13 - New Life by Maggie
14. Fourteen - A Fresh Start by Maggie
15. Fifteen - Happy Endings, Perfect Beginnings by Maggie
“Yeah, this is the right address,” he mused, “but...”
“Can I help you?”
Brian jumped slightly before turning to see who had spoken to him. A woman with long white hair and dark skin stood before him in a white blouse and dark blue pants with dirt and grass stains on the knees; she was gazing at him with the nicest blue eyes he’d ever seen.
“Uh,” Brian swallowed and adjusted the strap of his bag slung across his shoulder. “I-I’m looking for Professor Xavier. I bumped into one of the nurses at the hospital and she gave me a card that directed me here.”
“A nurse at the hospital?” the woman inquired.
Brian swallowed and looked at the ground. “I almost killed a friend of mine,” he muttered. “And another friend got angry with me and told me to leave. He even called me a freak.”
“Me, too,” Brian whispered. “I didn’t want to believe that I’d tried to kill him. I mean, he’s my best friend after all… But after what AJ said to me, I guess… maybe I did hurt him.”
“Was he the one that got angry with you?”
Brian nodded. “Yeah. He blamed me, thinking that I’d done it just so I could get the attention that Nick got; that I was jealous.”
“But it’s not true.”
“No! I’d never do that to my best friend.”
“I understand that.” She held out her hand. “My name is Ororo Munroe, but I’m called Storm. I can control the weather, which comes in very handy with gardening, one of my favorite hobbies.”
“Wow,” Brian remarked as he shook her hand. “That’s cool. I’m Brian Littrell.”
Storm’s eyes widened in recognition. “Oh, of course. The professor told me to expect you. He’s waiting for you now. I’ll take you to him.”
“He’s waiting for me?” Brian asked.
“Yes,” Storm replied. “Follow me.”
She led Brian through the large halls of the school, past dozens of classrooms filled with students. Brian tried to peek in some of the open doors, but Ororo called him onward. Finally, after three floors, she paused before two large oak doors.
Send him in, Storm.
Brian gasped. The voice had been inside his head. “What was that?”
“Professor Xavier,” Storm explained. “Go on in.”
Brian glanced at her before taking hold of the doorknob, his hand shaking. She just smiled encouragingly. Taking a deep breath, he turned back to the doors and opened them. The room was circular with a fireplace in the center of the wall. A thin, bald man was waiting for him, sitting in a wheelchair by the fireplace. Next to him was an empty velvet chair. In between them was a wheeled tray with a silver teapot and two mugs resting on it.
“Welcome, Brian. I’m Charles Xavier.” He motioned to the chair next to him. “ Sit down, you must be tired.”
Brian said nothing as he closed the door. As he walked over, he saw that Xavier was meeting his gaze with a welcome smile on his face. He sat down in the chair and took the mug of hot chocolate that Professor Xavier offered.
“Thank you, sir.”
Brian jumped and stared at the professor, trying to hide his fear.
“I’m telepathic,” Xavier explained. “You’re in Xavier’s Institute for Higher Learning; for mutants, humans that are different from the Homo sapiens. Tell me, how is your friend?”
Brian held the mug on his lap, still trying to digest what this man had just told him. A school for mutants? “I don’t know,” he finally admitted. “I never got to see him before I left.”
Xavier stretched his telepathic powers toward the young man's mind, hoping to create a connection. He was surprised to find that a weak barrier was blocking him. Only another telepath could block him like that, other than Magneto… “You can block me. Very impressive. You seem quite advanced for someone that seems to have just discovered his powers.”
“I was … always advanced for someone my age. Except when I got sick. Then I fell behind.”
“What happened to your friend?” Xavier inquired.
Brian’s hands shook and he bit his lip, choosing to remain silent. Xavier waited. He could wait as long as he needed.
The young man took a deep breath. “It was yesterday, early afternoon…”
^ ^ ^ ^
“Nick, can you please come back to the present long enough to learn your place for this concert?” begged their choreographer, Fatima Robinson.
Nick grinned. “Yes, mommy.”
If looks could kill, Nick would have been more than six feet under at that moment because of the glare Fatima gave him.
"Nickolas Gene Carter..."
Uh-oh, the full name.
"You come here right now and get in your spot!"
Nick cringed and hurried to his spot between Brian and Howie. "Yes ma'am."
Normally, Brian would have found that hilarious, but the look on their choreographer’s face stopped him from laughing. They’d tried her patience too often today, he could tell. As she stepped away, a strange feeling wound its way into Brian’s gut. He couldn’t recognize the feeling, but he knew that something bad was going to happen, and soon.
“Is everything all right, Brian?” Kevin inquired.
“I don’t know,” Brian spoke softly, “something isn’t right. But I can’t put my finger on it as to what it is. It’s about Fatima…”
“Well, if it concerns her, chalk it up to PMS,” Kevin remarked.
Brian shook his head. “No. It’s Fatima and Nick. Whatever it is, it worries me.”
The music for ‘Everyone’ started and they counted off until the dance began. Half an hour passed, and the feeling grew steadily within him. It caused him to miss a step in a well-memorized dance routine and bump into Kevin.
“Brian!” Fatima shrieked impatiently. “What is the matter with you? Your heart hasn’t been in your work at all today! Nick has been dancing better than you!”
“I’m sorry, Fatima,” Brian apologized, “I just… well… I’ve just had this weird feeling for a while now, and I’m not sure what it is. It’s been bothering me a lot.”
Fatima shook her head. “Well, whatever it is, try to ignore it and get back into position. We’ll take it from the top.”
As Fatima walked back to the edge of the stage, Brian shivered but turned away to his original position.
“Ready everyone?” Fatima called. “Five, six, seven-“
“Fatima, look out!”
Brian whirled around at the panic in Nick’s voice just in time to see Nick shove Fatima out of the way of a falling light, letting it fall on him instead.
“Nick!” Brian cried, racing to his friend’s side. “Someone call an ambulance!”
Immediately Kevin pulled out his phone and dialed the hospital. Howie, AJ and Fatima joined Brian around Nick. Nick was half on his side, trapped beneath the light, unconscious.
“Stay with us, Frack,” Howie pleaded. “The ambulance is on its way. You’ll get help.”
“Let’s try to move it off of him,” AJ suggested as he stood and walked around to the back. He paused, and appeared to be studying the cords that had held the light up, then bent down and grabbed a portion of it. Howie and Brian joined him. Brian counted to three, and they carefully lifted the light off their friend. Brian was the first to rejoin him.
“Hold on, Nick. Please hold on!”
Brian anxiously paced the waiting room of the hospital. Kevin and Howie were in Nick’s room. The doctor had told them of Nick’s condition and suggested that only two people be with him at one time. At the present, Nick wasn’t awake. AJ sat watching him in silence.
“Brian, if you’re so anxious, why don’t you just go in there and finish the job?” AJ growled.
Brian turned to him in confusion. “Finish the job? What are you talking about, J?”
“I saw the cords that held the lights up. They were perfectly intact.”
“I don’t understand.”
AJ stood and removed his sunglasses. Brian gasped and backed away. AJ was glaring daggers, his eyes burning with hatred.
“The only way they could have stayed like that is if someone with special powers unhooked them.”
Realization dawned. “You think I did that?” Brian demanded, appalled that AJ would even think that. “Give me one good reason why I would!”
“So you could have all the attention at the front. With Nick out of the way, there would be no stopping you from getting the fans’ attention and love.”
“That’s absurd!” Brian cried.
“But it’s a possibility, though, isn’t it?”
Brian stared at AJ in shock. AJ scowled at him, taking the look to mean that he had just spoken a truth.
“Get out, freak,” he snarled.
Brian gasped and began to slowly back away as AJ approached him. AJ took two larger steps and shoved him, knocking him to the floor.
“I said GET OUT!”
Brian fell hard on the hospital floor, but he was on his feet in a second, doing exactly what AJ had told him. He was leaving. He ran blindly down different hallways, not caring where he went. His only destination was to be away from those hate-filled eyes of his friend. Former friend, he supposed. As he turned a corner, he slammed into someone and hit the floor. He sat up quickly to see whom he had hit so he could apologize. It was a nurse. Her nametag read ‘Jean’.
"I'm sorry, miss," he apologized quickly. He held out his hand to help her up. Some of her red hair had fallen out of place.
"It's all right, sir. I can tell you're heading somewhere in a hurry." She held out a card. "You dropped this. I hope your day goes better."
Brian smiled. "Thank you, ma'am. I'll need it."
Jean smiled back and walked away. Brian looked down at the card and realized something.
"Hey, wait a minute, I didn't--" He turned to look for the nurse, but she was no longer in sight. He looked back at the card.
Xavier's Institute for Higher Learning
Westchester County, New York
Ask for Professor Charles Xavier
“Institute for Higher Learning?” Brian wondered. “Professor Charles Xavier? What-“
He shook his head. Whoever that woman had been, she had given him this card so it must have been for a reason. Time to find out.
^ ^ ^ ^
“So you’ve met Jean Grey.”
Brian wiped his eyes. “Is that who she was?”
“Yes. She is one of my X-Men. One of the first I ever taught to strengthen her powers.”
Brian stared into the fire, his empty mug cooling in his hands. “I guess… I’ve always known that I was different. More than just being behind a year in school. There was always something. Now I see what it was.”
“Was that day when you first realized your powers?”
Brian shook his head. “No. I’d discovered it the night before. AJ… was the only one that had seen me. That’s how he knew.”
“It was about two o’clock in the morning and I couldn’t sleep,” he began. “I got some cocoa and sat down on the couch, hoping to see if there was anything interesting on television. AJ had heard me get up and followed me. After an hour or so, AJ got up and tripped over the coffee table. Both of us expected to see our cups on the floor with a cocoa stain on the carpet. To our shock, they were hovering in the air. And somehow, I knew that I was doing it.” Brian shook his head and continued, “After a few minutes of staring, AJ righted the table and somehow… somehow I concentrated on the cups and brought them back to the table. We decided not to say anything and went back to bed. I thought that maybe I was tired and had fallen asleep, but when AJ asked me about it the next morning, that confirmed that it had really happened. I made AJ swear not to tell the others yet, not until I got it under control.”
“And yet,” Xavier said, “he turned against you when Nick got hurt.”
Brian slowly nodded. “I don’t doubt that he’s told Howie and Kevin what I am. They’ll know, and probably hate me for it, too. They’ll know I’m a… a mutant.”
Professor Xavier remained silent, leaving Brian alone with his thoughts. He spoke after several minutes. “You have acknowledged the fact that you are different, that you are not Homo sapiens. That is the first step to controlling your powers. Acceptance is the second.”
Brian frowned. “My powers.”
Xavier could see that all this talk was bothering the young man. “Perhaps we should get you settled in before doing anything else. We have a room on the next floor up that might suit you.”
“Sleep sounds so good right now,” Brian remarked, a small smile coming to his face. “I’d like to see it.”
“Follow me, then.” The professor tapped a button on his chair and led Brian out into the hall.
Brian followed him to an elevator, then past some classrooms just as students began to enter the hall. Several students stopped and stared, then stifled screams upon realizing just who was following their Professor. All of a sudden, Brian was blasted by feelings of shock and confusion. What on earth was this?
“I can feel them,” he murmured, fear beginning to flutter in his chest. He didn’t doubt that the fear was his own.
“Hm. Empathy, the ability to sense others’ emotions; one that many consider to be both blessing and curse. With time and training, you’ll learn to soften the feelings you receive from others.” He looked over his shoulder. "What do you sense from them?"
"Shock and confusion, mostly," Brian replied.
"Considering they see one of their favorite singers their school with a duffel bag, could you blame them?"
Brian thought about that statement. "No, I suppose not."
Charles Xavier stopped in front of an oak door, partially open. “I believe this room should suit you.”
Brian pushed the door open and entered. He smiled when he got his first look. The rug was a soft blue and the walls the color of beach sand, a light white-peach. The four-poster bed was covered in a sky blue comforter and white pillows. Opposite the bed was an oak dresser and full length mirror right next to it.
“Reminds me of home,” Brian observed with a cheerful smile.
“Well, make yourself at home, then, and come back downstairs when you're ready to eat.”
As soon as he was alone, Brian began unpacking his things. He hadn’t brought very many clothes with him, just what he could fit inside his duffel. He checked the other zippers of the bag and found two framed pictures and his Bible and set them on top of the dresser. His family smiled up at him from one picture, from that past Christmas. The other one made him pause. It was a group picture him and his bandmates just a few months before the tour started. They’d had a water fight that day when they were supposed to be washing Kevin’s car. Nick had been the one to start it, splashing AJ with the hose and claiming it was an accident. Brian bit his lip as he thought about yesterday. He couldn’t have hurt his best friend… could he?
Maybe I did, he thought. "I'm sorry, Nick."
He rubbed one eye as it began to water, realizing that he hadn’t had much sleep in the past two days and that bed looked so wonderful. He crossed over and sank down, sighing when he realized how soft the bed really was. Maybe he would wake up tomorrow and find that all this was a nightmare.
^ ^ ^ ^
Brian sat alone at a table in the dining room waiting for Storm while he ate breakfast. He had awakened that morning, momentarily forgetting where he was, but then, as he climbed out of bed and looked around the room, he remembered everything that had happened. Guilt had burned its way into his chest and he had allowed the tears to come, certain that no one would find him crying. Just as he had calmed down, there was a knock on the door. Storm had come to check on him and invite him to breakfast. Deciding that it might be better to just join her now instead of hiding in his room while rumors filled the school, he accepted. But as they got their food, she had glanced around the room and spotted someone. She told him to wait, saying that there was something she needed to take care of before she ate, so he reluctantly went to this table by himself and began to eat. He had just taken another bite of his biscuit when three metal claws slammed into the table on his right, barely missing his shoulder.
“Well, well,” a voice growled in amusement. “Fresh meat.”
Brian’s wide eyes traveled up the hairy arm to see what he first thought was a werewolf grinning back at him.
“Name’s Logan, kid. Better known as Wolverine. What’s yours?”
Brian slowly brought the biscuit back to his plate and tried to swallow. “Brian.”
Logan chuckled. “Sorry I scared you.”
“You didn’t scare me.”
Logan laughed as he sat down. “Kid, your face is completely white. I'm almost surprised that you haven’t wet yourself yet.”
“If someone nearly skewered your shoulder, wouldn’t you be like that?” Brian asked indignantly. "And I did not even come close."
Logan shook his head. “Not if I didn't have my powers. I can heal quickly. Granted, I might be scared if that happened and I didn’t have any powers, but that's not the case.”
“So I see,” Brian replied, his eyes trailing to Logan’s hand where the claws used to show, but had retracted back into his hand. “Does it hurt?”
“Every time, but it heals. Well, Storm told me to show you to the Training Room. We’ll see if we can sharpen these powers of yours and maybe discover a few more in the process.”
Brian’s eyes widened. “But the professor said that it was rare for a mutant to have more than one ability. How many can I have at one time?”
Logan shrugged. “Professor X told Storm and me about the discovery of your empathic power, so who knows? Let’s go, kid.”
“Don’t call me kid.”
Logan just grinned and led Brian away from the dining room to the Training Room. They reached two large metal doors that slid open at their approach. The doors had barely closed behind them when something sailed through the air. Logan pushed Brian to the floor as whatever it was flew over their heads and crashed against the door they had just entered.
“Be careful mon ami,” a voice called from the darkened training room. “That nearly blew your head off.”
Logan growled and leaped to his feet. “Cajun, show yourself! Got us some fresh meat to break in.”
“Would you mind not using that term, Logan?” Brian requested as he climbed back to his feet. “I feel like I'm a deer being hunted whenever you say that.”
“Don’t call me kid.” Now I know how Nick feels when we call him ‘kid’.
The light brightened in the room, but Brian still did not see anyone. He felt a prickling at the back of his neck and he stepped to the right just as something sailed by him. Glancing at it before it exploded, it looked like… an ace of spades.
A card? Dang, what kind of power does this person have?
Brian glanced around the room and finally saw a man walking toward them. He wore silver knee-length boots, black and red leggings and a red shirt with a long brown overcoat. He slipped a pack of playing cards into his pocket.
The man extended a hand. “Welcome. I’m Gambit.”
Brian took his hand, smiling at the Louisiana accent, probably New Orleans or somewhere around that area. “I’m Brian Littrell.”
“It’s good to meet you. Did Wolverine bring you here for training?”
Brian nodded as Logan spoke. “Training, and possibly discovering new powers. Xavier told Storm and me about his telepathy and his discovery of the empathic ability.”
“Well,” Brian said, “if I’m going to be in here, I can certainly hope I’ve got telekinesis.”
The three new friends laughed and spent a few minutes getting to know one another, and then prepared the training room for Brian.
Brian sighed in relief as he flopped onto his bed. Training had gotten tough once they discovered that he did indeed have telekinesis, to the surprise of all three men. They also learned that Brian could create a shield around himself by summoning the energy around him. Once they decided that Brian had had enough, he'd showered and then they headed down together to eat. They introduced him to Cyclops, Jubilee and Beast. Jean Grey approached him, and he recognized her immediately. She introduced him to Rogue, a mutant with the ability to take powers from other mutants and use them as her own for a time. He’d enjoyed their company and gotten to know them quickly and became fast friends with all of them. Now it was late in the evening, well after sunset, and Brian was exhausted. Thinking back, he’d been at this place for two days.
“And tomorrow’s another day,” he murmured before drifting off to sleep on top of the comforter, fully clothed.
The breeze picked up and blew in a circle around him, announcing her presence. Brian turned and smiled as Storm approached him. He bent down and plucked a blade of grass. As he stood, the bottom three quarters of the grass blade thickened and lengthened, while the top quarter expanded and changed color. By the time he was standing straight, a white rose was in his hand. It had been a power that he had just recently discovered and he was overjoyed at the prospect of changing one object into another. He held out the rose and Storm took it, smiling. White roses were her favorite flowers; it was one thing he had discovered in the two weeks he had been there.
“Thank you, Ororo.”
Storm gazed into Brian's eyes. “For what?”
Brian smiled gently, a smile different from the one he was famous for as a Backstreet Boy. “For being there for me. You were the first one that welcomed me here and made me feel like I really belonged somewhere. I felt your presence while I was sleeping that first night. It gave me a peace and comfort that I will always remember.”
Storm found herself blushing. “I’m glad I was able to give you comfort, Brian, even if I didn't realize it.”
Brian brushed a finger against her cheek. “I think you knew you were doing it.”
As they had been speaking, Brian had been inching closer to her face until they were mere centimeters apart.
“Maybe you’re right,” Storm replied as she closed her eyes.
Brian closed his eyes and claimed her lips in a gentle kiss. Almost from the day of his arrival, he had felt a growing attraction to her. Her response to the kiss told him that she must have been feeling something similar. When they parted, Brian held her in his arms, wanting the moment to linger. He felt a familiar presence nearby and looked up. A look of shock wiped the smile from his face. How did he find me?
Storm felt him stiffen and pulled away, turning to look where Brian was gazing with wide eyes. A tall dark-haired man stood thirty feet away, watching them.
“Who is it?”
“It’s Kevin,” Brian replied. “But how on earth did he find me?”
Storm placed a hand on his back and gave him a gentle nudge. Brian broke his gaze from Kevin and glanced back at her.
“Go to him, Brian.”
“Go. I’ll wait.”
Brian smiled and kissed her nose. Turning back to Kevin, he hesitated a moment longer, then started down the path toward his cousin. He stopped just a few feet away. Neither said a word for a long time. Kevin half-turned and tilted his head toward the path in the direction he had just come. Brian nodded and followed him. They walked a quarter mile before Kevin spoke.
“AJ told us everything, Brian. To tell you the truth, I didn’t know what to believe. I mean, you’re a… a…”
“Say it, Kevin. You know you want to.”
“I can’t,” Kevin protested. “I don’t want to see you hurt.”
“I already was when I left because of AJ.”
“He was just upset that Nick got hurt.”
“Because of me.”
Kevin stopped and looked his cousin in the eye. “Do you really believe that it was you?”
“If AJ told you everything, then doesn't it make sense? The cords were completely intact when the light fell on him! There’s no other reasonable explanation for it.”
Kevin hung his head, then looked out at the bay.
"How's Nick?" Brian asked.
Kevin closed his eyes and Brian could see lines of pain form at the creases of his eyes.
“Kevin? How’s Nick?” he repeated. “Please, it’s been bothering me for two weeks! How is he?”
Kevin took a deep breath. “He’s paralyzed from the waist down, Brian.”
All the breath left Brian's lungs. “No.”
“No!” Brian whirled around and tried to blink away the tears. My best friend is paralyzed because of me! Nick, can you ever forgive me? I never meant to hurt you.
He felt a hand on his shoulder. “Brian, he's been asking for you. We want you to come back.”
“Who’s we?” Brian demanded through his tears, not turning around. “You and Nick?”
Kevin stepped closer and rubbed his back. “Of course not. Howie wants you back, too. And I’m sure AJ does, underneath all his anger.”
“I really doubt that, Kev. He hates me. I'm not normal like any of you. I'm a mutant.”
“Brian, don’t talk like that.”
Brian pulled out of his grasp. “If that’s all you're going to say, you’re wasting your breath.”
Brian turned and looked him in the eye. “I can't go back, Kevin, not if I'm hated for what I am. I know how the others feel.”
“Others like me. They’re hated because they’re different from ‘normal’ humans. What’s your cover story been for the past two weeks since I've been gone?”
Kevin blinked in surprise at the sudden change in topic. “That we needed to take some time off after Nick got hurt and you're visiting family.”
“I see. How did you find me anyway?”
Kevin shrugged. “Got a phone call saying you were here. It was strange, but I had the feeling they were telling the truth. I see I was right.”
Brian remained silent and glanced out at the bay.
“Brian, please come back,” Kevin begged.
“I can’t, Kevin. Do you think I want to be in a place where I know people hate me? I’m not hated here. I’m respected for who I am and I'm friends with everyone.”
“What about the fans? We still need to work on the tour.”
Brian shook his head. “Not now. I have to stay and learn to control whatever powers I have before something goes wrong and I hurt someone else.”
“Well, what kinds of things can you do?”
“It’s really strange, even for a mutant, but quite a lot. There’s telekinesis, invisibility, changing one object into another and a few others.” Like telepathy.
Kevin jumped as he heard Brian's voice in his head. “Dang, that’s really something.”
Brian smirked, and then the smile faded. “I can’t go back, Kevin. I’m sorry.”
Kevin started forward. “But, Brian-“
Brian closed his eyes and concentrated. Hearing Kevin cry out let him know that he had become invisible and he took off at a fast run. At the base of a hill, he stopped and turned around. He could still see Kevin’s face from where he was and he saw the pain and the tears. Tentatively, he reached out and read Kevin’s thoughts.
Brian, the others may hate you, but I don't care. You’re my cousin and I love you. So does Nick. Aw Nick, Kevin turned back to face the bay, what am I going to tell him? His best friend refuses to come back all because he's a mutant and he's afraid we'll hate him. Look what you've done, AJ.
Brian drew himself out of Kevin's thoughts and made himself visible for his cousin for the last time. Tears welled up in his eyes as he called to Kevin in his mind.
Kevin. Kevin looked around but couldn’t see him. Behind you, on the hill.
He turned and saw Brian. “Please come back,” he begged.
Give me time. Let me get an understanding as to why I have all these powers, then maybe I’ll come back.
I don’t know. I’ll keep in contact with you, though. I promise. Tell Nick I'm sorry.
Reluctantly, Kevin nodded. He watched as his cousin turned his back on him and began walking away.
“Goodbye, Brian. Keep your promises.”
As Kevin began to walk away, he heard Brian's voice in his head once more.
The sun was sinking just below the horizon when Brian entered his room. He leaned against the door for a long time with his eyes closed.
I'm sorry. I'm so sorry.
A tear slipped from his eye as he slowly walked to the window. He stood there and watched the moon rise and shine on the distant water. After Kevin had left, Brian wasn’t ready to return to Ororo just yet, so he had contacted her telepathically and let her know that he needed to be alone for a while. She understood, and Brian had spent the remainder of the day walking the Institute grounds. He finally sat on a bench off the path in the woods and just let his thoughts wander. It was getting late when he finally noticed his surroundings again. He returned to the Institute, telling the others that he was fine, ate dinner in silence, and then headed for the library. He wandered around for another hour, pausing as he came across some of Nick’s favorite books. One by one, he began to read them, unable to finish even five chapters in any of them. Finally, he returned to his room, unable to block the pain.
He closed the shutters, blocking out the moonlight. As he moved to climb into bed, the pictures on his dresser caught his attention. He grabbed the group picture as he remembered the one behind it. He carefully slid the back off the frame and took the second picture out. After putting the frame back together and setting it back on the dresser, he picked up the photograph. It was of him and Nick at a photo shoot in the forest, one of his favorites.
It's all my fault. Nick, I'm so sorry. I never meant to hurt you. Can you forgive me?
Brian brought the picture over to the bed and leaned it against the lamp on the nightstand. He climbed into bed and drifted off to sleep facing the picture.
Water lapped at his feet. He was standing at the edge of the ocean.
The ocean? Where am I?
Brian looked around and spotted a house a few yards away. He started walking toward it, hoping that it might have some answers for him. When he was close enough, he realized exactly where he was.
"Nick's house," he whispered.
Suddenly, he was no longer outside. He was in Nick's studio. He looked around and spotted a figure sitting by the window. Pain clasped a hand on his heart. It was Nick. He was in a wheelchair, drawing with pastel chalk of the view outside: the moon reflecting on the ocean, its light glowing all around the beach.
"Nicky," he whispered.
Nick raised his head, eyes wide. He had heard something. He listened again, but heard nothing more. He had just put his chalk to the paper when he heard it again.
"Nick, I'm sorry."
Nick's head flew up. That had come from behind him, and the voice was familiar. Slowly he looked over his shoulder. The sight that greeted him nearly made him drop the pad and chalk.
"Brian!" he squeaked. He grabbed the wheels of his chair and turned the chair around so he was facing his friend.
The friends stared at each other in silence for a while.
"Kevin called me this afternoon,” Nick murmured. “He said you're not coming home yet."
"I can't Nicky. You're hurt because of me. AJ hates me."
"But I don't."
"I know," Brian whispered. "But I know that if I come back, this will just be a constant reminder to both of us."
"You lied to him, didn't you?" Nick asked, his voice cracking with sorrow. "You're not coming back at all. You told him you might come back once you have an understanding of why you have so many different powers. But you won't.”
Brian squatted in front of his friend as tears began to fall. "Nick, listen to me. I just need to learn about why I have all these different powers. I have so many that I’ve discovered over the last two weeks, which is unusual even in the mutant community. Just give me time to find out why.”
"But how long?"
Brian thought quickly as he wiped away his friend's tears. "One week," he replied. "Give me one week. Whether I have answers or not, I’ll come back. If it keeps you happy, I'll come back."
Nick touched one of his paralyzed legs. "It'll help to bear this burden a little better."
That was Brian's confirmation. "Then I promise I'll come back. Anything I can do to help my Frack bear an easier burden, I'll do my best."
Nick smiled happily. "One week, Brian."
Brian smiled, too. "One week."
Brian opened his eyes and thought about the dream he had had during the night. Was it a dream? Or was it yet another power he had discovered? He decided to find Professor Xavier to see if he could help.
Professor? Brian called as he stepped out into the hall.
"I'm here, Brian."
I need to talk to you, sir, he requested.
“I’m in my office. Come join me.”
He acknowledged the Professor, then headed for the elevator. Xavier’s office door was open when he arrived, so he knocked on the doorframe and entered.
“Is something wrong, Brian?”
Brian took a deep breath, and then explained what had happened in his dream. After he finished, he said, "I want to keep that promise, professor, even if it was only a dream. I want to find out why I have all these powers and how I can control them. I don't want Nick to be hurting because of me."
Charles looked his pupil right in his eyes. "I'll do anything I can to help you, Brian."
Brian smiled hopefully. "Really? Thank you so much."
"Just promise me that when you return, you will do your best to keep these powers under control and hidden from the outside world. Your fans and management know nothing of this, and it is best that it be kept that way."
"What about for special effects during concerts? Our fans won't know."
"Well... that's up to you, but I wouldn't recommend it."
Brian nodded. "Okay. But for now, I just want to find out why."
Brian and the professor worked over the next three days doing all they could to find out what it was that gave Brian all these powers. During the search, there were times when Storm or Cyclops would drag him away to help him practice some of his powers. At the moment, Brian and Storm were standing on an open field half a mile from the Institute. Storm wanted him to attempt flight.
"Storm, I don't know..."
"Brian, just try it. I want to find out if you can do it."
"But I hate heights!"
"You won't be going up very high at first," she promised. "Just a few feet off the ground, then a little more. Come on, try it."
Brian sighed. "Only a few feet."
Storm nodded. “That’s all.”
Brian closed his eyes and concentrated and thought of himself flying. The wind slowly picked up and brushed his hair. After a few moments, he heard Storm calling him, but it sounded different, like she had moved. Being careful not to break his concentration, he opened his eyes and gasped. He was the one that had moved! He had risen six feet above the ground.
"Okay, that's high enough for me!" Brian announced, and then slowly lowered to the ground.
"Brian, that was great!"
"Thanks." Brian smiled all of a sudden. "Storm?"
Storm raised her eyebrows in interest at the tone of Brian's voice. "Yes?"
Brian smirked, and then lightly shoved her on the shoulder. "Tag. You're it."
He took off at a run, leaving a slightly confused Ororo Munroe to stare after him. "Now why are you running when you just learned how to fly?" she wondered as she, too, started running.
After a few feet, she took off in flight as she got closer to Brian. She was about to land and tag him when he jumped in the air. The wind picked him up and he soared away from her, laughing gleefully. Storm chased after him for several miles making sure that they stayed away from the populated areas. Suddenly she noticed that Brian was beginning to lower to the ground. Her eyes widened when she realized that he was going down too fast.
"Brian, you're going too fast!" she called, hoping that he could hear her.
His reply was hard to hear. “I’m losing… can’t…”
Oh no! Brian couldn't keep control of this power for much longer. Storm quickened her speed, but it wasn't enough. She could see Brian falling and tried to summon the wind to break his fall, but she was too slow. Storm heard his cry of pain as he landed hard on the hill. From the look of it, he had tried to use his arm to break his fall. She landed by his side as he sat up whimpering.
"Are you all right?" she asked, kneeling beside him.
"No," Brian whimpered. "My arm hurts. I think it's broken."
"Let me see it." Storm reached out and touched Brian's arm. Brian cried out and turned his head away.
"That's broken all right, Brian."
"Well, how are we going to get back?" Brian asked. "I can't fly, and I don't think it's safe for you to carry me."
Storm shook her head. "No, you're right. And we’re too far away from headquarters. I’ll have to call Cyclops; maybe he can bring his car." She stood and pressed the communicator on her uniform.
"Cyclops, this is Storm. Brian is injured and I can't carry him back. We’re too far away from you.”
"Where are you?" Cyclops asked.
Storm looked around and gave him the location. Cyclops told them he'd be there in a few minutes.
"I wonder how the professor's doing on the research," Brian said as Storm knelt beside him.
"I'm sure he's doing fine, Brian. Don't you worry," she comforted. "In the meantime, let me look at this."
"I think my ego's bruised, too," Brian muttered.
Storm laughed. Brian smiled; he loved the sound of her laughter.
"Is there anything that doesn't hurt?" she asked.
“My left hand,” Brian remarked. “I didn’t use that one to break my fall.”
Storm smiled and held his hand, then surprised him by kissing his palm. He swallowed hard.
“Uh…” Brian tried to make his tongue work to tell her, but he couldn’t. His pulse was already beginning to race from that kiss on his palm.
He must have somehow communicated what he wanted because Storm began to smile. When she began to lean forward, Brian raised his good hand to the back of her neck and pulled her closer into a kiss that deepened in intensity. Ororo brought a hand to his shoulder and pushed him to the ground, never breaking the kiss as she followed and Brian slid his hand down her back.
Suddenly, they heard an engine growing louder. It was Cyclops. Storm and Brian sat up, but remained together. They heard two car doors open and close.
It was Jean. She had come with Scott to help.
“We were flying,” Brian explained. “I lost control and fell. I used my arm to break my fall and ended up breaking my arm.”
“You were flying?” Cyclops asked.
“It’s the newest power I have that we’ve discovered.”
“My word,” Jean murmured as she bent down to examine Brian’s arm. “Well, that’s definitely broken. We’ll have to get that wrapped up before taking you back to the Institute. We have a hospital wing there and I can do better for you there.”
When Brian nodded, Storm and Cyclops helped Brian to his feet. He let them lead him to the back seat of the car. Storm slid in beside him and followed Jean’s instructions for a makeshift cast that would have to do until they got back to the Institute. Ororo kept Brian in conversation to keep his mind off the pain in his arm.
"You know what?" Scott said to Jean. "I've known Ororo for a long time, and that's the happiest I've seen her."
"Me, too. She deserves this kind of happiness. So does Brian.”
When they returned, Storm led Brian to the hospital wing where Jean reset the bone and wrapped it in a real cast. She told Brian to get some rest to help it heal, so he headed back to his room with Storm right at his heels.
"I hope everything works out, Brian," Storm said as she helped Brian under the covers.
"Works out?" Brian repeated.
"With your search with Charles for the reason why you have all these powers. I'm sure your friend would love to have you back with him." Storm sat down beside him. "That's not all, though."
"Somehow, I didn't think so," Brian replied as they looked into each other's eyes.
"I hope it works out," Storm continued as she leaned in close to him, "with us, too."
She leaned forward and captured his mouth in a kiss full of love much like their first one three days ago. They held each other after they pulled out of the kiss.
"When I go back, will you come and visit me?"
"As often as I can," she promised.
^ ^ ^ ^
Xavier gazed at the people that sat before him. “How do you think he will take this news?”
“Not very well, I’m afraid. But we have to tell him. We can’t keep it to ourselves anymore.”
Xavier sighed. “Very well. Follow me, and I’ll show you to his room.”
Brian looked up from his pictures when he heard a knock on his bedroom door. Sensing that it was Charles, he telekinetically opened the door. He became aware that the professor was unnerved about something.
"Is something wrong, professor?"
“I was able to discover why you have so many different mutant powers, Brian." Xavier's tone was not joyful.
Brian’s forehead creased. "Why?"
He glanced at the open door as two more people entered. A smile appeared as he recognized his parents.
"Mom, Dad! What are you doing here?”
His parents exchanged a glance and shifted slightly. Brian’s smile faded slowly as he looked between his parents and Xavier. They carried unpleasant news and feared telling him. After a moment's hesitation, Jackie sat down next to him on the bed, while his father took a chair in front of him.
“Brian,” Harold began, “this is something we should have told you long ago. I’m sorry.”
When the story was over, Brian stared at the two people he knew and loved as his parents, his heart full of pain. These two people had lied to him his entire life. Tears coursing down his cheeks, he stood and walked to the window. Placing his good arm on the windowsill, he stared out at the view.
"You lied to me," he whispered. "I was just the product of an experiment and you never told me?”
"We never meant to hurt you, Brian," Jackie tried to console him, going so far as to stand beside him with her hand on his waist. Brian pulled away from her grasp and did not look at her. His heart had just been shredded into a million pieces; all of which he was certain could not be sewn back together again.
"If it makes a difference, and this is the truth, Harold and I were glad to be the ones chosen to raise you. We were so grateful when you were given to us. We had feared that we would never be able to have children again after Harry."
"Given to you," Brian repeated. "You make it sound like I wasn't even born yours."
"You were, honey. That much is truth. Your brother was so happy to see you in my arms that we couldn't bare to tell him."
Brian finally met her gaze. "What?"
"He doesn't know," Harold explained.
Brian gazed back at Harold—after what he had been told he couldn't call the man "Dad" right now. "He never knew?”
"I do now."
Four heads turned to the open doorway to see Harry watching them with a look of shock on his face. When the brothers made eye contact, so many things were said between them without using words. Finally, Brian broke the gaze and turned back to the window.
"Can I be alone, please?"
"Brian..." Jackie tried to protest.
"Please," Brian pleaded quietly. "I want to be alone."
Harold, Harry and Professor Xavier waited at the door for Jackie. She tried one more time to talk to Brian, but he made no response. When she put her hand on Brian’s arm, he stiffened but refused to look at her. Finally, Jackie turned and headed to the door. Xavier left first, followed by Harry. Harold was about to leave with Jackie when he paused. He turned back to Brian and spoke.
"I'm sorry, Brian."
"So am I, baby duck." Seeing no response from Brian, they left together.
As soon as he heard the door shut, Brian turned around and raised his good arm. Using his telekinesis, he locked the door, opened the closet, and pulled out his clothes and duffel bag. He couldn't stay here. Not anymore. Not in this place where it would soon become common knowledge what he was.
"An experiment!" he spat, throwing his clothes into the duffel.
He heard a knock on the door. Brian ‘looked’ and found that it was Jubilee. With a sigh, Brian ‘reached’ and unlocked the door. From the look on Jubilee's face when she entered, Brian knew that she had heard every word.
"I'm sorry, Brian."
"There's nothing I can do about it, Jubilee," Brian replied as he sat down on the bed.
"What are you doing?" Jubilee asked, seeing the duffel bag.
"I'm packing," Brian replied. "I can't stay here. Once the others know what I am, I don't think they'll have much appreciation for me."
"Brian, you're still one of us," Jubilee consoled.
"Yes, but all of you received your powers naturally, relatively speaking. I’m… I’m nothing but an experiment."
"Why don't you wait a while?" Jubilee asked. "Let's see if it'll really happen."
"Oh, it will. I'm sure of it. They might get jealous."
"Who?" she asked. "Not Storm or Cyclops or Wolverine-"
"No, none of them. At least, I don't think so. But the other younger, newer ones. They might get jealous."
"I'm not jealous," Jubilee pointed out.
Brian met her eyes. "I know."
They smiled. "Wait a while, Brian."
Brian sighed, then nodded. "All right. I'll wait a while."
By mid-afternoon, news had spread fast of the thing that Brian was and had been his entire life. An experiment, a probe boy. Some of them had joked around and started calling him "Probe," saying that it would be his new name if he joined the X-Men. Brian admitted to Jubilee being right, then told her and a few others that he had to leave and go back to Florida. They didn't want him to go, but once he told them about what he had promised Nick, they understood and wished him luck.
At present, he was in a cab returning to his apartment. Ever since Kevin had announced his engagement to his girlfriend Kristin, Brian had felt the necessity to let Kevin have his space, and moved into his own apartment in the same complex.
"All right, here we are," the cab driver announced.
Brian pulled out his wallet and paid the driver. "Thanks a lot."
He grabbed his duffel bag and climbed out. As the cab pulled away, Brian spotted his motorcycle and walked over to it. Red and chrome beneath the blue cover it was wearing, it had been one of Brian's dreams for as long as he could remember. He had been overjoyed when it had appeared in front of the apartment complex two years ago on his birthday. The guys had gotten together and bought it for him brand new. After another minute, he hurried inside and up two flights of stairs to his apartment. He looked left and saw that all the doors were closed, then he bent down and lifted the welcome mat. There sat the spare key that he'd had made soon after moving into the apartment. He picked it up and unlocked the door. Stepping inside, Brian surveyed his home.
It looked like someone had been in to clean. The magazine that he’d been reading was now closed, with a bookmark, on the table in front of the couch. The coffeepot in the kitchen had been emptied and cleaned. The carpet had been vacuumed… It must have been Kevin’s doing. He was the only one that lived close enough and knew Brian’s pattern of life as well as he did. He suddenly realized that he desperately needed a shower. He headed into his bedroom and picked out a fresh outfit, then headed to the bathroom. As he undressed and waited for the water to heat to the right temperature, he decided to see if he could find Kevin with his telepathy. In a flash, Kevin was found in his apartment two buildings down talking on the phone, probably to Kristin. Brian wondered how Kevin would feel when they met.
The second the water hit Brian's skin, he felt so much better. After a while he felt the water begin to chill and turned off the shower. As he was dressing, he found himself humming some of their songs. In just a few minutes, he was ready to go. The front door was locked and the motorcycle cover inside the apartment. Brian slipped his helmet on, stuck the key in the ignition, and turned it on. After revving the engine a couple of times, he smiled and took off to Nick's house. He reached the house in ten minutes tops. His nerves started to get the better of him as he climbed off of the motorcycle.
"You're already here, don't chicken out. You're already here, don't chicken out."
Brian took a deep breath, then walked up to the porch and rang the doorbell. After a few moments, the door opened and Nick's new girlfriend Tanya appeared in the doorway. She gasped and was about to speak when Brian put a finger to his lips to hush her.
"Is Nick here?" he asked.
Tanya nodded. "Yeah, he's here. Come on in, he's in the studio again. He's painting this time. Beautiful work, but full of so much pain.”
Tanya led Brian down the hall to the studio. They passed a painting and Brian halted, staring at it with wide eyes.
"What's this?" he whispered.
Tanya came to stand beside him and examine the painting. "That was the first one he painted after coming home from the hospital. He locked himself in there for hours and when he unlocked it and rolled out, he seemed... relieved... like he had gotten something off of his chest. I asked if I could see what he had done, and he allowed me to see it. When I set eyes on this painting, I could feel the emotions he put into it. Can you feel them, Brian?"
"Suffering," Brian said. "I feel suffering. And despair. This must have been done because of both the pain of being paraplegic and… me."
Tanya smiled. "You're more in tune with him than I am."
More than you think, Tanya. Brian turned to her. "How many paintings has he done like that?"
Tanya shook her head and sighed. "Too many, that's all I'll say. You'll see what I mean when you see the rest of them."
Brian then noticed the music coming from the studio. He turned to Tanya. She answered before he could even ask.
"He's been playing that a lot lately. He claims it agrees with how he feels in his heart."
Brian closed his eyes. More sadness. But not anymore, Brian thought as he opened his eyes. He looked at the door of the studio, and then gently pushed it open. Nick was sitting in his wheelchair busily painting an amazing portrait. Brian's eyes widened as he saw that Nick was painting a portrait of the two of them together: Frick and Frack, as happy as could be. Brian quietly moved up behind him and placed a hand on his shoulder.
Nick stopped painting and looked over his shoulder. His once bright blue eyes had become dark and empty with loneliness and pain. A sparkle of happiness appeared in them and a smile spread on his lips.
“Brian!” He set down the paintbrush and took his best friend's hands in his. Brian knelt in front of him.
"You came back," Nick said softly, tears in his eyes.
Brian nodded, blinking away his own tears. "I came back."
"Just like you promised."
Brian smiled. It was then that he realized that it had been a new power that he had discovered. The ability to communicate through dreams.
Nick leaned forward and wrapped his arms tightly around Brian as his friend did the same for him. "I missed you so much, Brian."
"I missed you too, buddy."
Kevin pressed the button on his key ring to unlock the car. For some reason, he'd been feeling depressed and his call to Kristin hadn't really lifted his spirits much. He looked down the street to his cousin's apartment building, expecting to see it just the same as it had been every day for two weeks. His eyes widened.
Brian's bike is gone. That could only mean one thing; Brian had come back. Hope swelled within him as he climbed in his car and started it. If he had come back, there could only be one place that Brian had gone, and that was to see Nick.
"What was it like, Brian?"
Brian shook his head with a smile on his face. "It still amazes me. All those people with different powers."
"How did they take to you being one of them?"
"Well, it was a shock to a lot of the younger ones, being fans, to see me there. But we got to know each other pretty well and now we're close."
"Who was the first one you met?" Nick inquired.
Brian smiled. "Storm. Ororo."
Nick cocked an eyebrow. "I see that look on your face, friend. Can B-Rok possibly be in love?"
Brian blushed. "Possibly. Anyway, she introduced me to Professor Xavier. Then I met Wolverine, who introduced me to Gambit, and those two introduced Cyclops, Rogue, Beast, and Jubilee..." He broke off and looked toward the studio door.
Nick followed his gaze. "What is it?"
"Kevin's here," Brian replied. "He's talking to Tanya. AJ and Howie just pulled into the driveway."
"Man, that's creepy," Nick remarked. "You can tell who's here."
"Yep. I can tell how they feel, too. AJ and Howie have no clue, they think this is just a get-together. They have no idea that I'm here. Kevin, on the other hand, is certain of it."
"Brian, everything will be okay."
Brian turned back to Nick. "I hope you're right."
The studio door flew open, drawing their attention back to it. Kevin stood in the doorway, eyes wide.
Nick released Brian's hands, and Brian straightened. After a brief hesitation, Brian flew into his cousin's open arms as Kevin met him halfway.
"I thought you weren't coming back," Kevin said through his tears.
"I made a promise, Kevin.”
Suddenly, he pulled back and looked beyond Kevin with wide eyes. He had felt the entry of two people and soon after, the anger. Kevin turned around and saw AJ and Howie standing in the doorway.
"So you decided to come back."
Brian nodded. "Yes. I promised Nick and Kevin that I would come back."
"You've got a lot of nerve," AJ growled, stepping closer.
Howie put a hand on his shoulder. "AJ, relax. He made a promise."
“After what he did to Nick?” AJ shouted. “He’s got no right to even show his face!”
The four men turned to Nick, surprised at his outburst. Nick wheeled closer to them, anger and sadness in his eyes.
"I wanted Brian to come back. Without him here, I didn't have anyone to confide in. He was the only one I could seriously talk to, who'd listen to me. When I got home from the hospital and found out that he was gone, I felt empty, and only found refuge in my paintings. You've seen how they turned out. Not even Tanya could help, even though she tried, and I'm grateful for what she's done."
"Nick, how can you even want that freak here?" AJ demanded, stepping toward Nick. "After what he did, how can you even-“
"How do you know it was him?" Nick demanded. "Just because of what happened doesn't necessarily mean that was him!"
"There's no other explanation that makes sense, Nick."
"It may have just been a freak accident, AJ," Nick pushed. "A coincidence."
AJ was about to make a comeback when he saw the look Kevin was giving him. He took a deep breath and let it out.
"If that's what you want to think. You have your opinion, I have mine."
"I'm exhausted!" AJ cried as he lay down right on the stage after Fatima declared that practice was officially over.
"Right there with you, Bone," Howie agreed as he sat down and picked up his water bottle.
Kevin said nothing as he followed A.J’s example and lay down on the stage. Brian walked around, water bottle in hand. Nick watched them in amusement and with a little bit of jealousy.
He sighed. "You never appreciate what you have until you don't have it anymore."
"Yeah, but at least you don't have to complain of exhaustion, Nick," AJ pointed out. "All you have to worry about is remembering the words to the songs; you don't have to worry about the dancing."
Brian laughed. "He's got a point, Nick."
Brian smirked and said nothing.
Howie spoke up. "You know, I could do with a big bottle of ice cold lemonade."
"And yet, all we have are big bottles of ice cold water," Kevin remarked.
"Not a problem," Brian pointed out as he took Howie's bottled water from him.
"Hey, give it back!" Howie protested.
"Just hold on, D!" Brian told him as he concentrated on the bottle.
Howie sat there watching him while AJ and Kevin craned their necks to see what he was doing. Nick wheeled closer to watch the water change color to yellow. Brian handed the bottle back to Howie. Howie took it warily and brought it to his lips.
"How'd you do that?" Kevin asked, sitting up on his elbows.
"One of the many powers I have, remember? I can change one object into another. Obviously that means liquids, too."
"What else can you do?" Howie inquired.
I can talk to you through the mind.
The boys jumped as Brian's voice entered their minds.
"Telepathy!" Nick remarked. "Wicked."
"It is, isn't it?" Brian chortled.
AJ sat up, suddenly wary. "Brian, you're not planning any pranks with these powers of yours, are you?"
"Well... it does give me an advantage... but I don't think so," Brian replied, then smirked. "Not yet anyway."
"You're lucky no one else saw that, Brian."
Brian whirled around at the voice, surprised that he hadn't felt her presence. Seeing the woman that he secretly admitted to being his heart's desire standing in front of him gave him no end of joy. He leaped off the stage and took her in his arms.
"Ororo, I'm so glad to see you!" he greeted before pulling her into a kiss.
"Brian who is this?"
Brian pulled away and turned to Nick. "Nick, this is Ororo. Ororo, this is my best friend, Nick Carter."
Ororo smiled. "Hello Nick. Brian's told me so much about you."
"Brian's told me a lot about you, too," Nick replied as he shook Ororo's hand. "He tells me you helped him not feel so lonely when he first arrived."
"I welcomed him, certainly..."
"Ororo, he's serious," Brian replied, putting a hand on her waist. "You really did help me feel not so lonesome."
A woman’s voice joined them. "Brian, I’m afraid that I’ve got some bad news… oh hello, who are you?"
Brian looked up to see Fatima appear on stage. "Fatima, this is Ororo Munroe. Ororo, this is our choreographer Fatima Robinson."
Fatima and Ororo shook hands. "Nice to meet you. As I was saying, I have some bad news for Brian. Alyssa has fallen ill and won't be able to dance for a while."
Brian groaned. "I'm sorry to hear that. I hope she feels better."
"Who's Alyssa?" Ororo inquired.
"My dancing partner for our concerts," Brian explained. "But now that she's sick, I don't know what we'll do."
"What about Ororo?" Kevin suggested as he stood up. "Can you dance?"
Ororo nodded. "I watched you boys for a while and I think I can learn quickly."
Brian cast a hopeful glance at her. "Really? That would be great."
"Of course I will, Brian."
Brian grinned and hugged her. "Oh, thank you so much."
Brian rubbed his hands together as he and the others gathered for their group prayer before going on stage. He was worried; he hadn't seen Ororo since they arrived at the arena and he really wanted to see her.
"Calm down, Brian," Kevin commanded. "She and the other dancers will be here soon."
The boys turned at Ororo's voice and saw her enter with the other dancers. Brian's jaw dropped. Ororo was wearing a metallic bronze shirt, and calf-length leopard-print spandex pants. Brian could only stare at her in astonishment as they all gathered for prayer.
Howie leaned forward to whisper in Brian's ear. "Breathe, Brian. Breathe."
Brian then realized that he hadn't taken a breath since Ororo's appearance and inhaled. Ororo smiled and took his hand as everyone else held hands for the prayer. Howie offered it, and when they finished, Ororo followed the other dancers out onto the stage. Brian raced to grab her just before she went onstage and kissed her.
"I love you," he whispered.
Ororo stared at him in surprise. This was the first time he'd vocalized his feelings for her.
"Ororo, let's go!"
"I'm coming!" Ororo called over her shoulder, and then turned back to Brian. "I love you, too."
Then she pulled him into a deeper kiss, leaving him breathless when she pulled away and followed the other dancers onto the stage. Brian stared after her, then lightly ran a finger over his lips, her kiss still lingering.
She loves me, he thought. She really loves me.
Brian smiled and pumped his fist, then made his way back to the others. Kevin was the first to notice his cousin's smiling face. He was on cloud nine.
"What's with the dopey grin, cousin?" he inquired, although he had a pretty good idea what the answer would be.
Brian's smile grew. "Ororo just said she loves me."
"All right, B-Rok!" Nick called.
"Come on, gentlemen. Time to get in your places."
The boys hurried to their places on stage as the music to the first song began. The boys felt a breeze and wondered, since they were inside. Brian looked up and smiled. Up above them, Ororo had formed a cloud and it was beginning to drip rain. The thunder growled low. A flash of magnificently controlled lightning struck the stage between the boys. That was Brian's cue to start the song.
We've been through days of thunder
Some people said 'They don't belong'
They tried to pull us asunder
But here we stand together and we're millions strong
Unknown to the fans, Storm and Brian created about half the special effects because of their mutant powers. All the fans knew was that for the past ten concerts since Brian's return, there had been a little more pizzazz in the shows and they loved it.
There was so much love and excitement that it was a shock for Brian to feel a sudden burst of hatred from a single entity in the room. It caused him to pause in a dance and look around in confusion. Who on earth could possibly feel such hatred for them? He saw no one in the audience that strengthened the feeling. His gaze was drawn upward to where Kevin flew through the air on his harness. It got a little stronger there, but it wasn't him. His eyes moved further upward and Brian found his prize.
It was Carlos, an ex-mechanic for the BSB. He had been fired because he wasn't doing things right. Somehow, he was taking things apart and causing more problems than before he'd tried to look at them. They'd realized shortly afterward why it was like that. He, like Brian, was a mutant. Brian could feel vengeance emanating from him. His eyes widened as he saw Carlos reach for the harness connection.
Kevin saw Brian looking above him and followed his gaze just as his harness snapped and he fell through the air. The air filled with the frightened shrieks of fans. Suddenly, Kevin stopped in mid-air. Brian's hand was outstretched toward Kevin, and he was slowly bringing him back to the stage. All eyes followed the action between the cousins until Kevin was safely back on stage. Brian rushed to Kevin's side.
"Are you all right?" he asked, covering his microphone.
Kevin could only nod, since his fast pulse and rough breathing prevented him from answering. Brian squeezed his arm in comfort, and then he and Kevin started back to the others. Something flew through the air and hit Brian in the ear. He yelped in pain and put a hand over his ear.
"Freak!" someone yelled.
"He's a mutant!"
Murmurs of surprise and anger filled the air and Brian could feel the rage and shock buzzing through the arena. Some started taunting him.
He looked at the others when they were together and whispered, "I'm sorry."
Within a nanosecond, Brian was gone from view. Although he couldn't see Brian, Nick could feel his hand on his shoulder as Brian passed by.
I'll be on the bus, Brian told him.
Should we finish this by ourselves? Nick inquired.
We're gonna have to, Kevin replied, speaking to all of them through Brian's telepathy.
Nick and the others nodded. Kevin turned back to the audience and announced that they would continue the concert without Brian.
When the concert was finished, the boys found Storm on their bus comforting Brian. Brian was in tears, absolutely shocked at all the hate he had felt coming from so many people in the arena. Not all of them, but too many to number. AJ knelt in front of him and placed a hand on his knee. Brian raised his eyes and AJ saw such a deep anguish that it pierced his heart.
"I saw him, Brian. I saw Carlos, too. I should have known it was him in the first place instead of blaming you. We all knew that he was a... a mutant."
"And a lot of our people hated him for being what he was," Brian replied. "Just like they hate me."
"You saved my life, Brian," Kevin said, sitting next to his cousin. "I'm sure it'll be gone soon."
Brian shook his head. "Not a chance, Kevin. The hate for our kind is going to be around for a long time. Tonight just made it worse." He stood up, escaping the arms of those that wanted to give him comfort and headed to the bunk area. He climbed into one of the empty bunks on the bottom and curled up beneath the covers.
Why, dad? he wondered. Why?
One discovery he kept to himself ever since he had found out that he'd been nothing but an experiment, was that his own father was on the team that created this experimentation of mutant powers. When he'd seen that in his father's mind, the small shreds of his heart broke further. It had hurt him beyond belief to know that his... that Harold Littrell Jr. had been on the team that had created him, this thing that belonged in a society where so many people held so much prejudice against them.
Why me? he wondered as he drifted off to sleep.
I'd hoped you'd never ask me that, son.
Brian's eyes flew open in shock. It couldn't be... could it? Are you…? he began.
No, I'm not telepathic, Brian. You just somehow created a connection with me.
I saw the secret you wanted to keep hidden from me. You were on that team that created me.
There was silence, and Brian could feel his dad's sorrow through their connection.
Yes I was.
Why? Did you and your "colleagues" find some sick amusement in trying to create a mutant?
It was not amusement for me, Brian, Harold replied. It was curiosity.
Brian felt compelled to voice a sudden concern. Are there others like me?
There was a long pause before Harold answered again. None alive. We tried a few. Four or five, I believe. But the others died either while still in their mother’s womb, or died in infancy. You were the only one to survive.
Brian squeezed his eyes shut and punched his pillow. He was the only one. There were others like him in the way that they had mutant powers like he did, and yet the others really like him did not survive. That one thought struck him hard.
He was alone in this world. Totally and completely alone.
It wasn't until much later that he realized the connection with his father was gone, but that no longer mattered to him. What mattered was that no one, not even Ororo, his heart's love, could help him through this.
^ ^ ^ ^
Kevin glanced back at the bunk area. Brian hadn’t moved from his bunk since he had escaped from them earlier that night. After 10 minutes, though he would never say a word to Brian, Kevin was certain he had heard shuddering breathing, indicating tears. Having known the man from birth, Kevin knew when something more was bothering him than was obvious. If there were time, he planned to ask.
The bus slowed; they were near the hotel. He headed for Brian’s bunk and knocked on the wall. “Bri, we’re here.”
No reply. Kevin quietly pulled the curtain aside to see tears on his face. More was indeed going on then he and the others knew of. Kevin shook Brian’s shoulder. With a moan, Brian opened his eyes. His face was drained.
“We’re back at the hotel, B.”
For another moment he didn’t move, and then he nodded and sat up.
“Anything you’d like to talk about?” Kevin whispered.
“Why would I want to talk?” Brian snapped, slipping into his shoes.
Kevin leaned back. “It… just seems like you know more than we do, and I wanted to know if you were up to sharing.”
“Well, I’m not!!” He stood and brushed past Kevin to the front.
Howie caught up with Kevin as they made it inside the hotel. “Did you talk to him?”
“Tried to. Didn’t do so well.”
“He’ll talk when he’s ready,” Howie advised. “We just need to let him know that we’re there for him, no matter what.”
Kevin nodded, though he knew it wouldn’t be easy anymore.
It takes a lot to know what is love
It's not the big things, but the little things
That can mean enough
A lot of prayers to get me through
And there is never a day that passes by
I don't think of you
Kevin’s eyes widened. Given the circumstance, the song chosen to play in the entrance hall was the wrong choice as they remembered what Brian had told them. “The Perfect Fan”; the song Brian had written for his mother to show his love.
"My parents... oh, heck, I can't even call them that..." Brian swallowed and shook his head in disgust, "they lied to me. There was a group of people that got the idea of creating their own mutant, their own probe child. They would test this to see how many powers this one child could hold."
Kevin, Nick, AJ and Howie stared at Brian with wide eyes as understanding came to them.
"You were that child."
Brian nodded. "All my life... just the product of an experiment. They lied to me!"
Waiting at the edge of the atrium in the center of the hotel, Brian stiffened. Scowling, he quickly moved to the elevator and rapidly pushed the button as though it would bring the elevator car faster. Alex was at his side in a moment, sliding a hand onto his shoulder.
“Everything will be all right, Brian. You’ll get the truth someday.”
Alex sighed inwardly at the bitterness in his friend’s voice and followed him into the elevator. The ride was silent; nobody wanted to speak due to the tension prickling the air like electricity.
As they stepped off the elevator, Howie asked, “Do you want to talk about it?”
“They called me a freak and threw things at me. What’s there to talk about?”
Howie shook his head at his friend’s sarcasm. “Not much, other than how you might feel about it. I know I was absolutely shocked when they started doing that. I don’t understand how they can be so hateful.”
Brian sighed, his shoulders sagging. “They hate what they don’t understand. Remember how some of us used to feel about mutants?”
He hurried his way down to his room and soon sensed the aura he recognized as Kevin following close behind him. He glanced over his shoulder, but remained silent; for the time being, he’d let the man stay. Though his mind argued for time alone to sort out the mess of this evening, another part of him was glad to have a family member here with him that accepted what he was.
“You hungry?” Kevin asked. “I know I didn’t eat much at dinner.”
A shrug. “Little bit.”
Kevin didn’t catch his eyes rolling as Brian sensed the quick wave of frustration and worry from his cousin. He headed to his bed and set out his nightclothes, then grabbed his toiletries and headed for the bathroom.
“Don’t be long,” Kevin remarked.
“Yeah, yeah.” I’ll take as long as I darn well want. I deserve it after tonight. He tensed up at the memory, squeezing his toothpaste hard enough that it nearly exploded. With a sigh, he dumped his things on the counter and turned the water on. He began to shed his clothes when the sound of running water faded into the angry cries of the arena. His shirt and jacket fell from his hands as the memory began to press in on him. He shook his head and tried to undo his belt, but his hands were shaking and his fingers slipped. The burning anger from many, whirlwind of confusion from most, electricity of shock from everyone.
“No,” he gasped. One hand went to his ear; he winced at the sting of pain. Dried blood was on his fingertips. Breathing quickly, he tore the rest of his clothes off and practically leaped into the shower after grabbing the shampoo and body wash. But the voices didn’t cease as he scrubbed his body. He had only tried to help Kevin from falling to severe injury or even death and how had he been rewarded? Something sharp thrown at him! He hadn’t deserved that! So what if the fans hadn’t seen what he and AJ had seen, it was still unnecessary.
Brian reached for the shampoo and hazily recognized the buildup of energy; it had happened only a couple of times while he was at the Institute and he needed to find something for release otherwise he’d destroy something. Maybe the hotel wouldn’t freak out if a couple of lights burned out. Closing his eyes, he reached out and found the electric patterns of the bathroom lights; with a deep breath, he began to channel the energy away. The bathroom lights began to flicker. But it still wasn’t enough; he had to go farther out.
The bathroom door flew open. “Brian, what’s going on? The lights are flickering all over the place.”
He winced at the sudden burst of panic. “I’m fine, Kev,” he said stiffly. “Just a little too much built-up tension. And please tell me you just mean our room.”
“I haven’t checked outside. What’s wrong?”
After a moment, the door closed. Brian closed his eyes. Tighter focus. Remember what Xavier said. He allowed one of the bathroom bulbs to blow up from energy overload and another one to dim considerably, then shut off the water and climbed out.
He had just finished changing into his pajamas when Kevin returned.
“It went as far as next door to the guys’ room,” he remarked, “but that’s as far as it went.”
Brian sighed. “Thank goodness.”
Kevin was leaning against the wall. “So what happened?”
“Just built up tension from tonight, that’s all,” Brian replied smoothly, deciding not to share what Harold had told him tonight.
"Do you want to talk about it?"
Brian shook his head. "Not yet. I’m still having a little trouble digesting it all myself."
Kevin hung his jacket in the closet; if he remained silent, Brian would eventually talk. He turned around and saw Brian holding the Gideon Bible that came in every room. A moment later it began to hover above his hands.
“Can you turn the pages too?”
“Haven’t tried.” Brian scowled. “Don’t want any peeping fans to burst in and throw something else at me. Or you, if you’re in the way.”
“I’m not leaving for that very reason,” Kevin remarked as he sat on his bed.
Brian glanced over at him; the book plopped into his lap.
“You saved me, Brian. If that hadn’t happened, I would have been in the hospital critically injured or worse. If only they could have understood that.” He moved to sit at the foot of Brian’s bed. “You didn’t deserve what happened tonight.”
“None of my people deserve what happen to them,” Brian said sharply. “Yet they face it nearly every day and survive.”
“They don’t exactly have your background though, do they? They’re not famous pop artists that suddenly have to deal with being a mutant and being in the spotlight of the world at the same time.”
Brian sighed heavily and looked back at the bible in his lap. When he remained silent, Kevin tapped him on the knee and then went about his nightly ritual. Returning from the bathroom, he saw the Bible floating toward him. He moved to catch it but it changed direction and headed toward the balcony window; the book thumped against the glass and fell to the carpet. It shivered, and then lay still. He glanced at Brian; the man looked incredibly tired.
“Get some sleep,” Kevin instructed. “The book can stay there for tonight.”
Brian simply nodded and lay down facing the balcony. Lights were turned down and Kevin got into bed. Good thing we have a half-day tomorrow, he thought. We’ll need it to recover. I don’t understand why Brian has to face this, but Howie, Nick, AJ and I won’t abandon him.
After a while, he realized that he had been staring at the ceiling instead of trying to sleep. He glanced at the clock and realized that half an hour had gone by and he was still as wide awake as before. He stilled and listened for Brian. Uneven breathing; Brian was awake.
“Talk to me,” he whispered.
There was no response, but he knew that waiting was the key.
"It was so strong,” Brian murmured.
Kevin rose up on his elbow. “What was?”
“The hate was so strong, and then the vengeance. When the fans saw that I was a mutant, the shock and anger… it was just too much.”
"I bet it was. I can't even imagine what it felt like for you, being able to feel the emotions of people around you."
"There are times when it's good, and times, like tonight, that I hate it... I hate..."
Kevin had to lean in closer to hear what Brian said next.
"I hate myself."
Kevin gasped quietly. Although he could somewhat understand why Brian would feel that way, it was still a shock actually said out loud. “Don’t say that Brian! You are who you are, and that’s what makes you special.”
“A freak, you mean,” Brian muttered, pulling the sheet tighter.
“No, that is not what I mean. If I meant ‘freak’ I would have said it. And you would have made me regret it. But I said ‘special.’ We’re all special in our own ways. You’re just a little more unique than the rest of us.”
After a moment, Brian replied, “I guess you’re right. G’night, Kev.”
Kevin could hear the smile. He had made his point. “Night, Brian.”
^ ^ ^ ^
Brian felt himself return to consciousness, but refused to open his eyes just yet, unwilling to face the world outside. He heard Kevin’s shuffling feet.
What time is it?
"It's eight in the morning," Kevin replied.
Do I have to get up yet?
"Not if you don't want to. We've got the morning off; remember? Then there’s a press conference right after lunch."
Brian groaned. “What are we going to say about last night?”
“We could try the truth.”
He rolled his eyes and sat up. “They’ll just twist it around into a pack of lies.”
“No they won’t.”
“Kevin, you didn’t sense their feelings as they waited for us at the hotel. They’re starving for a juicy story and what happened at the concert gives it to them. Those jackals will pick our story apart for anything they could exploit.”
“Well, aren’t you the ray of hope this morning?”
There was a knock at the door.
“It’s the guys,” Brian said with a smile. “They’re hungry.”
Kevin let them in and seconds later Nick entered the room and plopped next to Brian. “Man, I’m starving. You two gonna join us for breakfast or what?”
“Not all that hungry,” Brian attempted.
“Come on, you need your three squares a day, man.”
Brian smiled and shook his head. “Not much of an appetite after last night.”
Nick’s smile fell and Brian could see the ‘oops’ in his eyes. “Sorry. How’s your ear?”
“I can still hear out of it.”
“How are you feeling?” AJ asked.
He sighed. “Confused and in shock about the way that a lot of the fans reacted last night; upset, angry and confused that my background was kept from me.” He frowned. “And to make that worse, I found out that dad was on the team that created me.”
There was silence.
“Were there others?” Howie asked.
Brian nodded. “Some of them didn’t make it past infancy, others… miscarried.”
“Then,” Nick said slowly, “you’re the only one really like you?”
“Suddenly, I’m hungry.” Brian stood quickly. “Let’s get some breakfast before Nick starves to death.”
"Nick, what exactly are you looking for?"
"I can't describe it to you," Nick replied, "but I'll know it when I see it."
Brian rolled his eyes and smirked. "I should learn."
"Yes you should," Nick agreed with a chuckle. "Ah, there it is!"
Nick picked up a large spiral bound sketchpad for charcoal and pastel drawings and smiled in satisfaction.
"This is the one," he remarked, looking up at his friend. He still couldn't believe that he was back to looking up at Brian instead of down. Brian looked over Nick's shoulder at the pad.
"For charcoal and pastels, eh?"
Nick nodded, "Yep. I'm trying some experiments to—“
Nick clapped a hand over his mouth once the word "experiments" had come out of his mouth. He glanced up wide-eyed at Brian to see his reaction. Brian winced at the word as the memories of the lies that he had been told flashed through his mind. Nick put a hand on his arm.
"I'm sorry, Brian."
Brian smiled. "It's all right, Nick. You're trying to find out what medium works best?"
Nick nodded. "Right. Now I just need to find the right charcoal and the right pastel chalk."
"Jeez." Brian chuckled. "I bet you spend as much time looking for the supplies as you do when you work."
The friends laughed and continued down the aisle in search of charcoal and pastels. Brian happened to glance over at the painting section and saw a few girls staring at them. He tried to ignore them and turned back to help Nick get the charcoal that was beyond his reach.
"Isn't that Frick and Frack?" The boys heard one girl ask.
"Freak and Frack you mean," another girl spat. "You saw that concert last night. He's one of those freaks, and I bet he's the one that put Nick in the wheelchair."
Brian's eyes widened and he looked at Nick. That girl had been loud enough to get the attention of people in the next two aisles.
"Aw, crap," Brian murmured as he felt the anger flowing around them.
"They're pissed, aren't they?" Nick asked as he and Brian headed for the end of the aisle toward checkout.
As they got in line, neither could ignore the group of youth and parents that followed them. Brian put a hand on Nick's shoulder and squeezed. He was starting to get scared from all the hatred that was emanating from them.
Nick, what should we do? Brian asked, getting inside Nick's head.
We aren't doing anything. I'm not the one they're after, Brian, as much as I hate to say it.
"Well, what am I going to do then? They're getting closer and I don't want to leave you here."
Nick looked over his shoulder, his eyes growing large. "I don't think you have a choice, Brian."
Brian followed his gaze and his eyes grew large as well. The "mob" was only a few yards away and getting faster, some of them farther ahead than others. When the people saw that Brian was looking at them, they sped up. Brian stepped back, his face pale, his eyes wide in fear.
"Go, Brian!" Nick instructed through his teeth.
Brian shook his head. "I can't leave you!"
"I'll be fine!" Nick replied. "Now go!" He sat forward and gave Brian a push. “GO!”
Reluctantly, Brian began to run. The small mob cried out in anger and took up the chase. Nick watched the chase with mixed feelings. He knew somehow that Brian would be fine. He had so many powers that he could use to escape. And yet, there was also a feeling that after today, he wouldn't see Brian for quite some time.
Brian fled without caution or care; he only wanted to escape, to go far away from the hatred of the crowd. Tears were in his eyes, but he didn't care. He had to get away. He didn't notice the streets he ran, or the people he passed, if there was anyone. He had no particular destination other than to be alone where he could think in peace. He didn't know how far he ran, and didn't care until his legs began cramping in pain. He had to stop and rest soon. He slowed to a walk and took in his surroundings, his breathing ragged, and his pulse high. It looked like a park and just a few feet away was a wooden bench where he could rest.
Nick looked up, hearing Kevin's voice calling to him. Kevin saw tears pricking at the corners of his eyes, and immediately took on his role as Big Brother. He knelt before his friend. "Nick what's wrong?"
But Nick couldn't answer. He shook his head and wiped at his tears.
"I... I don't know," Nick whispered, trying not to choke on the lump in his throat.
"Look, let's find the others, and then we can talk, okay?" Kevin suggested.
Nick sniffled and nodded, his thoughts far away. Kevin got behind the wheelchair and pushed Nick along the sidewalk in search of AJ and Howie. They were found in front of an outdoor restaurant getting ready to eat.
"Hey, it's Train and Kaos!" AJ called as he motioned them over.
"Guys, we need to go somewhere quiet," Kevin noted. "Something's up with Nick, and he won't tell me yet."
AJ and Howie glanced at their younger companion. Nick was hugging himself; his eyes were distant and full of pain. He had shut himself off from them at the moment.
"Nicky?" Howie called.
Nick didn't acknowledge him; he was off in his own world. Howie and AJ stood.
"There's a quiet place not too far from here," Howie pointed out. "We could go there."
"Sounds good," Kevin agreed, and let Howie and AJ lead the way.
As Kevin followed AJ and Howie down the block, he noticed Nick clutching his sketchpad tightly to his chest, his hands trembling. A few minutes later, the boys reached a small grubby diner called Johnson's Cafe. Howie held the door open so Kevin could push Nick's wheelchair through the door, then he and AJ followed.
A quick glance around made AJ frown. As the group made their way to the booth at the very end of the diner, he grabbed Howie’s sleeve.
“This place is almost a dump,” he said. “How in the world did you know about it?”
“They have the best pie in the state,” Howie said, defending the place. “Coffee is pretty good, too. I, ah, know this place because I kinda dated one of the waitress’ sisters and we came here several times for a visit.”
“What? When was this?” AJ said as they arrived at their booth.
“Last year, during our break,” Howie said, smiling slightly. “Remember Monica?”
AJ thought hard, then his eyebrows lifted. “Monica, with the-“ He made a curvy gesture in the air with both hands.
Howie blushed, but grinned. “Yeah. Monica.”
AJ nodded his approval and decided to give the diner a chance. After all, appearances weren’t everything.
There was enough room for Nick’s chair to sit at the end of the table, and soon the four were settled. A silence descended for a moment as the other three observed the still-distraught face of their youngest Brother. His pain was obvious, and they were all worried about Brian’s absence and what had taken place at the Art shop. Kevin opened his mouth to speak when the silence was broken abruptly.
“Hello, boys,” came a friendly, bright voice from the aisleway. “How are y’all doing tonight?” the tallish, red-haired young woman greeted as she handed out well-worn menus. “Welcome to the diner, can I get anyone a…” She stopped, stared at Howie, then dazzled them all with a heartfelt smile. “Howie, is that really you?”
“Hi, Ella,” Howie said, returning her smile. “Good to see you again.”
“Well, I’ll be!” she exclaimed happily. “We’ve missed your face around here.”
“How’s Monica doing?” he asked.
“Oh, she’s doing great,” Ella said. “I still say she passed up on the best thing coming when she and you broke it off,” she added with a wink.
Howie laughed. “She’s a great girl, but we-“
"Yeah, I know hon. She needs herself a regular, quiet, stay-at-home guy whose main ambition is cutting the lawn on Saturdays. You don’t exactly fit that profile.”
“Nope, that’s for sure.”
Kevin cleared his throat, and Howie belatedly realized he’d forgotten his manners.
“Oh, Ella, this is AJ, Nick, and Kevin. Guys, this is Ella Winters, Monica’s sister.”
Her gaze lingered on Kevin’s tall form for a moment. Then she grinned and put her hand on her hip, addressing Howie once again. “Oh, hon, I know who y’all are. I’m just surprised to see you here.”
“We wanted someplace quiet to talk,” Howie confessed. “We needed to get… away.” Howie couldn’t help but to look at Nick.
Ella followed his glance and caught the sad expression on the young blond’s face. Her blue eyes sparked with understanding. “Well, say no more. You can’t get much more ‘away’ than this old place. We do most of our business at lunchtime, so no one will bother you now.” She looked around at the four seated at the table, then glanced at Kevin once again, a small smile curving her lips. “Let me get y’all something to drink. What would you like?”
Three coffees and a hot chocolate were ordered; Ella didn’t bother to write it down. “I’ll be right back with those,” she said, then stopped and put a delicate hand on Nick’s shoulder. The action made him look up in surprise. “Hon, you just let me know if you need anything special, okay? You look like you have had one rough day.”
Nick swallowed at her unexpected kindness, but could only nod. Ella walked away, four sets of eyes on her as she left.
AJ finally spoke. “Nice girl,” he commented, craning his neck to get one final glimpse of her shapely legs.
“Mmm,” Kevin said in agreement.
“She’s a sweetheart,” Howie said, turning back around.
It only took a minute for Ella to return with the coffeepot and hot chocolate. With a smile, she set the chocolate down in front of Nick, and then poured the other three coffees. She added a saucy wink at Kevin when he smiled up at her.
“Have you decided?” she asked. “The chicken soup is homemade, but I wouldn’t go near the chili. Special is meatloaf, and we got apple, blueberry and cherry pie all made fresh this morning. Lemon meringue, too, if you’re brave.”
“I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m going to stick with pie,” Howie said. “Blueberry, and could you-“
“Top that with vanilla ice cream?” she finished easily. “Sure, hon, anything you want.”
“I’ll try the soup,” AJ said. “Maybe dessert later.”
“Gotcha. And you, sweetheart?” she said, turning to Nick. He hadn’t even opened his menu.
“Um, I’m not very hungry,” he said in a whisper.
Ella gave him a soft smile and said, “How about I bring you a little cup of soup. Nothing like good old fashioned chicken soup to warm you up inside.”
“Okay, sure,” he said, not looking up.
She stood and put a hand on her hip. “And you, handsome?” she said, flirting shamelessly with Kevin. “What can I get for you?”
Kevin’s face flushed slightly. “I’ll have, uh, the apple pie. A la mode, please,” he added.
“Want that heated up a bit?”
Kevin kicked AJ under the table when the younger man snickered.
"Yeah, that would be great,” he said, nodding. “I haven’t had hot apple pie in a long time.”
“Then you’re in for a real treat,” Ella promised. “Back in a minute, boys.”
This time, there was a definite wiggle to her walk. AJ snorted with laughter once she was out of earshot.
“Kevin, you are in trouble, man.”
“She’s just being friendly,” Kevin said, coloring slightly but smiling all the same.
“More friendly to some than others,” Howie said, unable to keep from teasing his older Brother.
“What can I say?” Kevin shrugged, taking a sip of his coffee. “She’s obviously got taste.”
Any further retort was interrupted by a quiet voice.
“Guys?” Nick said, still hugging his sketchbook. “She… How can some people be so nice to strangers, to us, while others…” He stopped, a sob catching in his throat.
Kevin leaned over and touched Nick on the arm. “While others what, Nicky?”
“While others hate so… so easily?” he managed to choke out.
Kevin’s emerald eyes darkened in concern. “Who are you talking about?”
“The fans… the people at the concert, when Brian…” He stopped, sniffing back pain-filled tears. “He saved your life, Kev, but all he got from them was hatred. They threw stuff! Tried to hurt him, on purpose! They were supposed to be our fans!” he said in a confused rush.
“There’s no excuse for hatred like that,” Kevin tried to explain. “Maybe they were just scared, and they were reacting without thinking.”
Nick’s watery blue eyes widened and he shook his head. “The people at the art store, they weren’t scared, we were just looking at some supplies, minding our own business!”
“What happened at the store?” Kevin asked encouragingly.
Nick gripped the sketchpad tighter. “We were looking for some supplies, stuff for me to draw and sketch with. That’s all! Then someone recognized us, and then made some comment…” He shut his eyes in pain. “She called Bri a freak, Kev! For no reason! He never did anything to her, but she still said that terrible thing, and…”
“Take a breath, Kaos,” AJ said as the youngest choked.
“Aje, you weren’t there,” Nick shot back, reliving the nightmare. “First it was just one girl, then the others came, and soon… soon, Brian was getting hit from all sides by their ugly hatred, you should have seen his face, all that pain! He couldn’t stand it, and I knew if he s-stayed, they would get him, and so I told him to leave… leave me behind.”
“That was brave of you, Nick,” Kevin said, trying to keep his own emotions under control.
“He didn’t want to go, but all that hate…and I knew that they were after him, that I’d be all right once he… once he was gone.” Tears trailed down the young Boy’s face. “They chased him out of the store, but they didn’t catch up to him. I heard some girls talking about it when I left.” He looked at his three Brothers’ faces. “I don’t know where he went, but I don’t think he’s going to be coming back anytime soon. All this is just too… too much right now.”
Kevin didn’t notice the lone tear on his own face when he said, “We’ll look for him, but if he doesn’t want to be found, there’s nothing we can do. Except… to be there when he comes back.”
AJ and Howie nodded in agreement, their expressions somber.
“You did the right thing, Nicky,” Kevin said softly, embracing the blond in a strong, comforting hug. “Even though it hurt.”
Nick sobbed into Kevin’s shirt for nearly a minute before he got himself under control. The others offered words of encouragement until Nick nodded and sat back, wiping the wetness from his cheeks. His breathing had almost gotten back to normal when a voice near his ear made him jump.
“Here ya go, sweetheart,” came Ella’s warm voice as she set down the cup of soup and some packets of crackers. She leaned down next to his ear and whispered so only he could hear. “Thought you might need this, too.” She handed him a clean damp linen napkin. “Maybe easier than going to the men’s room to wash your face.”
Before he could express his startled thanks, she turned to the others. “Blueberry pie, just the way you like it, Howie,” she said, handing over the heavily laden plate. “And here’s the chicken soup, watch it now, it just came out of the pot.” She placed the bowl and several rolls in front of AJ. “And here’s that hot pie you wanted, hon,” she said, taking great care in setting down the apple pie slice in front of Kevin.
“Thanks,” the oldest said, trying very hard not to stare at her strategically placed nametag. “It looks great.”
Ella broke into a smile as she straightened up. “Y’all just holler if you need anything else, okay? I’m going to let you boys be for a while. I’m guessing that true quiet is hard for you to find, so you best enjoy it while you can.”
“Thanks,” Kevin said earnestly.
With that, the four focused on their food, each lost in thought. Nearly ten minutes passed before anyone spoke.
“She was right,” AJ said, “this soup was great.”
“You should try some pie,” Howie said, scraping his fork across his plate to get the final crumbs. “I swear, it’s the best anywhere.”
“I agree,” Kevin said, savoring the last mouthful. “I could do with some more coffee,” he mused. He looked up and was able to catch Ella’s eye. She nodded and finished up her conversation with a man seated at the counter.
She arrived with coffeepot in hand, then refilled cups as requested. “So, who is ready for something else?” she asked. “Sweetheart, you ready to try some pie? I see you finished that soup,” she said, addressing Nick.
“Um, yeah, maybe.”
“And you, hon?” she said, turning a pleasant smile towards AJ.
“Sure, why not?” AJ said philosophically. “You only live once, right?”
“Right!” she exclaimed, grinning. “That’s the spirit. Which kind would you like?”
“I’ll go for the apple, but no ice cream,” he said, sipping on his coffee.
“Same for you, hon?” she asked Nick, patting his shoulder.
Nick was surprised at how comforting that single gesture was. “Yeah, thanks,” he said, clearing his throat.
“No, El, I’m good.”
“And what about you, handsome?” she said, hand on hip once again. “Room for more?”
“No, I’m good,” Kevin said.
“Mmm, bet you are,” Ella said as she shook her head. “Mercy,” she declared as she walked away.
This time, the laughter included Nick’s. It was a wonderful change.
An hour later Kevin stood at the cash register, bill in hand. The diner was deserted, and it seemed the perfect time to leave.
“Here you go,” he said, handing her some cash. “Keep the change.”
“Handsome and generous,” she said, her smile growing as she counted. “I told you that pie was good, didn’t I?”
He laughed. “It wasn’t just the pie,” he said. He looked around at the humble surroundings. “Can I ask you a question?”
“What are you doing here? You’re one of the best waitresses I’ve ever met. Surely you can do better.”
Ella gave him a mysterious smile. “Well, now, that may be so… but I’d rather be where I’m needed. The folks that come here are in all shapes and sizes, but they’re all looking for the same things… simplicity, honesty, and a little comfort. I like that; I’m satisfied with what I do and where I do it. I’ve found my place in the world for now, and I’m happy.”
“I wish that could be true for all of us,” Kevin said, looking down at his shoes.
Ella hesitated for a moment, then touched him on the arm. “May I ask you a question?”
“Turnabout’s fair play.”
“I heard about the other one, Brian. That he’s a mutant, and is having a real rough time of it lately. That’s true, isn’t it?”
Kevin regarded her warily. “Maybe.”
“Poor kid. Well, just keep in mind that for every mutant-hater out there, there’s a whole bunch of folk who aren’t judgmental at all. You have allies you can’t even guess at. And remember, for every misguided fan that suddenly hates your music, there are thousands who still look to it for inspiration.”
Kevin blinked at her, surprised to hear words of encouragement rather than disgust. “You… seem pretty sure of that.”
“I am, because I know the truth.” She gave him a wry smile. “You can’t judge the whole by the actions of a few.”
He relaxed his shoulders, then said, “I’d like to… maybe continue this conversation later. I think we’ll be around for a while, if you’re interested.”
“You know where I’ll be,” she said, glancing at the couple who had just come through the door. “Just drop on by.”
“Will do,” Kevin said, giving her a last smile. “Hope to see you soon.”
Anytime, handsome, came the belated reply as he stepped outside. He nearly tripped when he realized the voice had been in his head, not his ears.
When he turned in astonishment, Howie grabbed his arm. “C’mon, Bro. We can come back later, I think we could all use some sleep.”
“But she… I mean, I…”
Howie smiled at his Brother. “Yeah, I know,” he said. “I dated her sister, remember? Empathic and telepathic powers run in the family.”
Still surprised, Kevin joined the other three as they made their way back to the hotel.
“What am I going to do?”
“Running from something, darlin’?” a female voice inquired.
Brian looked around, but saw no person to connect with the voice.
“Who said that?”
Brian stood and looked around again in bewilderment and still saw no one. The only thing he saw was a raven sitting in a tree a few feet away looking right back at him. His eyes widened and he put his head in his hands as he sat back down.
“Oh, now I’m going crazy,” he muttered. “A raven just spoke to me? This isn’t another one of these weird mutant powers, is it?”
The raven laughed, “No, you’re hearing me like you would another person. You see, I’m not really a raven.”
Brian looked up, eyes narrowed skeptically. “What?”
In response, the raven spread its wings and flew down to the ground. As it did so, however, it changed shape. High-heeled black boots touched the ground, and Brian found himself staring up into the tanned face of a young woman, her rich auburn hair blowing in the breeze. She returned his gaze with her fiery brown eyes. She brushed a twig from her denim skirt and straightened her leather jacket covering a pink shirt.
“My name is Cassidy,” she said. “What’s your name?”
“Can I sit down, Brian?”
“Yeah, sure,” Brian consented, scooting over to give her room on the bench.
Cassidy sat and crossed her legs. “I noticed you were running and you seemed terrified. Why?”
“Some people were after me because of what I am,” Brian murmured.
“And what are you?”
Brian’s eyes flickered in anger. “A mutant. If it was only my occupation as a singer, I’d be able to handle the mob, but… they hate mutants and that’s what I am. They think that I was the one that hurt my friend Nick and put him in the wheelchair.”
“But you weren’t,” Cassidy stated.
Brian shook his head. “No. When it first happened, the five of us thought that it was me. But after last night’s concert, we discovered that it was someone else that… was a mutant, too, but he’d been fired because of his powers, his ability to dismantle things.”
“And what power do you have?”
Brian’s eyes darkened with anger as he replied. “Too many.”
Cassidy lifted her eyebrows in interest. “What do you mean?”
Taking a deep breath, Brian revealed everything that had happened to him. He started with the day Nick got hurt, then went to the discovery his powers; finding out the truth about who and what he was and how it hurt him that he was only brought into the world out of curiosity as an experiment. Finally, Brian told her about the recent events that led him to the park. When he finished, he looked up at Cassidy and saw a thoughtful look on her face.
“You need a place of refuge,” she said, “a place where you would feel like you belong, where others would accept you as you are.”
Brian gazed at her, scarcely daring to hope. “Is there such a place?” he asked.
Cassidy smiled, “Yes. There’s a place with my people.”
“We call ourselves the Enigma Diversity,” Cassidy explained. “We are led by the wise Akela and his mate Kalani Reyna. My people will accept you, and you can keep refuge with us.”
“It sounds too good to be true,” Brian said with a smile. The smile faded as an image of Nick’s face came to his mind. He didn’t want to leave his best friend, but he was afraid that if he stayed, the group would lose a lot of their fan base, the ones that hated mutants. He conveyed all this to Cassidy, and sighed in confusion.
“If you stay, it is possible that your fans might turn away from the group,” Cassidy agreed. “But if you come with me and take refuge with the Diversity, I’m sure that won’t happen.”
“I don’t want that to happen,” Brian announced firmly. “It’s quite a price, but if it means my friends can still have the fans, I’ll do it. They'll be safe, too. They won't have to worry about the fans throwing anything in anger or being caught in the crossfire."
Brian followed Cassidy through the trees, trying hard to keep up with her. "Cassidy! I can't see you, girl!"
Cassidy, in her raven form, ducked down beneath the trees and sped off again. Brian shook his head and followed. Finally, he saw her land on the ground and stare off at the distance. He watched in amazement as Cassidy took on her human form.
"Am I going to be seeing a lot of that?"
"What?" Cassidy asked, turning to him.
"People changing from animal to human and back again."
"Probably," Cassidy replied, then turned back so she was facing forward again.
Brian followed her gaze. "Am I supposed to be seeing something?"
"Just wait," Cassidy replied.
The sun was setting below the horizon, casting a purplish pink glow on the land. They were standing in a clearing surrounded by trees. Cassidy parted her lips and a call sprang forth. She closed her mouth again and listened. Brian strained his hearing, wondering what they were waiting for. A few moments later, Brian got his answer. Coming through the trees, a lone silhouette came. Brian's eyes widened as he saw that it was a wolf. He was even more surprised to see Cassidy kneel on the ground and begin speaking to the wolf.
"Akela, I have brought you one that seeks refuge with our people."
Akela? Brian wondered. A wolf?
"Why does this young one seek refuge, child?" The wolf inquired in an ancient voice full of wisdom.
Brian decided to speak. "I'm a mutant, sir, one of thousands that have been met with hostility because of our differences. I'm still discovering many of my powers, and I need a place where... where I can be out of harm's way and try to be at peace with myself."
The wolf turned to him in interest as he spoke, and Brian watched as he changed and took on a human form. His human form was tall and agile; although he was obviously old, he still possessed great grace and strength and his eyes held wisdom untold. Brian tried to speak again, but the use of his voice was lost at the present.
"You have been lied to," Akela said, "and there is a deep hurt inside you from betrayal."
Brian looked away as the pain began to resurface. Akela stepped closer to him.
"You feel betrayed because you were brought into this world out of curiosity and an experiment rather than the joy of raising a new life."
The tears came unbidden to Brian's eyes; he didn't bother to wipe them away. He felt worn, strong hands settle on his shoulders.
"You can set aside your pain, young one. Take refuge with us."
Brian's tear-filled eyes looked back up at Akela and flickered with happiness. "Thank you."
The four remaining Boys exited the elevator onto their floor in silence, each one lost in thought. Quietly, the boys entered their suite. Storm was sitting cross-legged on the sofa of the main room listening to music meant to calm her. However, it wasn't succeeding. She'd been trying to contact Brian all day, but he hadn't answered her and she was beginning to worry. He'd professed his love to her, and yet he didn't return her calls. Storm looked up to see the solemn, pain filled faces of Brian's comrades.
Nick met her gaze as more tears came to his eyes. His chin trembled and he looked away. Howie squeezed Nick's shoulder in comfort, but he couldn't answer either, nor AJ. Kevin took a deep breath and let it out very slowly. Sitting down beside her, Kevin related the events that Nick had revealed to them in the diner as best he could.
Storm stared at him in disbelief. Brian... gone? But why?
"Why?" she asked, her tone showing she wasn't willing to believe. "Why did he run away instead of back here, to me? I could have helped him. I love him."
Kevin shook his head. "I wish I had the answer for you, Ororo. He was most likely just too terrified of those people that were after him and he wasn't able to think."
Storm looked away, pain tearing at her heart. He really was gone. She left her seat and went to the window. She gazed out into the night sky, seeing the lights of the city glowing brightly against the night.
Where are you, my love? she wondered. Where can you have gone to that will keep you away from me?
Brian laid his weary body on the cot, which felt more comfortable to him than his own bed. He'd felt so overjoyed when Akela granted him refuge with this so-called Enigma Diversity. Despite his fatigue of both body and mind, he could feel the protection and the peace in this place. It almost felt like coming home. Almost as soon as his head hit the pillow, the impact sending up a cloud of some heavenly scent, Brian fell into a sleep that seemed more deep and complete than it had been in a long while.
The sun slowly rose over the hills, changing the sky to a purplish hue. As it rose, the purple reddened until it cast a pink and orange glow on the clouds in the sky and over the landscape.
Brian's eyes flickered open, refreshed and waiting to greet the new day. Instead of the sunlight, Brian found himself looking into very small, round brown eyes. He shot up with a gasp. A rat! However, when he caught sight of the black and white ball of fluff sitting on his legs, staring up at him, he realized it was only a small rabbit. He stared at it for a while, and was a little surprised when it spoke in a young male voice.
"Are you the one Akela says is taking refuge with us?"
"Yes, I am," Brian replied. "My name is Brian. What's yours?"
The rabbit hopped off his lap and onto the floor. It grew larger and longer until it became a human boy kneeling on the floor of Brian's room.
"It's nice to meet you, Tad."
The boy stood. "Akela asked me to get you up and take you to him. You're going to meet Kalani now."
Brian rose and followed Tad, keeping silent as they made their way to a tunnel door. Who was this Kalani person? He recalled that Cassidy had said that Kalani was Akela's mate. Would he see her in her human form first or as an animal? What kind of animal would she be?
It was dark in the tunnel, but Tad seemed to find the way just fine. Brian, on the other hand, kept tripping over his feet trying to keep up. After a few more minutes in darkness, Brian felt the final climb upward, and he saw a greenish-yellow light. The forest, he thought. We're in another part of the forest.
They came up through the end of the tunnel and into the trees. Brian followed Tad a few more feet when the boy stopped suddenly. Brian looked past him. In robes of green, Akela sat at the base of an old tree. Standing beside him was the woman Brian was certain would be Kalani. Tall and slim, she was Asian in appearance, with dark hair and gray, ancient eyes. Like Akela, she was clothed in robes of green, but gold was spun throughout the cloth, sparkling in the sunrise.
Tad bowed, then left them without a word. Brian stood, waiting for something. He didn't know what he was waiting for, but he did not want to make the first move.
Kalani spoke, and her voice was soft like the river, yet full of wisdom. "You are the one that seeks refuge with us?"
"I am," Brian replied.
"Akela has told me of your reasons. We are willing to take you into our fold."
Brian smiled gratefully. "Thank you. When I found out the truth, that my... parents... lied to me... I was brought into this world for some experiment that... It hurt me so badly when I found out. Especially when I found out that my dad was on the team that created me. I can't call them my parents anymore. I'm not their son. I suppose I'm like an orphan now."
He realized then that he had been crying and wiped his tears. He hated crying in front of strangers.
"You don't need to be afraid to cry," Kalani comforted him, stepping closer. "It cleanses you."
Despite her words, he sniffed back the tears. He just couldn't do it. Unbidden, memories of his life—the lie that had been his life, he corrected—surfaced in his mind. The most painful was the memory of the first time he performed The Perfect Fan for Jackie. He turned away from Akela and Kalani and fell to his knees, sobbing into his hands.
Brian felt arms wrap around him and he leaned into them without thinking, without caring. After a long while, he cried himself empty and calmed down. He opened his eyes and saw the gold spun throughout the green of Kalani's robe. He raised his eyes to be met by her gray ones.
"You must relive it all if you are to leave it all behind you," she said.
"I'm not sure I can," Brian replied quietly. "There's so much pain knowing it was all a lie."
"It's the only way, child."
Brian rested his head back on her chest, listening to her heartbeat. "I'm so lost," he whispered.
"Find your sanctuary here, Brian," Akela offered. "Sanctuary and family."
Brian looked up past Kalani at the old one. "F-family?"
"Let us be your parents, Brian," Kalani said. "Consider yourself our son if you desire."
Brian couldn't believe it. They were actually letting him think of them as his parents? Brian's eyes lit up and a small smile crossed his face. He finally had something good happen to him. After all the pain, he needed it.
"I'd love that more than anything."
The sun climbed higher in the sky, filtering down through the trees and dotting the forest floor. Kalani, Akela and Brian stood in a circle surrounded by other members of the Enigma Diversity in their human form in one outer circle; Tad, Cassidy, and a few others Brian had yet to meet. Other members, in their animal forms, waited and watched from beyond, some sitting on the ground, some in the trees.
"Welcome to our family, Brian," Akela said. "No matter where you go, you will always be one of us."
Kalani brought the wooden flute to her lips and began to play. Sweet, beautiful music filled the air as she played. Akela began to sing words of welcome. They were strange words, ones that Brian did not understand, but he echoed them back to Akela in acceptance. All around him he could feel the welcome and the sense of belonging. He felt a change within him, but he wasn't afraid. He had no reason to be afraid of this.
The last echoes of the music faded away as the welcoming ritual ended. Brian sighed, full of joy as the others broke out in cheers as they welcomed their newest member.
Kevin stood at the window gazing out at the drizzling rain as it began to clear up from the previous night's storm. Brian had been missing for a week and try as they might, neither the boys nor Ororo could do anything to feel better. When a melodic tone sounded, Kevin looked at his cell phone sitting on the nightstand in surprise. Who would be calling him so early in the morning? He picked it up and smiled as he saw the number of the caller. It was his beloved Kristin. Surely talking to her would help him feel better.
"Hi, Kris," he greeted lovingly.
"Good morning, sweetie. I knew you'd be up."
Kevin chuckled as he sat down on the bed. "And how did you know that?"
"I just did," Kristin replied. "Listen, honey... there's something I need to talk to you about."
Thinking it to be good news, Kevin smiled. "What's up, darling?"
"I... I don't think we should get married."
Kevin couldn't breathe. The phone slipped from his hand and he fumbled to catch it.
"Wh... What? We shouldn't get married? Baby, what are you talking about?" Kevin demanded.
"Exactly what I said, Kevin. I just don't think... I don't think I'm ready for it."
"Not read.... What are you talking about?" Kevin demanded again. "Baby, I love you!"
"I know you do, Kevin. But I'm just not ready for this, for married life."
Kevin couldn't speak. He realized his face was wet, but didn't bother wiping away his tears.
"Kristin...." He couldn't say more. What else was there to say to the love of his life that had just broken off their engagement?
They were silent as time ticked by, listening to each other breathe over the phone.
"I need to go now, Kevin. I'm sorry."
"Me, too," Kevin whispered. "I love you."
There was a pause before Kristin replied. "Goodbye, Kevin."
The phone fell from Kevin's hand and he fell back onto the bed, heart-wrenching sobs shaking his body. After a time, the sobs began to soften, but the tears didn't stop. He stayed that way a few moments longer then climbed off the bed and grabbed his jacket and an umbrella. He needed out. He needed to go somewhere so he could think. There was only one place he knew of in this city that would give him that peace and quiet to do so.
And Ella, Kevin thought as he headed for the door of the suite. I have to talk to Ella.
Once the umbrella was up, Kevin let his feet guide him through the city toward the diner, knowing it wasn't far away, and became lost in his pained and troubled thoughts. Before he knew it, he was looking at the burnt-out neon sign of Johnson's Cafe. He closed his umbrella, shook out the water, and stepped inside. Seeing the diner all but empty, he knew that he'd come to the right place and headed to the cornermost booth. He sat down and put his head in his hands, letting more tears fall.
"Kevin? Is that you, sugar?"
Kevin raised his head at the familiar voice. Ella stood beside him at the table, looking down at him with worry.
"Hi Ella," he greeted softly.
"What's wrong, hon?"
Kevin sighed brokenly, and Ella sat down beside him.
"Kristin broke off our engagement this morning. She j-just called me."
Ella frowned at the pain in his voice, and then put a hand on his arm. “Oh, hon, let me tell Murray to watch the front, I’ll get us some coffee and we can talk. Okay?”
He nodded miserably and she wasted no time leaving the booth. In less than a minute, she returned with a coffeepot and a plate of oatmeal raisin cookies.
“We don’t get much traffic this early,” she said with a soft smile. “Murray can handle it; I told him we needed some privacy.” She poured them both coffee, set the plate of cookies down, then slid into the booth easily. She reached across the table and took his hand. “Now, tell me all about what’s happened.”
Kevin knew he should feel awkward spilling his guts to someone he’d barely met, but something behind Ella’s blue eyes made it easy. Before he realized it, he was reliving the phone call.
“…And then she said that she just wasn’t ready for married life,” he finished. Wetness welled in the corner of his eyes. “I mean… this hit me from left field! I thought we were really in love, and she felt the same way I did!”
Ella licked her lips and searched for the right words. “Hon,” she said softly, “I don’t think it’s about you, or even the two of you. It’s about Kristin. She’s telling you she’s not ready… that seems pretty honest to me.”
“But I love her!” he cried.
“I know, I can see that,” she said, leaning forward. “But if she’s saying she’s not ready… well, she’s speaking from her heart. It’s better to find out now, before you find yourselves trapped in a situation that neither of you wants.”
“How could she just… just call it off?” he said in a shaky, bewildered voice. Watery emerald eyes looked up in search of an answer.
“Maybe she thought it was unfair to you,” Ella offered quietly. “If she’s not wanting commitment, if she doesn’t want marriage… it wouldn’t be right to keep you tied to her.”
Kevin shook his head. “She never even said ‘I love you’. The whole time we were on the phone, she never said it.”
Kevin put his head down in his hands; Ella could see his shoulders shake with emotion. But she didn’t need a visual to know he was upset, she could feel it coming off him in waves. His pain wrenched her heart, and she had to concentrate to keep tears from her own eyes.
She got up and slid onto the bench next to him, then put her arm around his shoulder. When he turned towards her, she wrapped him in a full embrace, holding him tightly.
Kevin felt his control slip; it had all been too much. First Nick, then Brian, and now Kristin… Ella murmured words of reassurance in his ear as he wept on her shoulder. She allowed his pain to wash over and through her, and sent back comfort in wave after soft wave. She gave him an anchor to cling to during the brief, intense storm of emotions.
Eventually he regained his mental footing and began to draw back, but she held him tighter for another half minute. Her warmth seemed to seep into his very heart, and he closed his eyes as he began to relax.
“Kevin, hon,” she whispered, “it’s gonna be all right, you’ll see. Things happen for a reason, even if we can’t see it at the time. I know you’re hurting, but… it’ll get better. I promise.”
He leaned back when she released him, and wiped his face free of wetness. After a moment, he looked over at Ella, only to find her studying him carefully.
“You okay?” she asked.
“Yeah, I… thanks,” he said, sniffing. “I’m sorry, it just got-“
“Don’t apologize,” she interrupted gently. “You needed to do that.”
She took his hand and gave him an enigmatic smile. “Everyone needs some comfort once in a while,” she said. “You’re no different. I’m thinking that a lot rests on your shoulders, being the eldest in the group and all.”
“Maybe,” he said.
“No maybe,” she said, shaking her head slightly. “You know it’s true. They all come to you, but… who do you go to?”
A lost, slightly bitter look crossed his face. “I used to go to Kristin.”
Ella looked at him with sympathetic eyes. “Well, I’m not Kristin,” she said softly, “but I’ll be here if you need me to be. That’s a promise.”
He blinked a couple of times. “Thanks,” he said, seeing the sincerity on her face.
“Say, hon, have you eaten breakfast yet?” she asked.
“No,” he said, the very thought of food making him grimace.
“Well, a tall, dark and handsome man like yourself needs to fuel his fire,” she said, her lips curving into a slight grin. “How about you try some of the cookies I brought? Fresh baked, and not from some mix either. My Auntie Fran dropped them off just before you came in. They go great with coffee…”
He recognized her slight flirting and managed a half-smile. “Fresh baked, huh?”
“I bet they’re still a bit warm,” she said.
“Maybe just one,” he relented, seeing the hopeful look in her eyes.
“Good,” she declared, uncovering the plate and pushing it over to him. “A man can’t think on an empty stomach.”
“Hey,” he said after a moment, “these are pretty good.”
She smiled at the surprise in his voice. “Well, now, didn’t I say they were good? You need to listen to old Ella here, I know best.”
He gave her a true smile… a small one, but a smile nonetheless. “You’re not old, Ella.”
She laughed. “Tell that to my poor tired feet after a double shift in this joint,” she said. “Those days I feel like I’m ninety-nine!”
“Well,” he said sincerely, “I don’t know about ninety-nine, but… you’re one in a million, that’s for sure.”
Ella blinked, startled at his words. After a moment, she gave him a smile and said, “Why, thank you.” She took a cookie from the plate and sampled it. “Auntie Fran does know her cookies,” she said around a mouthful.
“Yes she does,” agreed Kevin. “She should go into business.”
Ella laughed. “She owns the ‘Sweet Things’ bakery two blocks over,” she said. “And she does very well for herself.” She sipped at her coffee, thought for a moment, then studied the man next to her.
“Kevin,” she said carefully, “my shift’s over in about fifteen minutes. What do you say we get a proper breakfast, then spend a little time together? I think you need to talk some more.” When he looked down, she bit her lip and quickly said, “But, if you need your space, that’s okay. I understand.”
“No,” he said, casting his emerald gaze into her eyes. “I think you’re right, I would like to talk some more… but I don’t want to throw all this on your shoulders.”
“I wouldn’t have offered if it was a burden,” she declared.
“Then… yeah, that sounds great,” he said. “Truth be told, I… I don’t think the guys would understand some of it.”
“Well, then, I’m your gal,” she said. “I’m all ears.”
No, Kevin thought as he looked at his companion. You’re all heart.
He took another sip of coffee and dared to believe that maybe… just maybe… he might get through the day.
Kevin unlocked the door to the suite and stepped inside, only to be met by a very worried Howie. Nick, sitting by the phone, hung it up the moment he spied his older brother.
“Kev, where have you been?” Howie demanded. “We’ve been looking for you for hours!”
“I had to get out of here,” he said, shrugging off his jacket. “Had to think about some things. Sorry for not leaving a note.”
Nick’s blue eyes were wide with worry. “We didn’t know where you went,” he said a bit shakily. “And then Kristin called…”
Kevin’s heart skipped a beat. “She did?”
“Yeah, a couple of hours ago. You’d left your cell here, and when I saw it was her, I picked it up,” Howie explained. Concern colored his face. “She… she told me about… about the break-up,” he said in a lower voice. “She was calling to make sure you were okay.”
“I didn’t mean to worry anyone,” Kevin said hollowly, a surge of pain welling up in his chest.
“Are you okay, Kev?” Nick asked, watching the expression on his face.
“I don’t know,” came the honest reply. “It’s a lot to handle.”
“Give it time,” Howie advised his voice full of sympathy.
Kevin sighed. “Yeah,” he replied. “That’s just what Ella said.”
“Yeah, I needed to get out of here and think, and I ended up at Johnson’s Café. She… we talked quite a bit.”
“But Aje said he checked there,” Nick interjected. “You were nowhere to be found.”
“I was there for a little bit,” Kevin said, sinking down on the couch. “But after we had breakfast, we left.”
“Where did you go?” Howie asked, curiously.
“We ended up walking through the park,” he said. “The one in the south part of town.”
“In the rain?” Nick asked, glancing through the window at the still-drizzling sky.
“We spent most of the time in one of those covered gazebos,” Kevin answered. “I didn’t see a single soul the entire time, our nearest neighbors were a couple of squirrels and a raven.” He leaned his head back against the cushion. “What a day.”
“I’d better call AJ,” Nick said, picking up the phone and dialing his brother’s cell.
Howie came to sit across from the oldest. “So you two talked for quite a while,” he began.
“Yeah,” Kevin said, staring at the ceiling.
“Did… did it help?” he asked oddly.
Kevin looked at Howie, studying his dark eyes for a moment. “Yes, it did. I still have a lot to work through, but… at least I feel a bit more stable.”
Howie nodded in approval. “Good,” he said. “You did the right thing, going to El.”
“Yeah,” Howie said. “She has a way of making you feel… better about stuff, you know? I guess it’s the way she listens, and really understands.”
“She is easy to talk to,” Kevin agreed.
Nick wheeled over. “Who, Ella?” he asked, having heard only a part of the conversation.
“Yeah, Ella,” Kevin answered.
“I like her,” the youngest said evenly. “She’s nice.”
“That she is,” Kevin said, smiling.
“It’s good to have someone like her in our corner,” Howie observed. “I get the feeling there’s a lot more coming our way.”
Kevin kept silence, but nodded his agreement.
A squirrel ran around the forest floor looking for acorns. Finally finding the one it wanted, the squirrel sat back on its haunches and began to eat. Up in a tree, a brown hawk watched the squirrel intently. Without warning, the hawk took off with a cry and swooped down on the unsuspecting squirrel, snatching it up in its talons and flying through the air. After flying around for several minutes, the hawk landed in an open space in the trees with the squirrel still in its talons. Suddenly, the hawk began to hop up and down using first one foot, then the other. The squirrel tittered and squeaked beneath the hawk, trying to get away. It began to grow larger in size, as did the hawk. The tail shrank and the fur vanished on the squirrel. The feathers fell off the hawk and the legs grew. Soon, the squirrel became a young girl squealing with laughter being tickled.
"Brian! Stop!" she shrieked through her laughter.
Immediately, Brian stopped and smiled down at her. "Hi Lucy."
"There you are!"
"Hi, Cassidy," Brian and Lucy greeted together.
Cassidy appeared through the trees. "Lucy was supposed to find you."
"Well, I found her first," Brian replied as he sat back on his knees, letting Lucy crawl to her feet.
"We saw your cousin in the park earlier."
Brian froze and looked up at Cassidy in surprise. "Did you?"
Cassidy nodded. "He was talking with someone he kept calling 'Ella’."
"How was he?" Brian asked.
Cassidy chose her words carefully. "He seemed upset. There were traces of tears on his cheeks, but he seemed to get better. My guess is it was the woman."
"What'd you say her name was? Ella?"
"What were they talking about?"
Cassidy knelt on the ground. "Well, what we heard..."
Cassidy sat in a tree keeping dry, once again in her raven form. She heard voices and looked up to see a couple sitting down under a covered gazebo. The dark-haired man looked familiar, like someone from the pictures Brian had shown her earlier that week. It must be Kevin. She tried to listen to them for a while, hoping that she could hear what they were saying, but she was too far away. She spread her wings and flew closer, the couple oblivious to the movement. She noticed two squirrels close by and from their fur, she knew they were Enigma as well.
“I’m not talking about the store, Kevin, I’m talking about you."
Cassidy turned her attention back to the couple.
"You and the other Boys. Something amazing has happened to y’all, and you have two choices: to go along with things like prejudice, fear, and hatred… or to change all that.”
“How can you expect us to change fear and hatred?” Kevin demanded in a shocked voice. “Or prejudice? We, ourselves, had a hard enough time adjusting to the fact that Brian is a mutant, how can you say we should change people’s minds that we don’t even know?”
“You have one of the most powerful tools I can imagine… your music. You know that your songs reach people all over the planet, crossing all kinds of barriers. Age, race, religion… nothing matters, because the messages you send are universal. You need to use your music, your influence, to teach people about tolerance and peace and how to celebrate and love our differences. Instead of cursing the dark, like that saying goes, you need to light a candle… be an inspiration.”
Cassidy watched Kevin sit back, stunned at the woman's words. After a while, he spoke again, obviously having done some serious thinking.
“We… we could maybe start writing some new songs,” he said tentatively.
“Yes!” the woman exclaimed. “Show your support of tolerance and understanding. Spread the word that you are all about harmony, and not fear and hatred.”
“We do have a lot of fans, all over the world…”
“You have millions of fans, Kevin,” she corrected. “And the power and ability to reach every one.”
“But,” he said, deflating a bit, “what about Brian? He’s gone, Ella. It wouldn’t be the same without him.”
Cassidy started in surprise at how much Kevin had seemed to change when he mentioned his cousin. She was close enough to see the pain in his eyes as he talked about Brian.
“Which is exactly why you need to do this,” the woman said. “You would be sending a message that hate can’t stop you, can’t keep you from doing what you love to do. That despite what’s happened, you won’t be destroyed by petty prejudices.”
“Maybe it can work,” he said, beginning to get into the idea.
“Of course it can,” she replied confidently. “Your gifts, the way you can reach into the hearts of your listeners, are unique and wonderful. You’ve made people happy for a long time, now you’ll be able to share a little enlightenment with them too.”
Kevin slowly nodded. “This might just be the thing to snap Nick out of his depression. I’ve been worried about him.” He sighed. “It’s been near impossible to get Nick to talk about anything lately.” A moment later his shoulders slumped. “This is all just so… overwhelming.”
“I know,” Ella said softly. “You’re going to have a hard road to travel, make no mistake. You just think on it, and bring it up to the others when the time seems right. Okay, hon?”
“Good,” she said, offering him a slight smile. “Now, look me in the eye and say that.”
Surprised, he glanced up to meet her gaze. He blinked when she studied him for a long, measured moment, then nodded.
“What, don’t you trust me?” he asked, wondering at the scrutiny.
She grinned. “Oh, I trust you,” she said with a spark in her eye. “I just wanted to look into those gorgeous green eyes of yours. Did anyone ever tell you that you were terribly handsome?”
The comment was so unexpected that he couldn’t help a short laugh. “What? Ella!”
“Ah, that’s what I wanted to see,” she said, satisfied. “That wonderful smile.” She patted his hand. “You’re going to be all right, Kevin Richardson. You have more strength than you realize. I’ll wager that same statement applies to your brothers as well.”
He shook his head, the smile dimming but not vanishing. “I wish I had your confidence,” he said after a while.
“You do,” she said, much more seriously. “You do.”
Brian studied the cool water of the river as Cassidy finished recalling what she and the others had overheard. It was unbelievable.
Nick's in a depression?
Cassidy and Lucy watched him, waiting for him to make some move or speak. It was tough on them to see that he could so easily keep his feelings hidden behind a poker face in front of them. And being a mutant, he could easily go invisible.
Brian sighed and closed his eyes as he lowered his head. He reached out with his mind, his telepathy much stronger now, and searched for his brothers. One by one he found them, Nick last of all, and could feel what they felt. Kevin was beginning to take control again and was having some serious thought about what Ella had said to him. Howie was writing in his journal, his feelings pouring through his pen onto the paper. Whether it was just a regular entry or a song, Brian didn't know. AJ was talking to Sarah over the phone, trying to feel better. Nick... little Nicky, Brian thought. He was in so much pain. He could almost feel the pulsing pain in Nick's legs and his heartache coursing through his body and into his work once again as he drew with the charcoal that they had searched for that day before Brian had fled in terror.
"I'm so sorry, Nicky," he whispered.
AJ glanced up from the table as he saw Kevin heading for the door. "Where are you going?"
AJ smirked at his one-word answer, but pressed him anyway, just to see him squirm. "Out?"
Kevin's hand was on the doorknob. "Yeah, out."
AJ smiled coyly. "With Ella, am I right?" He had to bite back his laughter as he saw Kevin blush.
"Yeah," Kevin admitted, "with Ella."
AJ chuckled. "Be back before midnight, man."
Kevin rolled his eyes, "Shut your trap, Bone."
AJ just laughed and Kevin left.
"What's so funny?" Howie inquired as he entered the kitchen. "Where's Kevin gone?"
AJ made quotation marks with his fingers. "He's gone 'out'."
Howie raised an eyebrow. "Ella?"
AJ could only nod and chuckle. His smile faded as he saw the worried look on his friend's face and in his eyes.
"How's the kid?" he asked, referring to Nick in the living room.
Howie shook his head. "Not good. He's taking this a lot harder than the two of us put together. I'm sure that he could give Kevin a run for his money."
"Has he eaten at all today?" AJ wondered.
Howie shook his head. "I don't think he's eaten much in the past two days."
AJ whistled and shook his head. "Let's hope Brian gets home soon. We need him."
Kevin arrived at Johnson's Café at six thirty-five, precisely five minutes after Ella got off work. He smiled seeing Ella sitting outside the diner wearing a heather-gray hooded vest, her red hair blowing lightly in the breeze. Streetlights reflected off of her ruby stud earrings.
"Hi Ella," he greeted.
Ella looked up and smiled brightly as Kevin drew close. "Hi, hon."
"I hope you haven't been waiting long."
Ella rose as she replied, “No. Not long."
Kevin smiled and held out his arm. Ella linked her arm with his and they headed off down the street.
"Where are we going?"
"I'm taking you to dinner and then maybe a walk in the park."
Ella couldn't take her gaze off of Kevin. "And just where is dinner?"
Kevin grinned seeing that Ella was gazing up at him. "There's a nice Chinese restaurant not far from here. I've been there once. The food's pretty good."
It'll be even better as long as I'm with you, sugar, Ella thought as she leaned her head on his shoulder.
Unconsciously, Kevin wrapped an arm around her waist and held her closer as they walked. He heard Ella sigh happily and realized the position he was in. As he thought about it, he realized that it felt good to be that way, arm in arm with a pretty lady, especially one who understood how he felt, her head on his shoulder and his arm wrapped around her waist. He found himself smiling and didn't care in the least. After a few minutes of walking, Kevin spotted the Dragon Moon.
Ella looked up at the restaurant. It was small, but it looked cozy and private enough for them. Kevin, being the gentleman that he is, held the door open for Ella and let her enter first. They sat down at a table by the window and picked up a paper menu. After voicing their opinions to each other, Kevin went to the counter and placed an order for a dish of General Tso's chicken—which they would share since it was so spicy, but good at the same time—two pints of Won Ton soup, pork fried rice and egg rolls.
The wolf Akela made his way through the forest to the river, having heard his son's call in his heart. He found the young man sitting on the river's edge with his knees up to his chest and his chin resting on his arms. Akela padded over to Brian and sat next to him as he stared into the river. The sun was setting beyond the horizon, painting the landscape in beautiful colors.
"Your thoughts are troubled, my son."
"Yes, Old One," Brian replied, using the term of endearment. "They've been troubled for many days now. I've lost sleep."
"Your mother and I have noticed," Akela said. "But why?"
Brian sighed and turned to the wolf. "Cassidy told me the other day that she'd seen Kevin. She'd heard him say that the others were upset because I was gone. I've spent hours on end watching each of them through my telepathy. Like Kevin was, I'm starting to worry about Nick as well. But he knew that I wouldn't come back. And I’m just not ready."
"You are best friends, is that correct?"
"Yes, of course. But what--"
"Do you miss him?"
Brian started to speak, but no words came. He turned back to the river, at a loss. Of course he missed Nick.
"They all miss you. Like you do them."
Brian turned away. The air stirred, and Brian knew Akela was taking on his human form. He felt a hand on his shoulder but did not turn back.
"Son, you must go back."
Brian whirled around to face him, eyes wide. "No! I'm happy here. I have a family, and there's peace in my life for the first time in a long while. Don’t make me go back."
"There is something missing though," Akela noted, his ancient eyes locked with Brian's blue ones. "Deep down you know it."
Brian found he couldn't use his voice again and looked away.
"What of the woman you left behind that has a piece of your heart?"
Brian closed his eyes. "That life has too much pain," he said softly. "I want to forget it."
"You cannot," Akela said. "You must go back and face your pain."
"I talked to Kristin the other day."
Ella looked up from her food as Kevin spoke. "Did you?"
Kevin nodded. "It took a long time, but we worked it out. We're just going to be good friends from now on, dating other people..."
Ella studied her food instead of him. He was afraid, she could tell, but eager to move on. For once, she realized, she wasn't meaninglessly flirting with a man. She cared about Kevin and didn't want to press him. After all, he'd just gotten his heart broken when his fiancée broke their engagement. Without thinking, she put too much duck sauce on her egg roll and didn't realize it until she bit into it.
Kevin chuckled as she spit into her napkin. The smile faded as he realized that she seemed nervous, on edge. He'd never seen that from her before and it worried him.
"Are you all right?"
Ella nodded as she sipped her drink. Setting it down, she confirmed, "I'm just fine."
Kevin smirked and leaned forward. "You may give great advice and help others feel better because you're an empath..."
Ella looked up in surprise, waiting for him to finish. The smirk turned to a grin.
"But you are a horrible liar."
Ella laughed, and that made Kevin smile, seeing her relax again. He didn't have to be an empath to know there was something there between them.
"Well," she began, "it's been... a very long time since I've been on a real date, seeing someone...."
Kevin waited patiently. He knew somehow that she was letting him in to a part of her life that no one had touched in a long time.
"You see, being an empath, I have to be very careful about who I 'let in' to my life. It's hard to find someone I can trust, someone I can care about..." she licked her lips nervously and her voice dropped to a whisper, "I let the wrong person in once and got burned.... Badly burned."
Kevin was stunned. But also he felt glad that she was willing to let him in to her life. He placed a hand over hers.
"I'm sorry," he said. "Do you want to talk about it?"
Ella shook her head. "No. It happened long ago, and it's best left in the past. Please understand."
Kevin smiled and squeezed her hand affectionately. "I understand."
Ella smiled and squeezed his hand back. "Thank you."
After a few moments of silence, Kevin asked, "Do you want to go for a walk?"
Ella noticed the empty food cartons and nodded. "Sure."
They stood, and Kevin slipped the rest of the fortune cookies into his jacket pocket. Ella raised an eyebrow as she watched him.
"The others will kill me if I tell them we had Chinese food and I didn't come home with some fortune cookies," Kevin explained with an amused chuckle.
Ella laughed and Kevin offered her his arm again. She linked her arm with his, and they left after paying the bill. They reached the park in a matter of minutes and strolled, taking their time. The early fall wind blew against them, and Ella rubbed her arms. Instinctively, Kevin shrugged off his jacket and put it around her shoulders. Ella smiled and wrapped the jacket closer around her.
They made their way to the gazebo and sat down. Kevin wrapped an arm around her shoulder and she leaned into him. Neither said anything for a while, just enjoying one another's company.
"What was your favorite part of the meal?" Kevin inquired.
Ella smirked. "Won Ton soup and chopsticks."
Kevin laughed as he remembered the incident. He'd been trying to pick up the Won Tons with his chopsticks, but he couldn't hold on to them and they slipped back into the soup, splashing the soup all over the table. Ella reached into the pocket of Kevin's jacket and pulled out a fortune cookie. Kevin watched her for a moment, then asked if he could have one too. Ella handed him the one she'd just taken out of the package and pulled out another. Kevin broke open the cookie and pulled out the slip of paper. He nibbled on his cookie as he read. He heard Ella sigh happily and lean in closer to him. He looked down and saw her reading her fortune.
"So what does yours say?" he asked.
She read, "Life will hand you a magical moment. Savor it."
"What does yours say?"
"Do you believe in love at first sight, or do I have to walk by again?"
Ella smiled and looked up at him. "And do you?"
Kevin looked down at her. "What?"
"Do you believe in love at first sight or do I have to walk by again?"
It took a moment to register what Ella was saying. Kevin smiled and leaned closer. "I believe."
"So do I," Ella agreed.
Kevin brought a hand to the back of her neck and gently pulled her closer. He brushed her lips with his in their first kiss, gentle and utterly sweet. It was subconsciously agreed that they would take it slow, one day at a time.
Kevin looked up as Ella slowed down in front of an apartment building about a mile and a quarter from the diner.
"This the place?"
"Yes," Ella replied. "This is home."
She started to reach for the doorknob but paused. She turned back to Kevin. "Thank you for tonight," she said. "I had a good time."
Kevin smiled. "So did I."
"Sing for me?" she requested.
Kevin took her hands, kissed each one, and began to sing. "Are there stars out there tonight? I don't know if it's cloudy or bright. I only have eyes for you, dear. The moon may be high, but I can't see a thing in the sky, 'cause I only have eyes for you. I don't know if we're in a garden or on a crowded avenue. You are here... so am I... maybe millions of people go by, but they all disappear from view, 'cause I only have eyes for you."
He leaned down and brushed her lips in a gentle kiss. "I love you," he whispered as he pulled back.
Ella smiled. "I love you, too."
Kevin held the door open for her as she stepped inside. After a few moments, he realized that he was just staring at the spot that was no longer filled with Ella and he started for home.
Howie looked up from the movie as he heard the door open. Glancing at the clock, he saw it was quarter to eleven. Kevin entered the room and sat down on the couch next to Howie. Howie noticed that there was a wide grin on his face.
"Your date go well?"
Kevin smiled. "Wonderfully."
Howie smiled knowing Kevin was happy. Ella had given him that.
With the movie over, both Boys headed to bed.
The waves lapped against his bare feet as Howie stood at the edge of the ocean. He smiled and breathed in the salty ocean air. It was peaceful here and he could relax and leave the troubles of the world behind. He stood there for a while, letting his feet get buried in the sand every time a wave washed over his feet. Howie realized that he had his notebook and pen with him. He stepped out of the water and headed to drier sand, sat down and opened his notebook. Making a mental note to get a new pen soon, he began to write.
It’s peaceful here at the ocean, he wrote, I know people think that it’s only Nick that enjoys the ocean so I’ll let them think that. But I love it here. It’s a place where I can escape from the troubles of the world and let my problems go. I have so many, but here I can forget about them.
A shadow fell over him and he looked up in surprise. He gasped and the pen and notebook fell from his hands, recognizing the figure that stood before him.
“Brian!” he cried, leaping to his feet, a joyful smile on his face.
“Hi Howie,” Brian greeted as the friends embraced.
As they pulled back, Howie didn’t know what to say. He was seeing Brian right in front of his eyes. Where had he gone? Had he stopped running? Was he all right?
Brian held up his hands. “Whoa, slow down Howie. One question at a time.”
Howie reddened. “Sorry. I forgot you can read my thoughts.”
“It’s all right,” Brian replied. “You deserve an answer to those questions anyway. I didn’t run too far and I found a place where I could be at peace with myself. I’m all right, Howie; but I’m still a little scared to face all the pain back in 'reality’. How are you and the others?”
Howie took a deep breath. “We all miss you so much Brian,” he replied. “Kevin is still trying to find balance in his life after his breakup with Kristin, although I think he and Ella will get together nicely.”
“Monica’s sister, right? Good looking red-head who’s quite the flirt?”
Howie nodded. “Right. A.J’s been really restless lately and he’s not sleeping well. He’s taking walks a lot to try and help him feel better; they don’t, not that much, anyway. Nicky… Brian, he really needs your help. It’s getting bad, he hasn’t been eating.”
Brian’s eyes widened. “What?”
Howie nodded. “He’s getting thinner, paler. And he’s losing himself in his artwork again. I’ve seen some of it and I can’t bear to look at any more. There’s so much pain in it. He’s told me there are times at night where the pain in his legs is so strong that it wakes him up in the middle of the night.”
Brian paled and ran a hand through his hair. “I should have seen that.” He paused, and then looked back at Howie. “What about you? How are you doing?”
The friends started walking down the beach as Howie continued.
"I feel so helpless, Brian,” he confessed, “I’m supposed to be the ‘mediator’ of the group, but I’m feeling the same as everyone else. I’ve tried to do something productive for the group, but I just can’t. I hate feeling helpless, Brian. It scares me.”
The friends walked along in silence for a while, lost in thought.
“How’s Ro?” Brian asked suddenly.
“Ororo. How is she?”
"Oh. She’s… lonely… sad and worried about you. She misses you so much.”
They stopped and Brian dug his hands in his pockets, looking unsure.
“Please come back, Brian,” Howie begged. “We’re not complete without you.”
Brian nodded. “I’ll come back, D. Don’t tell anyone, though. I want it to be a surprise.”
Howie hesitated. He knew how much he and the others wanted to see Brian again.
“Please Howie. Do it for me."
“All right,” Howie consented.
It was almost quarter till eleven when Howie entered the kitchen the next morning. The dream had been so real, but he didn’t want to tell anyone about it for fear of giving false hopes. Especially with Nick; that would hurt him more. Kevin and AJ were at the table conversing and it looked like AJ was agreeing with whatever Kevin was saying.
"It’s certainly worth a try,” he said. “Ella’s a smart woman.”
“You’re certainly right about that.”
“What’s worth a try?” Howie asked.
“We’re going to start fighting,” Kevin said. “Fighting against the hate and prejudice. We cross all kinds of barriers with our music; age, race, religion, and we reach millions. We can write songs that will show the world that we’re fighting against the prejudice. We are who we are and no one can change that.”
Howie looked at him in surprise. “Ella’s had a big influence on you, hasn’t she?”
Kevin just smiled.
“Well, you’re right,” Howie agreed. “It’s worth a try. Where’s Nicky?”
Kevin nodded toward the bedrooms. “In bed. He finally went to sleep three hours ago. He stayed up all night drawing. I went to check on him and he was just starting to fall asleep.”
“Did you see what he drew?”
Kevin shook his head. “No, the sketchbook was closed. He needs a new one, he only has a few more pages left.”
“I can get him one when I head out today,” AJ offered. “I need a walk anyway.”
Kevin nodded in acceptance and AJ went to check what kind of sketchbook Nick was using. He came back a few moments later.
"He woke up a little as I was looking for the sketchbook, and then went right back to sleep,” AJ explained. “He wants oil paints and canvases now. Hey, do we have anything on the schedule for today?”
“There’s a press conference in the next town, but I can handle that,” Kevin said.
“I can go with you,” Howie offered.
“All right then.”
“Kev, let me have one of those fortune cookies,” AJ requested.
Kevin tossed him a cookie and he tore the package open and broke the cookie, pulling out the paper. He raised an eyebrow at what he read.
“What’s it say?” Kevin asked.
“The afternoon knows what the morning never expected,” AJ read.
Howie kept silent, but he was pretty sure he knew what it meant.
Howie knew something. AJ was certain of that as he walked into the art store two hours later to look for Nick’s oil paints and canvases, but he didn’t let it bother him. Howie would talk when he was ready. He found several canvases of various sizes that he thought would do, and searched for the oil paints. He glanced down the aisle and saw some sketchbooks for colored pencils and thought that Nick might want to try that as well. Grabbing a good sized sketchbook and a large container of colored pencils, AJ had what he wanted and amazingly made it out of the store without getting mobbed, or even noticed. Glancing around, he saw a few people that looked similar to him with their all-over-the-place tattoos and wild hairdos and piercings. AJ guessed they probably thought that he was just another one of those weirdoes that came around from time to time.
Let them think that, he thought as he stepped out of the store and headed back to the hotel. He started worrying about Nick again as he felt the weight of the items in the bag that he had purchased. Was Brian ever going to come back? He had to come back. Nick needed him desperately.
AJ hadn’t been paying attention and bumped into someone as they stepped out from a store.
"Oh, excuse me!” AJ apologized, then got a good look at the person he had bumped. Blue eyes stared back at him, a smile on the man’s face. A.J’s eyes bugged out.
"Brian!” he cried, enveloping his friend in a hug. He stepped back and got a good look at his friend. There was something different about him, but AJ couldn’t place it.
“It’s so good to see you,” he continued. “We’ve really needed you here. Come on, Nick will be glad to see you.”
A.J grabbed Brian’s wrist and began pulling him down the street toward the hotel. Brian laughed and followed him, having been unable to get a single word in. After about a block, Brian had to pull his wrist from A.J’s grip.
"AJ, for goodness’ sake, can you slow down?” He laughed. “I can tell you’ve got a lot of questions. Don’t you want them answered?”
AJ stopped and turned around. “Yeah, I guess I do. Are you okay?”
Brian smiled. “I’m just fine, Alex. I needed to get away and try to make peace with myself. There was a lot I had to work out.”
“Did you get it all worked out?” AJ inquired.
“Most of it, yes,” Brian replied. “I’m all right, now. You don’t need to worry.”
AJ smiled with relief. “So, where did you go, B?” he asked. “How come you’re so calm now? What happened to make you decide to come back?”
“Things just happened that way, Aje. I was watching you guys and I realized I needed to come back, so here I am. How’s Ro? Is she still here?”
AJ was surprised at such an evasive answer, but he replied, “She’s out of town for the day. She’ll be back either later tonight or early tomorrow morning.”
“Okay,” Brian murmured quietly, and AJ caught the flash of loneliness in his eyes before it was quickly hidden.
“Well, let’s go then,” AJ suggested. “Kevin and Howie are at a press conference, but they’ll be back soon.”
AJ glanced at him in confusion, and the blond tapped his head. Telepathy. AJ nodded and headed down to the hotel with Brian right beside him.
They entered their suite quietly and AJ explained. “Nick’s asleep. He stayed up most of the night drawing and finally went to sleep around seven. He wanted some oil paints and canvases, but I also got him some colored pencils and a pad. I figured he might want to try those at some point.”
Brian held out his hand. “Let me take them to him.”
The bag in his grip, Brian opened the door quietly and saw Nick sleeping on his side, pillows behind his back to support him while he slept. Ever so gently, he lowered onto the bed beside his best friend. He brushed a stray lock of hair out of Nick’s face as he watched him sleep. He’d lost weight, and his face was paler than usual, having always been a bit on the pale side. Dark circles were under his eyes, indicating that he hadn’t slept much at all in the past two weeks. A pang of guilt stung Brian in the chest as he realized that it was mostly his fault that Nick was hurting. There were surely other reasons, but he was positive that he was the main one.
Nick started to roll onto his back, but was stopped by the pillows. His eyes fluttered open as he reached behind his back to remove the pillows, and paused as he saw what he thought was a dream. Brian was sitting on his bed watching him.
“You’re not dreaming, Frack,” Brian said. “I’ve come back. I’m sorry I hurt you.”
"Brian.” Tears were in his eyes as he reached up for his best friend. Brian carefully wrapped his hands around Nick’s back and lifted him, pulling him into a hug. Nick winced slightly and Brian repositioned them so the younger boy could be more comfortable. Nick’s grip was tight as they held each other, and Brian could feel the moistness on his shoulders from the other’s tears. He started rubbing his young friend’s back in comfort.
“It’s all right, Nick,” he soothed. “I’m back. I’m back to stay, I promise.”
Nick sniffled. “You won’t leave again?”
“No. I’m not leaving you and the others again. Granted, where I was staying was peaceful, but I’m needed here more.”
“Where were you?”
Brian thought about his answer. “I found some unusual friends that let me stay with them. They showed me the wisdom of facing my pain and the reality of what I am.”
“And what are you?”
Brian smiled. “I may be a mutant and an experiment, but I’m also a Backstreet Boy. I’ve got a job to do."
Nick grinned. “B-Rok’s back."
“And I’m here to stay.”
“Food!” AJ shouted as he entered the room with two pizza boxes in his arms.
Brian and Nick cheered as AJ opened the boxes to reveal an extra cheese pizza and a pepperoni pizza.
“Bone, you’re a life saver,” Brian remarked.
"So are you,” AJ replied. “We are going to get this boy to eat.”
"Yeah, I hear you haven’t been eating, Nicky,” Brian said as he turned to his friend, now lying on his side once more.
Nick blushed as he took two slices of pizza. “The only thing I could concentrate on was my artwork,” he admitted. “I didn’t think about eating, sleeping barely occurred to me and the others had to force me to do that.”
Brian shook his head. “Aw, Nicky.”
“I know. This is the first good sleep I’ve had in days."
Half an hour later, the main suite door opened and the three friends could hear Kevin’s voice back in Nick’s bedroom.
“If that’s pizza I smell, there’d better be some left!”
“We’re in Nick’s room!” AJ called.
The door opened and Howie and Kevin entered. Seeing Nick awake, Howie gently sat beside him, being careful not to move him in any way that might cause the younger boy pain.
“How are you doing, Nick?” he inquired.
"Better,” Nick admitted as he handed a piece of pepperoni pizza to Howie and Kevin. Kevin didn’t take his piece as he saw the other pizza.
“Extra cheese?” Kevin wondered. “Brian’s the only one that likes—“
He stopped and looked up as he heard the bathroom door in Nick’s room open and couldn’t stop the gasp of surprise that escaped his lips. Brian stood with his hand still on the doorknob, staring back at him. Without even realizing his feet were moving, Kevin crossed the distance between he and his cousin. Brian hadn’t moved at all from his spot at the door. Kevin’s hands went to the younger man’s face, almost unwilling to believe he was really standing there unless he had physical contact. That mere touch brought tears to Brian’s eyes, and he leaned into Kevin as he was given a bear hug.
The sun was already in the sky when Ororo entered the hotel, back from her trip and desperately wanting food and rest. She retrieved her key from the young woman at the desk and headed toward the elevator. Once the doors closed behind her, the woman at the desk picked up the phone and dialed a number.
“She’s returned,” the young woman said. “She’s on her way up to her room now.”
“Thank you very much.”
AJ looked over at Brian after he hung up. “That was the front desk. Ro’s back and on her way to her room.”
Brian smiled. “Great. I want to surprise her with breakfast.”
“That ain’t all she’s gonna be surprised about.”
“Duh, Aje. That’s the point.”
“At least I’m not blond.”
“Blond’s a state of mind, not a hair color,” Brian pointed out as he picked up the phone to dial room service.
“If it’s a state of mind, has Kevin ever had any blond moments?”
“That’s for me to know and you to find out.”
AJ laughed as Brian placed the order for breakfast.
“Bri, if you’re going to surprise her with breakfast, you might at least want to look decent,” Kevin remarked, entering the room. “You haven’t shaved in two weeks.”
“Aw, darn. I was wanting to keep it!” Brian complained.
“Go shave,” Kevin ordered.
“Bang, you’re dead.”
“If I’m dead, how am I supposed to surprise Ro with breakfast?”
The other boys laughed as Brian entered the bathroom to shave. They heard the spray of the shaving cream as Brian began to whistle.
“What’s that?” Kevin asked, as the tune seemed familiar but he couldn’t place it just yet. “Is it one of our songs?”
Brian didn’t answer; he just kept whistling. Suddenly Nick spit his juice back into his cup, realizing what the song was and laughed.
“What?” Kevin demanded.
“Brian, you are so bad!” Nick laughed as he clutched his aching sides.
“Yeah, I know, I know,” they heard Brian reply. It sounded like he was near, but they hadn’t even seen him leave the bathroom.
Suddenly Kevin cried out in surprise as a glass of ice cold water was dumped over him. Nick’s face was red; he could barely breathe from laughing so hard. AJ and Howie were leaning on each other to hold themselves up as they laughed. Kevin spluttered for a few seconds as he looked around, trying to figure out how that had happened. They could hear someone snickering quietly, and immediately knew who the culprit was even though they couldn’t see him. A knock on the door let them know room service had arrived, but before anyone could move, Brian suddenly appeared in front of the door. Kevin waited until Brian had brought the food back into the room before he spoke.
"You.” He shook his head. “I should have known.”
Brian just smirked as he arranged the eggs, bacon, and sausage and fruit salad on plates and bowls and put them on a tray.
“What were you whistling anyway?” Kevin asked. “I couldn’t figure it out and Nick seemed to be the only one to get it.”
Brian’s smirk grew to a grin as he glanced at Nick. Nick just chuckled. Brian finally looked at Kevin and made a face as though he just realized that Kevin’s shirt was wet.
“Kevin, you’re all wet,” he pointed out. “You’d better change into something clean.”
He picked up the tray and headed for the door, beginning to sing the tune he had been whistling in the bathroom.
“God must have spent a little more time on you."
The door opened and closed again before anyone could react other than bend over laughing at the look on Kevin’s face.
“I can’t believe he’d sing anything belonging to N*SYNC. Let alone that song.”
As Brian approached the suite that Ororo had all to herself, he reached out with his mind and found her in her bathroom showering. He broke away, then telekinetically unlocked and opened the door and stepped inside. He smiled as he saw that the kitchen was right across from her room, so once she stepped outside, she would see him. He set the tray on the table and sat down to wait.
Ororo stepped out of the shower and grabbed a towel to dry off, feeling refreshed but hungry. Slipping on her robe once she got in her room, she decided to call for room service. Sliding her feet into her slippers, she opened the bedroom door to head for the kitchen to make the call. She froze in the middle of the hall as she saw a sight in the kitchen that made her heart speed up. Brian was sitting at the kitchen table with a tray of food, waiting for her.
He stood, giving her the smile she’d been missing so much. In an instant, she was in his arms, sharing a passionate kiss of welcome and joy. Finally, she stepped back and gazed up at him, saying the words she’d been dying to say for two weeks.
“I love you so much.”
Brian’s smile could have lit up the city it was so bright. He took Ororo’s hands in his and kissed them.
“Spoken word can’t express how much I love you, Ro,” he said. “And I’m never leaving you again. I’m back to stay.”
“Okay,” Kevin said as he searched frantically for his jacket. “Now, Ella said she’d be here at eight, unless she gets off early… usually she’s on the slightly late side, so probably-“
“Kev,” Howie said smoothly, “just go. The flower shop the next street over closes soon, and if you want to get her a bouquet, you need to stop talking and hit the sidewalk.”
“Yeah, Train, we can handle it if she shows up early,” AJ said as he rolled his eyes. “Relax, go find something nice, and come on back. It’s not rocket science.”
Kevin put on his leather jacket and checked his keycard and wallet. “Okay, I won’t be too long… and guys?”
Four heads turned his way.
“Yah?” AJ asked, raising an eyebrow at Kevin’s pleading tone.
“Um, don’t scare her off or anything. I mean…”
“Go,” Howie laughed, shoving the oldest towards the door. “You don’t want to miss your own date!”
With a sheepish grin, Kevin exited the suite. Not ten seconds passed before the room erupted into laughter.
“Oh, man, that boy’s got it bad!” AJ said, shaking his head.
“I dunno why he’s so nervous all the time,” Nick said, a sparkle in his blue eyes. “I mean, she’s nice, she likes him, he likes her… and they’ve gone out on, like, a dozen dates!”
“Not quite a dozen,” Howie corrected with a grin. “But it is funny to see him so flustered.”
Brian shook his head, slowly. “It’s funny, but…I don’t know. I suppose I should be glad he’s taken an interest in someone. I know the thing with Kristin was really hard on him.”
“You’ll like El,” Howie said to him. “I think she’s good for him. What are you worrying about?”
“I just don’t want to see him get hurt, especially so soon after the breakup,” Brian said seriously. “You know Kev, he puts his whole heart into things, and when they fail, it’s devastating to him.”
“Ella would never hurt him,” Howie said firmly. “Matter of fact, if there’s anyone I know that can help Kev over this particular time, it’s her.”
Brian scowled, then crossed his arms. “Well, he’s on the rebound,” he said. “And from what you said earlier, she’s kind of a flirt.”
Howie shook his head. “It’s not that way at all. Sure, El’s a flirt, but… I don’t know how to explain it. She makes people feel good, and flirting with guys is a part of that. Heck, she calls everyone ‘hon’, and does whatever it takes to bring up smiles on her customer’s faces.”
“She even got me to try some soup that first day we went there,” Nick said, defending the waitress. “Which was kind of a miracle in itself."
“We’re here in this city on a temporary basis, guys,” Brian pointed out. “We’re going to leave, eventually, and that’ll be the end of their relationship. It’ll only amount to a short affair. How is that going to affect him?”
“You don’t know what will happen,” Howie argued. “And so what if it isn’t permanent? Kevin is happy now; he’s moving forward and making plans for himself and the group. If you had seen him right after that call from Kris… you’d be singing a different tune, Bri.”
Brian shrugged. “Well, I’m going to reserve judgement until I meet her. I can’t promise anything beyond that.”
AJ spoke up. “That’s all anyone can expect, B-Rok. But I have to agree with Howie, I think this is just what Kev needs. I’m all for it."
The discussion was dropped as the four tidied up the main room, not wanting Ella to see how ‘casual’ they kept things most times. When the suite’s phone rang, Nick picked it up. A short conversation later and he put the receiver back down, turning to his brothers.
“That was the front desk,” he said. “Ella’s here, waiting in the lobby.”
“I’ll go get her,” Brian said suddenly.
Howie raised his eyebrows. “She doesn’t know you, Brian. Let me go down and-“
“I want to meet her, alone,” Brian said flatly.
“How come?” Nick said cautiously.
“Because I can get a better reading on her when there’s no interference,” he answered honestly. “Or did you forget I’m an empath?”
Nick solemnly shook his head. “I could never forget that,” he whispered.
“But Brian, Ella’s-“
"Never mind, Aje,” Howie interrupted before AJ could finish. “Go ahead, Brian. Meet her and escort her up here. We’ll be waiting.”
“Right,” came the blonde’s answer. He left the suite a moment later.
“Howie, why didn’t you tell Brian she’s an empath too?” AJ asked with a frown.
"She's a what?” Nick asked. “You mean she’s like Brian?”
Howie looked at the youngest. “She’s a mutant, yes. But she’s not like Brian… no one is like him. Ella is a pretty strong empath; she picks up everyone’s emotions very easily.”
“Like… like what’s worrying you, what’s making you so down,” Nick said, more to himself than anyone else. He looked up at his brothers. “Is that why she knows how to make you feel good again? Because she… understands?”
“Yeah,” Howie said. “That’s what happens.” He sighed. “She’s got some telepathic abilities, but really she’s not that powerful. She’s nowhere near the level that Brian is.”
Nick scowled. “How come you guys know that?”
Howie answered. “Well, I dated her sister… that stuff runs in the family, but El’s the strongest of the bunch. So of course I knew. Once we met her, it kinda came up one night when AJ and I were talking… that was pretty soon after Brian had left. But I never mentioned it to you because… I don’t know, you were kinda focused on other things then, and I guess it didn’t seem important.”
Nick gave a soft sigh. “Yeah, I guess I was kinda out of it,” he admitted. Then, another thought hit. “Does Kevin know?"
“El let him know that first time we ate at the café,” Howie said. “I think that his openness to that little bit of news really started things going between them.” He blinked and glanced at his hands. “Not everyone reacts positively to the news you’re a mutant, even if you have very small abilities.”
A silence followed his words; all three of them had witnessed that particular prejudice.
“How come Brian seemed so… against her?” Nick asked after a bit.
“You heard him,” AJ said. “He’s worried about Kevin being hurt again, that’s all. If anyone can keep an open mind, it’s Brian.”
Brian stepped off the elevator and scanned the lobby; it didn’t take much to spot the woman his cousin had seemed so taken with. He paused a moment to observe her. She was tall, perhaps 5’10”, with a trim figure and delicate features. Her hair… a rich red… was pulled in a simple ponytail held in place with a decorative silver barrette, and she was dressed simply in a dark emerald silk dress. He heard her laugh as she chatted with the desk clerk; it seemed genuine, full of honest humor. She leaned over and touched the young man on the arm, then said something Brian couldn’t hear. The clerk smiled broadly, chuckled, and made some kind of reply. Obviously the man was enjoying her company, but Brian knew appearances could be deceiving. A pretty package didn’t guarantee anything.
He walked over to the desk, trying to tune into the woman there. With a purposeful mental touch, he reached out carefully…
His step faltered when he felt awareness coming from her… awareness, and an instant block against his probing. She’d turned away from the clerk with a puzzled expression on her face, her focus on other levels.
Who? came the gentle question as her eyes searched the lobby.
Brian blinked, then put forth a stronger probe. Ella? he sent, shocked that she seemed aware of his scan.
Her blue eyes widened as she locked gazes with him. Brian?
You’re a telepath? he asked, surprised.
I’m an empath, she corrected. I don’t have much range as a telepath. I didn’t know…
Neither did I, he said, his thoughts colored with irritation. They didn’t say anything to me about it.
They told me you were a mutant, she answered, but nothing about what your abilities are.
Brian forced his feet forward; he didn’t want to draw attention from the few people occupying the lobby. Can we sit for a minute?
Sure, she said, stepping away from the desk and walking over like she was meeting an old acquaintance.
They sat on a small loveseat in the lounge section, far away from prying eyes and ears.
“Kevin had an errand to run,” Brian said, speaking out loud.
“I’m a bit early,” she explained. “The new waitress at the café needed some overtime, so I was able to cut out an hour sooner than usual.”
“I wanted to meet you one-on-one,” he confessed. “Without interference.”
She regarded him, then nodded as a slight smile crept on her face. “Checking me out, huh?”
He blushed a bit. “Something like that.”
“I could feel you trying to scan me,” she said. “You’re very subtle, very powerful.”
“You have some of the strongest shields I’ve ever encountered,” he said. “I was kinda surprised.”
She fidgeted in her seat. “Comes with the territory, you know? Being empathic teaches you to be careful.”
"Don’t I know it,” he said, frowning at old memories. “I don’t mean to invade your privacy, I just wanted… well…"
“To protect Kevin,” she finished for him. “I understand that. It’s good to know he has someone that loves him that much,” she said with a soft smile. “Do you still want to?”
“Still want to…”
“Scan me?” She swallowed, then glanced around for a second. “I... I trust you. Kevin’s told me so much about you, about all of you, that I feel I can trust you.” She looked at him with expectation.
He was surprised at that; for an empath to willingly leave themselves open to a direct probe, it took a lot of courage. In that instant, all his misgivings about Ella eased.
“That’s a pretty big offer,” he said.
“A sincere one,” she said.
“Okay,” he replied after a moment. He reached out and took her hand; physical contact wasn’t always necessary, but it did make the impressions stronger. At first he was met with a solid wall, but when he felt her other hand on top of his own, the wall vanished.
Ten seconds told him more about her than ten months worth of words ever would. He saw her true spirit… the unique mix of honesty, caring, compassion, humor, understanding, love and doubt and fear and joy that was Ella. He saw, in those few seconds, how much she truly cared not only for Kevin, but for all his brothers as well. Not wanting… or needing… to search deeper, he withdrew his mental touch and sat back with a smile.
“I’m sorry I doubted you,” he said, relieved that he found no trace of deception or manipulation in her mind.
“Caution is important,” she said, forgiving him. “Kevin doesn’t need to be hurt any more.”
He took her hand in his own. “Thanks for being there for him,” he said. “Especially when I wasn’t.”
“You’re here now,” she said. “That’s what counts. Kevin tells me that Nick has come along really well since you returned.”
“Yeah,” Brian said, ducking his head. “I’m glad he’s so quick to forgive.”
“He loves you,” Ella said simply. “You five have a very special bond, something that little can truly touch. I’m so happy that you’re back together now.”
“We’ve been working on some new songs,” he said, relaxing. “Some really good stuff, lots of potential.”
“You have an important message to get out,” she said, giving him a true smile. “I do know that Kevin is pretty excited about it. We went out to breakfast the other day and it’s all he talked about.”
Brian rolled his eyes and grinned. “Sometimes he’s got a one-track mind. And once he focuses on something, nothing can sway him from it. We call him Train because nothing stops him once he gets going.”
She giggled. “Oh? Well, now, that’s some useful information to have,” she said. “He just keeps going, huh?” The look on her face was unmistakable, and Brian’s eyebrows arched high.
“Ella!” he said, picking up on her mischievous thoughts.
She shrugged, unrepentant. “What can I say, you have a very sexy cousin!”
"I’ll take your word for it,” he said, shaking his head. “Hey, why don’t we go upstairs, I’m sure the other guys want to see you before Kevin sweeps you away.”
“Okay,” she said, accepting his hand as he helped her up. “Then he can surprise me with flowers when he comes in.”
Brian laughed. “How did you know about the flowers?”
“Oh,” she said as they moved towards the elevator. “I have my ways. It didn’t hurt that I saw him from across the street, heading towards Millie’s Floral like his pants were on fire.”
He gave her a grin. “I think we’re going to get along just fine, Ella.”
She nodded and smiled back. “Yes, we are.”
By the time Brian and Ella stepped off the elevator and headed for the Boys’ suite, they were laughing and talking like old friends. Just as they reached the door, Brian paused and pulled out his cell phone.
“Who are you calling?” Ella inquired.
Brian smirked. “You’ll see.”
After two rings, the person answered. “Hello?”
“AJ, put the silly string away,” Brian requested.
AJ squawked, “How on earth did you…”
Brian laughed. “AJ you know perfectly well how I knew you had silly string and were waiting for us to enter so you could spray Ella.”
Ella giggled at Brian’s accuracy. She had sensed some mischief coming from the suite, but she hadn’t been able to figure out what it was. Brian had done that with a simple phone call. Finally, it was safe to enter the suite. Nick wheeled up and Ella bent down for a hug in greeting.
“Hi, hon. You look like you’re doing much better.”
“I am, now that Brian’s back,” Nick replied.
Ella turned back to Brian and gave him a look as if to say “See? What’d I say about that special bond?”
Brian rolled his eyes and looked back at the door. “Kev’s coming,” he announced.
Ella smiled and headed into the living room. She chuckled as she looked around. Why do I get the feeling that this isn’t your normal “casual” Brian?
Brian laughed. You know us well, Ella. He turned around and telekinetically opened the main suite door just as Kevin reached it. With barely noticeable hesitation, Kevin stepped inside.
“She here?” Kevin asked.
Brian nodded. “She’s in the living room.”
Kevin hurried into the living room. “Ella!” he cried in delight.
Ella threw her arms around him as their lips met in a kiss that slowly intensified in passion.
“Get a room you guys!” Brian laughed.
Ella broke away and smirked at him. Like you and Ro don’t yearn for something more?
Brian blushed six shades of red and looked away. I plan on waiting for marriage. The others laughed.
“What did you say to him, Ella?” AJ inquired. “Nothing makes him go that red."
Ella giggled, but didn’t answer.
“Well, we’d better get going,” Kevin announced as he gave the bouquet to Ella and led her to the door.
Brian and Howie sat together on the couch, speaking in hushed voices over some things written in Howie's notebook.
“This is amazing stuff, D,” Brian supplied. “You could combine those two verses and you’d have half of a song already.”
“You think they work together?” Howie remarked as he rewrote the two different verses onto another page.
“Sure,” Brian replied. “They’d make a great ballad-type song or an upbeat one. It all depends on how you felt while you were writing.”
Howie sat back and thought back to when he had written the verses. It had been a night when he’d felt extremely troubled and helpless and couldn’t sleep a wink. He’d picked up his notebook and wrote the first words that came into his head.
“They made me feel peaceful,” he observed as he shared the memory with Brian.
Brian observed the memory and nodded in agreement. “Sounds like we’ve got another ballad.”
“And how many of those have we written in the past month?” Howie inquired.
“A lot,” Brian replied. “We need some more up-tempo stuff, or we’ll be sitting in the stools for the entire concert.”
“What, you don’t want to do that?” Howie joked.
“I’d rather fly around as a hawk for the entire time.”
Howie chuckled. He’d seen Brian’s transformation to a hawk several times in the past month after they had left Pocatello whenever he needed to get out and there was no way to get out because of the fans. He’d just change into a hawk and one of the boys would open the window and he’d fly out and wait for the others.
“What about these?” Brian suggested, pointing to some more phrases on a different page.
Howie studied them and nodded. “Those could do for a more upbeat song.”
“Boy, imagine what Fatima could come up with for this one,” Brian chuckled.
“How’s it going in here?” Kevin asked as he entered the room, a small stack of papers in his hand.
“We’ve come up with more ballads than anything else,” Brian explained. “But it’s all going good. How about you, Kev? You look like you’ve been working hard."
“Well, I’ve tried,” Kevin admitted as he handed the papers to Brian. “I’m not sure I’m too pleased with some of them, though.”
Brian’s eyes scanned the first page of lyrics and his eyes went wide in wonder.
“How long have you been working on this one, Kev?” he asked as Howie leaned over to read.
Kevin looked at the floor. “Since the first time you left.”
Brian looked up at him, and Kevin met his gaze. After a moment, Brian smiled, and Kevin returned it.
“It looks great, Kev. I can’t wait to hear how it should sound.”
“Me, too,” Howie added. “Let’s get started.”
Kevin nodded. “AJ and Nick are right behind me.”
Nick rolled in after Kevin, his sketchbook open in his lap. Brian noticed and asked about it.
“What were you doing, Nick?"
Nick looked down at the sketchbook nervously. “Just sketching some background ideas for a video.”
Brian smiled. “That sounds great! Can you show us?”
Nick bit his lip. “Um… maybe later.”
“Oh. All right. What do you say we start working on some melodies?”
The other boys agreed, and Kevin sat down at the black baby grand piano by the couch. Kevin began to play, and for the next hour, the boys worked out different melodies and harmonies. At last, they created songs that were to their satisfaction. Kevin flexed his fingers, stood up from the piano and stretched. He glanced at his watch and did some quick calculations in his head.
“I’m going to go call Ella,” he announced, heading to his bedroom for privacy.
Just as his door closed, Ro came out of her room, her white robe covering a red cotton nightgown. She sat down in front of Brian so she could lean against his chest and rest her head on his shoulder. Brian wrapped his arms around her and kissed her on the cheek.
“I thought you were coming to bed a long time ago,” Ro remarked.
“We got caught up in writing our songs,” Brian replied.
"I could hear you,” Ororo noted. “It all sounded beautiful."
“And it’ll sound even better when we record it and sing it for our fans.”
Soon, Brian and Ororo bid goodnight and headed for Ro's bedroom. Brian gave Ro a kiss as he removed her bedrobe. They lay down together on the bed, wrapped in one another’s arms.
“How are things back at HQ?” Brian inquired.
“They’re going well. Charles says to give you his best. Wolverine, Gambit and Jubilee all said to say ‘hello.’ I think Jubilee is sweet on you.”
“I thought it was Logan she was after,” Brian noted. “Besides, I’ve got you.”
Ro smiled, certain that the love that she saw in Brian’s eyes was reflected in her own. She relaxed into him, breathing in his scent. She felt his breath in her ear.
“I love you, Ro,” he murmured.
Ororo smiled. “Sing for me.”
Brian held her close and began to sing.
I hope the man upstairs
isn’t mad at me
Because I have one of his angels
And she’s here with me
When I see her precious smile
And she spread her wings
It takes me to a place where love
I’m not letting go
I don’t want to be alone
In this crazy world
How I love her so
And I’ll sacrifice it all to have her
In my life
I found my girl
I’ll tell the world
That heaven is missing an angel
My dreams came true
When I found you
Yes heaven is missing an angel
Not a day goes by
That I don’t thank God for you
He blessed me with my angel
Though I don’t deserve you
Until I found you girl
Lonely was my best friend
Now that you are in my life
I am stronger within
That last verse was true for Brian. Ever since he had met and fallen in love with Ororo, not a day had gone by when he’d kneel in prayer for thanks that she was with him and that they loved one another. He’d felt lonely and empty until he met her, but now he felt as though he could accomplish anything at all.
I can’t wait to kiss my angel
Late at night
And watch her go to sleep
Until I see her rise
I found my girl
I’ll tell the world
That heaven is missing an angel
My dreams came true
When I found you
Yes heaven is missing an angel
All that I do is for you
Me without you girl just won’t do
Your love’s all I want to know
Angel don’t you ever go
Life won’t be the same without you
As Brian sang, a small box floated out of his pocket so Ororo could see.
I found my girl
I’ll tell the world
That heaven is missing an angel
My dreams came true
When I found you
Yes heaven is missing an angel
Ororo saw the box and gasped quietly, catching it as it came to her. Brian put a hand over hers and looked into her eyes.
“Ro,” he said, “I love you with my entire being. And it would make my world if you would spend the rest of forever with me. Will you marry me?"
After a few moments, Ro replied, “I think you know my answer, Brian. Of course I will.”
Brian’s smile could have lit up the room as he removed the ring from the box and placed it on Ro’s finger, leaning down for a kiss. He sighed happily when they parted.
"Good night, love," he said as he rose. He needed to head back to his room, since not only was it best to wait until marriage, but the temptation to go further would be too strong. He blew a kiss, then left.
*Heaven Is Missing an Angel by 98°
Brian had to bite his tongue to keep from shouting aloud with joy to the whole world that he was the happiest man alive. Instead, he settled for singing in front of the bathroom mirror.
If I had castles built on high
I’d find a million ways
To write your name
Against the sky
Just to let you know,
You’ve caught my eye
And if I had more than
Wealth could buy
I’d sell it all and start again
For just a chance with you
Girl, I’d give my all to win your love
He heard the door open and feminine arms wrap around his waist.
“Good morning, Ro.”
“Good morning, love,” she purred. “Did you sleep well?”
Brian turned around and smiled at her. “After last night? When I woke up this morning, I had to pinch myself to make sure everything wasn’t some wonderful dream.”
Ororo smiled back. “It’s too good to be a dream, Brian. This is real.”
“Gosh I hope so. Now we just have to tell the others about our engagement and how disgustingly happy we are.”
Ro entered the kitchen ten minutes later, wrapped in a bathrobe, some of her wet hair dangling in front of her face. Brian got coffee from the machine for the two of them as she sat at the table. Kevin entered the kitchen soon after.
“Morning, Kev,” Brian greeted. “How’s Ella?”
Kevin smiled brightly. “She’s doing great.” He grabbed a cup of coffee for himself and sat down next to them. “Your parents called last night.”
Brian looked up with a start. “They did? I didn’t even hear the phone ring.”
“Well… they called my cell phone. Aunt Jackie was afraid of what might have happened if she called you.”
Brian stared into his cup. “What did they want?”
“They wanted to come up and see you… us,” he corrected, but Brian knew what he meant. He sighed and took Ro’s hand in his.
“At least be polite to them, Brian,” Kevin pleaded. “Acknowledge them when they come.”
Brian looked up at him. “You told them they could come?”
Kevin nodded. “Even if you don’t, I want to see them.”
There was an awkward silence that Ro hoped to break by lifting her cup, hoping to catch Kevin’s eye so he could see her ring. It worked and Kevin spotted the ring.
“Bri, you proposed? Congratulations!”
Brian smiled and looked over at his fiancée. “Last night. I feel like the luckiest man alive.”
“Which one?” Brian inquired.
Kevin looked up; Brian was looking at Ororo. He smiled. “Both of them.”
Brian gave Ro’s hand a squeeze, and then turned to Kevin. “What time are they coming?”
“Sometime before our concert tonight,” Kevin replied. “That’s all they said.”
Brian nodded. He thought he still loved them, but there was still so much pain over the fact that they had lied to him and kept his true creation a secret.
He sighed and stood. “I’m going to get dressed and go fly around for a while. I’ll meet you guys at the arena.” Brian bent down for a quick kiss from Ororo, and then headed to his room to dress.
“All right, guys! Break time!”
Brian leaped off the stage with relief at Fatima’s announcement. He needed to use the bathroom and could sense AJ following him.
“You doing all right, Brian?” AJ asked as he finished his own business.
“Well, if you count nervous jitters for what the next concert will bring from our fans as being all right, then I’m just peachy."
AJ chuckled and put a hand on his shoulder. “Everything’s going to be all right, B. Don’t worry about it.”
Brian smiled. “That’s not the only thing on my mind, though.”
“I know. Kevin told me that you proposed to Ororo. Congratulations buddy.”
Brian’s smile grew. “Thanks bud. Although, it makes me wonder when Kev is going to propose to Ella.”
AJ chuckled. “I know. Have you seen how he looks at the mere mention of her name?”
Brian laughed as he washed his hands. “I’ve seen it. You should have seen him this morning. I asked him how Ella was doing, since he called her last night, and he got this big dopey grin on his face and said ‘She’s great.’ Like I couldn’t tell that in the ten seconds she let me scan her?”
AJ shook his head as they headed back to the hallway. “He is one love-sick sop, eh Brian? Brian?”
Brian had stopped in the middle of the hall, looking in shock at the two people coming toward him. AJ followed his gaze and saw Jackie and Harold Littrell. They paused a few feet away. Uncertain of what they should do, all four of them just stood staring at the others in an awkward silence. Brian crossed his arms; he didn’t want physical contact from either of them until they could talk in private and so he could possibly understand why his true nature had been kept a secret.
“Brian?” Jackie’s call to her youngest son was tentative and slightly fearful.
"I... didn't expect to see you here," Brian said by way of reply.
"Look, son..." Harold began, but Brian cut him off.
"I don't want to talk here," he said flatly. "We should go somewhere private."
"Yes," Jackie said in a sad voice, "we have a lot of talking to do."
“I hope some of it involves the truth.”
Jackie winced at that, as did her husband.
"Fine," Brian said. "Let's go back to the hotel and lay it all out on the table once and for all."
"Okay, let's head back to the others,” AJ stepped in. “I'm sure they're probably wondering where we are."
Brian glanced at AJ. “Yeah, we should.”
Together, they headed down the hall back to the stage. As they arrived, Kevin spotted Brian and AJ and was about to tell them off for taking so long when he saw Brian’s parents right behind them. Glancing at his watch, he told the others it was time to pack up and head to the hotel.
The boys headed out to their van and the Littrells hailed a cab. Although he was still hurt, Brian stood outside the van until the cab pulled up, then he hopped inside and pulled the door shut. During the drive back to the hotel, Kevin tried to put on some music, but it was falling on deaf ears; even he wasn’t listening to it. He glanced in the rearview mirror at his cousin staring out the side window, not seeing anything.
Brian slowly moved his gaze from the window to the mirror.
“Is everything okay?"
“We’re going to talk once we get back to the hotel,” Brian replied after a moment’s pause. “I should hope I’ll get some truth during this discussion.”
“So… we shouldn’t bother you until it’s time to leave for the concert?”
Brian nodded. “Or until I come up of my own accord.”
Even though they departed at the same time, the Boys reached the hotel first. Brian left a message with the front desk to let him know when the Littrells arrived and what room they were staying in.
Brian stepped out of the elevator onto the second floor of the hotel. They were staying in room 235, the last door at the end of the hallway. He headed down toward their door, a myriad of conflicting feelings battling inside him. Finally, after years of lies, he would get the truth. Looking up, he realized that his feet had brought him to the room quicker than he’d wanted. Taking a deep breath, he knocked on the door. Jackie opened the door, and Brian tried to offer a small smile as he stepped inside. Jackie led him to the living room where Harold was already seated on the couch. He stood as Brian and Jackie entered, and then motioned for Brian to sit in a chair across from the couch. Jackie tried to offer drinks, but nobody wanted one and she sat next to her husband. Harold rubbed his hands together nervously.
“Son… Brian…” Harold began, “all right, you already know that I was on the team that created you and the others.”
“The others that didn’t survive,” Brian corrected, crossing his arms.
“I was shocked to find out that they didn’t survive, but you did,” Harold admitted. “I knew instinctively that you’d feel alienated if you knew that you were the only one like you. That was part of the reason we didn’t tell you the truth, no matter how many occasions came up that we could have said something.”
Brian was startled at this confession. As he thought about it, he knew his dad was right. If he had known what he was early on, he would have felt separated from the other children.
“Did… did you try any others after the first were lost?”
Harold shook his head. “No. My colleagues and I felt we couldn’t take another failure and didn’t want to risk either the child or the carrying mother.”
Brian sat back in surprise. He hadn’t expected this. Heck, he didn’t know what to expect, but now that he’d heard… He was so lost in thought that it was surprising to hear his dad speak again.
“On our way here to the hotel, I got a call from one of my colleagues,” Harold said. “He wants to come up and pay a visit. He says he’s never met you and he’d like to.”
Curious, but afraid of the answer, Brian asked, “What’s his name?”
Harold swallowed hard, and Brian could feel his fear. “Dr. Remus Finnegan.”
Brian stiffened. “That man was a colleague of yours?”
Harold looked up at him in surprise. “You’ve heard of him?”
Brian nodded stiffly. “The head of genetic mutant experimentation. I learned that while I was with Professor Xavier.”
“I know.” Brian glanced at him. “He was an old friend well before he was interested in that. He’s already on his way here.”
"He’s got a room booked and everything, doesn’t he?”
Harold nodded. Brian grunted and looked away. After a minute or so of silence, Jackie spoke.
“Brian… you do understand? It was only in your best interests that we kept it from you.”
Brian nodded slowly. “I understand. But it still hurt.”
Jackie slid out of her seat and knelt in front of Brian. She reached up and embraced him tightly.
“I know it hurts, baby. But you listen. Although we deceived you, I want you to know that our love for you was always real. And it was always true. Never for one moment did we stop loving you.”
Brian tried to speak, but he couldn’t find his voice. Tears were in his eyes and he could feel the love and sincerity radiating from his mother as well as from his father.
“And no matter what, Brian,” Jackie continued as she pulled back and looked him straight into his eyes, “I will always love you. And I will always be there for you. So will your father. Just like when you were little.”
“Mom,” he whispered as he embraced her, the tears beginning to fall, “Oh, mom.”
The boys were back in Orlando for a while. They’d been in their studio for a while trying out different patterns for some songs that they had written. It had started to sink in that morning that they were really doing something to get the message across that they were against prejudice and hatred. Brian had been nervous, though, even though he tried to hide it. His dad had left earlier to pick up Dr. Finnegan and if they had enough time, they’d come to the studio.
“No, that’s not working. Brian, you take that verse.”
“Kev, I’ve got too many solos as it is. Give it to someone else. Let Howie try it.”
“I’m too high for it,” Howie protested.
“Kev, you try it,” AJ suggested.
Kevin rolled his eyes and picked up where they had left off. During the verse, Brian quietly joined him, creating a nice harmony between them. When it was over, Kevin nodded in acceptance. How Brian had known… He knows, Kevin reminded himself. He glanced over at Brian and smiled at him.
Brian smiled back. Yes, I knew. I could sense the idea. Suddenly Brian grimaced in pain and pressed his fingers at the side of his head.
Kevin’s eyes widened. “Are you all right?”
"I... I don’t know… It came as a surprise. I guess I’m okay now.”
“Are you sure?”
Brian nodded. “I’m fine now. It’s gone.”
“You’re certain?” Kevin pressed. “You don’t need a break?”
Kevin shook his head. “No, I think we all need a break. We’ve been working for several hours now and we need it.”
Finally, Brian relented. Just as the boys stepped out of the recording area of the studio, the door opened and Harold entered with an older gray-haired man. Brian didn’t need introductions to know that this man was Dr. Remus Finnegan, head of the genetic mutant experimentation.
“Brian, as I’m sure you’ve guessed, this is Dr. Remus Finnegan. Remus, this is my son, Brian, my nephew Kevin Richardson, and their friends Howie Dorough, A.J McLean, and Nick Carter.”
Remus smiled. “It’s good to meet all of you.” He looked at Brian and appeared to study him. “You’re Brian?”
“Yes,” Brian replied flatly. For some reason, he couldn’t sense this man.
“Your father has told me a lot about you.”
Brian glanced from Remus to his father and back again, but said nothing.
“Is the recording done, Brian?” Harold asked.
Brian looked back at his dad. “No, we’re just taking a break. We’ve been at it for a couple of hours now.”
Remus smiled. “Is that so? Would it be all right if I had a talk with you for a few minutes?”
Brian glanced back at the others and wasn’t surprised to receive no help from them. He turned back and reluctantly agreed.
A few minutes turned into half an hour as Remus asked all sorts of questions about how Brian discovered each of his powers and what he could do with them. He’d heard about the reaction of the fans and wanted to know if he and Kevin were all right. So Brian ended up talking about the incident at the art store and his having to leave, but he left out staying with the Enigma Diversity and becoming one of them.
“This session we’ve been doing has been dedicated to songs that we’ve written that will let the world know about our fight against hate and prejudice.”
“Something you have been experiencing lately.”
Brian nodded. “Yes.”
“How have you been able to handle that?"
“I’m needed here,” Brian replied.
“You’re needed here?” Remus repeated.
“Yes,” Brian replied, and left it at that.
After a few more minutes, Remus bid farewell and headed back to the hotel. Once the door was closed, Brian breathed a sigh of relief. Thank goodness that’s over.
He opened his eyes and looked over at his parents. “Mom? Dad?”
They looked up and Brian could sense their joy and hearing him call them mom and dad. He smiled at them.
"I'd like to sit and talk over dinner tonight, if that's okay," Brian said, glancing first at his mother, then Harold. "Kevin wants to catch up on family news, and I've... got some news for you as well."
“Oh? What do you want to tell us?” Jackie asked.
Brian grinned and shook his head. “You’ll have to wait for tonight.”
Brian looked over at his fiancée as she climbed out of the car after Kevin parked at the restaurant. She was staring nervously in one of the windows.
“Everything’s going to be okay, Ro.”
Ororo looked up at him and offered a weak smile. “I’m just nervous.”
Brian smiled. “I know. I can tell that in more than one way.”
Ororo blushed and rubbed her hands together. Brian stepped up to her and took her hands in his. He gave her a gentle kiss, and then leaned his forehead on hers.
“My parents will love you. Trust me. It’ll be okay.”
Ororo took a deep breath. “All right.”
Brian smiled and wrapped his arm around her waist. Kevin held the door open for them as they stepped inside the restaurant. After a quick look around, Brian spotted his parents and led Ororo over to them with Kevin right behind.
“Mom, Dad, I’ve got someone I want you to meet.”
Harold and Jackie looked up and smiled at Brian’s companion.
“Who’s your lady friend, Brian?” Harold asked as he stood to shake her hand.
"This is Ororo Munroe, dad. She’s a member of the X-Men and my fiancée.”
“Your fiancée!” Jackie repeated, a smile coming to her face as she stood to envelop Ororo in a hug.
Told you they’d love you, Brian comforted Ro as she sat down.
I know. I love you.
I love you, too.
All through dinner, the Littrells, Kevin and Ororo caught up on family news with the occasional childhood stories for Ororo about Brian and Kevin, several causing the cousins to blush in embarrassment as they were told.
As Kevin, Ororo, and Brian stepped onto the elevator back at the hotel Brian and Kevin entertained with a few other stories that Brian’s parents hadn’t known about. Ororo was having trouble holding herself up from laughing by the time they reached the Boys’ suite. Brian leaned in for a passionate kiss just before he reached for the doorknob.
Kevin averted his eyes when the couple kissed; his smile faded, just slightly, as he remembered what it had been like to be newly engaged. He was incredibly happy for his cousin… Brian deserved all the happiness in the world… but he felt a small twinge of pain when he thought of Kristin. He shook the memory away, and decided in that instant that he’d call Ella once he got to his room. He’d missed her terribly; she could always make him feel better about things. The idea of talking to her regenerated his smile and he looked up just as Brian opened the door.
His cousin courteously allowed Ro to enter first, and then followed. Kevin came through the doorway last and almost collided with Brian, who had come to a dead stop inside. The television was on, and AJ and Nick were staring at it while Howie was talking in hushed tones to someone on the phone nearby. The instant Kevin saw the expression on their faces, his stomach clenched. He wasn’t a mutant, but he could feel the tension in the room hit him like a solid wall. A quick glance at Brian’s paled face confirmed the mood of the others.
"What’s happening?” Brian choked out, his fist clenched.
“It’s on television,” AJ said, his voice low and raspy. Nick looked terrified; he was gripping the armrests of his wheelchair and never glanced away from what was on the screen.
“Where is that?” Brian interrupted, seeing what AJ and Nick were staring at so intensely. “That looks like-” That’s the street where our hotel was! … But what? …
Howie said something else to whomever he was talking to, then hung up. “Thank heaven you’re back,” he said, clearly rattled.
Kevin felt the blood drain from his face at Howie’s tone.
“There’s been some bad trouble,” he continued. “I just finished talking to Monica on the phone…”
“Monica?” Kevin asked, his throat suddenly dry.
“El’s sister.” He paused, trying to figure out what to say. “There’s been rioting. Two city blocks, they’ve had to call in extra police. Mutant haters,” he grated. “They had some kind of rally and it got out of hand.”
Kevin’s gaze swung to the television, panic seizing his chest. His emerald eyes widened in shock as the camera cut to a very familiar place.
“Oh, my gosh,” he breathed. “That’s…”
“That’s the diner,” Howie finished. “They set fire to it, which spread to half the block by now. They can’t seem to get it under control.”
Kevin felt his world shift, and then a strong arm grasped his own. He barely registered that Brian was supporting him; only one thought echoed in his mind.
Howie was suddenly on his other side. “Easy, Kev, El’s okay, considering. Monica called me just now; she knew we’d be worried."
“But what…” The words stopped in his throat as he stared in shock at the scene on the television. Storefronts shattered, cars on fire, people running around… it looked like a war zone.
“It is a war zone,” Brian said hollowly, picking up his cousin’s thoughts with ease. “This… this is a hundred times worse than anything we’ve seen lately.”
“I have to talk to her,” Kevin said, twisting out of Brian’s grip. “I need to call-“
“No,” Howie said, stopping him. “She’s… El’s in the hospital. Monica’s there, that’s where she called me. Ella’s got some burns on one of her hands, some bruises, and a few cuts from broken glass. She…” He paused, and then swallowed. “They set fire to the diner when there were people inside,” he said. “She got injured helping others escape. No one died,” he added quietly.
“This can’t be happening,” Kevin whispered.
Ororo placed a hand on Brian’s shoulder. “But it is,” she said, her voice a mix of anger and sadness. “The X-Men are constantly witness to such terrible events. So much hatred and pain.”
Brian clenched his jaw. “And Ella… she’s an empath,” he said tightly. “I know what it’s like, to feel all that hatred.” He shut his eyes for a second. “It’s so much worse than physical pain.”
“She was pretty shook up,” Howie said. “Monica said they gave her some sedatives, and that she’s sleeping now.”
“I need to go to her,” Kevin said, watching in horror as the newscast showed the shattered remains of the floral shop that he’d gotten Ella flowers from so many times.
“They’re not allowing anyone to come into that entire area,” Howie said. “Until they get the crowds under control, it’s been blocked.”
“I don’t care,” he began. “It’s not safe for her there…”
“Her whole family is at the hospital, and she’ll be safe for now,” Howie assured him. “She’s going to need you, Kev, but right now she’s got to rest. Here, I have Monica’s cell number; she figured you’d want to call her.”
With shaking hands, Kevin accepted the paper. He crossed the room and dialed, sitting down in the chair and turning his attention fully on his conversation.
Brian hugged Ro, who excused herself for a moment to make a phone call of her own. Running a hand through his dark blond hair, he sighed. The evening had been so wonderful, only to be hit with such terrible news. The violence was so senseless…
He moved to the couch and sat down next to AJ. He glanced over at Nick, and felt alarm at the youngest’s emotional broadcast. Fear, panic, dread… and terrifying memories.
“Nick?” he said, reaching over. “Hey, you okay?”
“H-how could they do that?” came the small, trembling voice. “Ella, she’s so n-nice, and…” Azure eyes looked up, filled with wetness. “Why?”
“People are afraid of what they don’t understand,” Brian answered.
“It’s not right,” Nick said, shaking his head as a tear slid down his cheek.
“No, it’s not,” Brian said with a frown. “That’s why we have to do what we can to stop this sort of thing.”
Kevin zipped his small carry-on shut and grabbed his jacket. He left his room and met Howie in the main suite area.
“You ready?” he asked.
“Yeah,” Howie replied with a nod. “Our ride is downstairs waiting. I just checked, and the plane is ready to go when we get there.”
“Let’s go,” came the short answer.
With a farewell to the others, Howie followed Kevin out the door. The oldest had calmed considerably since the previous evening, and the instant the riots had been quelled he’d called for a charter plane to be readied. Howie had insisted on accompanying Kevin to the city, since he did know Ella’s family and would be able to keep a clear head. Brian was too vulnerable to the raw emotions still circulating there, and Nick was in no shape to confront the ugliness that had occurred. AJ had wanted to come, but he’d become quite adept at calming Nicky after nightmares and distracting the blond, more so than Howie. Kevin hadn’t cared one way or another; he was focused solely on Ella.
The flight was quick; there were advantages to having a private charter service at their disposal. Less than three hours after they had left the ground in Orlando, the pair walked through the doors of Mercy General Hospital in Pocatello, Idaho.
Kevin wasted no time getting to Ella’s room. The moment he stepped in, a woman who could only be her sister greeted him. She shook his hand, gave him an update, and left with Howie in tow.
His heart skipped a beat when he saw the woman he loved lying there. She was asleep, her right hand heavily bandaged and a patch of white gauze covering half of her forehead. There were dark smudges under her eyes and a nasty bruise that covered a large portion of her left arm. Her skin was pale, making the marring stand out even more.
He bit his lip against her pain and moved to sit next to her. Gently, carefully, he took her free hand and held it in his own.
She stirred, opened her eyes, and blinked up at the ceiling for a minute before turning her head towards him. When she saw who it was, she offered a small, strained smile.
"Hi, Kev,” she said, her voice husky with sleep.
“Oh, baby,” he said, leaning forward and kissing her on the unbandaged side of her forehead.
“Thanks for c-coming,” she said. “I’m glad you’re here…”
He frowned as he heard the fearful tone in her voice. “I wanted to come last night, but they weren’t allowing anyone access. El, I was… so scared when I heard."
She looked away. “It was a nightmare,” she breathed.
He squeezed her hand and leaned in close. “What happened?” he asked gently. He could feel her trembling before she uttered a word.
“The café… they burned it,” she said distantly. “Someone threw a brick through the main window, then some kind of device… a bottle filled with fuel and stuffed with a rag, it was on fire…”
“A Molotov cocktail,” Kevin said grimly. Ella nodded absently.
“There was so much screaming and shouting,” she continued. “Oh, but their hatred… so strong, so violent, it…” She stopped, choking on her words as the memory came in full force.
“Easy, El,” he said, caressing her hand with his.
“There were customers in the café,” she said after a moment. “We couldn’t go out the front, there were too many people there… oh, Kevin, they were saying such terrible things, I’ve never been so close to such raw anger…” She shivered. “One of the customers, an older man, was injured pretty badly by a brick, and I went back to help him while the others fled out the delivery door. That’s when I burned my hand,” she said, staring at the bandages. “The fire… it was everywhere…” She let out a sob.
Kevin embraced her carefully, drawing her into a comforting hug as he rocked her slightly. “Oh, El,” he breathed into her hair, “I’m so sorry. I wish I had been here…”
She shook her head at once. “No, I wouldn’t have wanted you to be in the middle of this! I’m glad none of you were here, you’ve all been through s-so much.”
Kevin smiled, just a bit. That was one of the things he loved most about Ella: her caring and concern for others.
“I’m here now,” he said, hugging her closer. “And I’m going to take you away from this madness. Howie and I came to bring you home, to Orlando.”
Ella drew back. “What?”
“It’s not safe here,” he declared. “And with our projects and the tour, I can’t be with you if you stay. Please, don’t argue with me on this.”
She studied emerald eyes for a moment. “I… wasn’t going to argue,” she whispered. “I… the truth is, I don’t have anywhere to go. The café is gone, and the owner doesn’t want to rebuild. He was going to retire in a couple of months anyway. And Kevin,” she said, her voice tightening, “all this hate here, I just can’t… I can’t take it, not right now.”
He reached up and brushed away a tear with his thumb, his touch infinitely gentle. “Then it’s decided,” he said. “We can get your sister to pack up some things for you, and get out of here when they release you. How does that sound?”
She sniffed. “It sounds good,” she said simply.
Kevin continued to hold her, grateful she had agreed. A few minutes passed before a knock was gently sounded on the door. In came Howie.
He walked up to the bedside quietly, then, with a smile, reached out and touched Ella on the arm. She jumped as if she’d been slapped, pulling away with a look of fear in her eyes. Howie, who had not expected such a violent reaction, took an immediate step backwards.
“Oh, sorry!” he said at once. He was alarmed at how pale her face had just washed, how panicked her eyes were.
Shaking violently, she tried to get hold of herself. “N-no, Howie, I’m… I didn’t mean…” She stopped with a sob, turning her head away.
Kevin frowned. It was obvious she was scared, but surely she knew Howie wouldn’t harm her. “What is it, baby?” he said, trying to envelop her in a reassuring hug.
Monica’s soft voice broke in. “El’s been overwhelmed,” she explained. “Any contact or sudden moves tend to startle her. She’s… she needs some quiet, a little distance and time.”
Howie, feeling terrible, wrung his hands. “El, I didn’t mean to scare you,” he said, looking contrite. “I shouldn’t have done that.”
El pushed back from Kevin’s embrace, though it was obvious she didn’t really want to. “It’s okay, H-howie,” she managed to say. Lifting a shaking hand towards him, she waited for him to come closer. Bracing herself, she took his hand in her own and pressed it to her cheek. A second later, he gave her a tentative hug, feeling relieved when she seemed to relax, finally.
“Why don’t you stay here, Kev,” Howie said. “I’ll go with Monica and pack some things for Ella, and we’ll come back here.”
“I’m not going anywhere,” Kevin said, speaking to Howie but gazing at a grateful Ella. “We’ll be right here."
Knowing that she was exactly where she needed to be, Howie gave a smile of encouragement to her and turned to Monica. Together, they left, and Kevin edged his chair closer to the bedside.
“Lie back down,” he said in a voice filled with affection. “I’ll watch over you while you get some rest.”
“Okay,” Ella said, closing her eyes. For the first time since the terrifying incident, she felt safe enough to let her guard down. Within a minute she was fast asleep.
Kevin kept a silent vigil over her. He got the feeling that it would take a while for her to recover; even though he loved her, it would take more than that to help her heal. She would need Brian, too… he, alone, could truly understand the particular pain that being an empath brought. Kevin also knew that she’d always enjoyed joking with AJ; perhaps he would be able to help recover that sparkle in her eyes that was completely missing. And Nick… the youngest held a corner of her heart, and his quiet ways would help her relax. Or, so Kevin prayed.
Before night fell, they would all be safe and sound, and together, in Orlando. As it should be. As it had to be.
Kevin glanced over at Ella's sleeping form next to him on the plane. In less than an hour, the three of them would be landing in Orlando. He’d called Brian right after arranging the return flight.
“How’s Ella doing?” Brian asked.
Kevin glanced at Ella’s sleeping form on the hospital bed. “I’m being truthful here. She’s an emotional mess, Brian.”
“I can imagine.”
“Bri, listen,” Kevin began, “When we get back, she’s going to need a lot of help.”
“I’d be more than willing, Kevin. I know Nick and AJ would, too.”
Kevin smiled. “Thanks, Bri. We’ll see you in a few hours.”
Kevin held open the door to his apartment for Ella. He was grateful that the tour was over at last, and they could have some time to heal and get over everything that had happened lately. Slowly but surely, Ella entered the apartment. Kevin shut and locked the door then turned just as Ella collapsed onto the couch. Fear clutched his chest and he raced to Ella’s suddenly lifeless body.
There was no response. Carefully, Kevin lifted her into his arms and carried her into his room, since it was the only one with a bed that had covers on it. He removed her shoes, and then covered her with the sheet. Kevin bent forward and gently kissed Ella’s lips.
“Get some rest, Ella,” he whispered. “Everything will be all right soon.”
He sat back and brushed back a lock of frazzled red hair that had fallen on her face. Realizing his fatigue as well, Kevin slipped off his shoes and lay down beside her, wrapping one arm protectively around her. Soon, he was asleep.
Ella slid sleepily into the living room fresh from her nap. Glancing at the clock, she realized she’d been asleep for three hours. She sank onto the couch with a quiet moan. Almost immediately, she felt a presence beside her and looked up to see Kevin sitting there, a protective look on his face and love in his eyes. In his hand he held a bowl of homemade potato soup. He held it out and offered it to her.
“You hungry?” he asked. “I just made it. I’m attempting chocolate chip cookies and hopefully I won’t burn them.”
Ella smiled and took the bowl from him. “Thank you, Kevin.”
Kevin smiled back and patted her leg in comfort, then stood and headed back to the kitchen. Ella hadn’t realized how hungry she was until she put the first spoonful of soup in her mouth. It was delicious and the bowl was soon empty. She had just entered the kitchen for a second bowl of soup when the doorbell rang.
“Who could that be?” Kevin wondered as he headed to the door. He opened the door to see Brian standing on the other side.
“Brian! Hey, I didn’t expect you over. Come on in. Want some potato soup? I just made some.”
“No thanks,” Brian politely declined, “I just ate. I just wanted to stop by and see how you and Ella are doing.”
“Well, we just woke up from a nap a little while ago,” Kevin replied.
“I can tell,” Brian smirked. “Your hair’s a mess. What’d you do? Sleep standing on your head?”
Ella entered the room and smiled at him. “Hi, Brian. You doing all right?”
“I’m fine. I should be the one asking you that question. Are you doing all right?”
Ella shrugged and flicked her gaze to Kevin before lowering it.
That good, huh? Brian asked Kevin.
Ella crossed her arms over her chest, shivering a bit. Brian caught an echo of painful memories. Shaking her head against them, she gave Brian a shallow smile. "Um, Kevin is making cookies; maybe you'd like to have some for dessert."
"Oh, the cookies!" Kevin exclaimed, running to the kitchen.
Brian laughed as Kevin ran to the kitchen. “Kevin’s making cookies? You can’t be serious.”
Ella nodded, her smile widening slightly. “It’s true.”
Brian wasn't fooled by her shift in topic, but he decided to give her a little space. Obviously she was still quite shaken, and it would take time.
“Phew! Saved them!” Kevin called from the kitchen. “They should be cool enough in a little bit.”
“Good. This should be interesting, tasting your cookies.”
“Funny, Brian. Real funny.”
“I aim to please,” Brian said with a smirk as he and Ella entered the kitchen.
Kevin groaned. “You are most definitely Harry’s little brother. No one can act like that and not be related to him.”
Brian laughed and Ella managed a small smile. Kevin shook his head as he moved the cookies onto a cooling rack. Knowing not much talking would be going on, Kevin flipped on the radio on the table that he’d tuned to a favorite station. Once the cookies were cool, Kevin handed one to Brian and Ella.
“Mmm, these are good, Kev,” Brian said.
“They are,” Ella agreed.
Suddenly Brian cried out; the cookie fell from his hand and he doubled over, one hand on his knee, the other clutching his midsection. His breath came in short gasps as agonizing pain shot right through his body. Ella and Kevin were at his sides immediately, supporting him until the pain passed. At last, Brian was able to straighten, but wobbled a little and leaned into Kevin.
“I wasn’t expecting that.”
“From the look on your face when you doubled over,” Kevin remarked, “I’m surprised you didn’t pass out.”
“I think I almost did,” Brian quietly admitted.
“They weren’t that bad… were they?” Kevin asked.
Brian smiled and shook his head. “No, the cookie was good. This is… like what happened in the studio, only worse.”
“Maybe you should get some rest, Brian,” Ella suggested.
“No,” Brian insisted, “I’m all right now. I should probably head back home.”
Ella stood in front of Brian and looked into his eyes. “Brian, I would feel better if you stayed here and got some rest. I don’t want to risk this happening again on your way home and no one could help you.”
Brian sighed, knowing he wouldn’t win this. He nodded and Kevin led him to the spare bedroom that had been his when they had roomed together. Kevin slowly lowered him onto the bed. He’d originally gotten it ready for Ella, but from the look of things now, Brian would need it more.
“You call me if you need something, okay?”
Brian nodded slowly and Kevin left. Brian kicked off his shoes and lay down on his back. In shock, he felt the familiar tingle down his spine and rolled over onto his side. He gripped the side of the bed tightly as he muffled his cry of pain into the pillow. That had never happened before, feeling two bouts of pain right after each other. After this one was over, he weakly uncurled and relaxed against the pillow, falling asleep quickly.
He could faintly hear someone calling him back into consciousness.
“Brian, honey, wake up.”
Brian moaned quietly but stayed on his side. He didn’t want to wake up. Back there was the pain that hurt his body; back there were lies that still stung, although the sting was going away. But back there was also…
“Baby duck, it’s mom. Wake up, honey.”
“That’s right, honey,” Jackie softly replied. “Now let me see your baby blues.”
Brian moaned again, but opened his eyes and slowly rolled over to look at her. Jackie smiled at him. He looked a little pale but he was well rested.
“Kevin told me about the pain. Do you know why it happened?”
He slowly shook his head. “No,” he replied honestly, “I don’t know why it’s happened, but it’s the third time. Actually, the fourth time; it happened again once I laid down.” He sat up gingerly, hoping that the pain wouldn’t come again. “Is dad here?”
“No. He went to the store; we noticed you were almost out of food.”
Brian nodded and sat up. “I miss Ro.”
“Where is she?” Jackie inquired.
“She went back to rejoin the X-men for a while,” Brian replied, “to help quell the rioting.”
"She's a very special woman," Jackie said, smiling.
Brian grinned, agreeing with her completely. He sensed another presence and looked up to see Ella standing in the doorway, timidly leaning against the frame.
“Hi, Ella,” he greeted.
“Hi,” Ella said quietly, “I just wanted to check if everything was all right.” She self-consciously pushed a strand of hair back behind her ear, then glanced at Jackie.
"Ella, this is my mom, Jackie. Mom... this is Ella Winters.”
Ella nodded a greeting but didn't move into the room. She picked at the bandage on her right hand and attempted a smile. Jackie smiled warmly, remembering what Kevin had told her in private earlier. The young woman had been through a terrible time, and was still a bit gun-shy.
"Hey, is he awake?" came a deep voice from the hallway. Ella jumped back, startled, as a hand touched her shoulder.
Brian frowned at the sudden burst of panic that flashed from Ella; it was only Kevin. Her reaction told him more than any line of questions could about how she was really doing.
He stood. “Ella?”
"Baby, what's wrong?" Kevin said a second later, his emerald eyes wide at the unexpected reaction.
"S-sorry," Ella said, stepping back a bit. "I didn't, um, hear you."
Brian thought about what she'd just said. As an empath, she should have known Kevin was there... which meant that she had all her mental shields up in full, blocking out even the simplest impressions. The experience at the cafe had truly shaken her to the core, and he was sure that no one, except himself, perhaps, could truly understand what she was suffering. Tentatively, delicately, he sent out a mental tendril to test his theory. When he was met with a solid, impenetrable wall of black nothingness, he knew that her senses were locked down tight.
Ella could feel his probe and gasped quietly, backing away. She wrenched out of Kevin's grasp and fled down the hallway towards the bedroom. Kevin, confused, hesitated only a moment before following. Brian sighed; if he was to help Ella, he had a lot of work to do.
Ella sat up with a gasp. Her body was covered in perspiration and she was shivering from the fear of the nightmare. Looking around, she remembered where she was; at Kevin’s apartment, and Kevin was sleeping alongside her, trying to protect her. Carefully and quietly, she slipped out of bed and into her slippers and robe. She gently opened the door and headed for the living room. Thankful that no one else was there, she curled up on the couch and began to cry.
Through her tears, she vaguely heard a door open and a quiet southern drawl call out. “Ella?”
She sniffled once and looked up. Brian was walking toward her, his face a mask of concern.
Brian sat gently beside her and placed a comforting hand on her shoulder. “Nightmare?”
Ella nodded. “I-it gets worse ev-every time.”
“You don’t have to be afraid to talk to someone about it,” Brian told her. “Kevin’s here for you.”
“He wouldn’t understand,” Ella said, “No one does… except… you, maybe.”
Brian began rubbing his hand up and down her back. Ella found comfort in the simple touch and wasn’t afraid for the first time since the riot. She leaned her head on his shoulder and sighed softly.
“Would you be willing to share some of this with me?” Brian asked.
She drew back a bit, looking into his blue eyes. "Brian," she said softly, "I can't ask you to take on more pain. You're already hurting, and exhausted from earlier." She shivered. "And even if I share just a little bit... well, I'm afraid that it hurts too much right now. I can't filter it for you."
"Ella, when I was alone, facing all that horrible fear and pain when I first ran away, it was terrible. I think having someone who understood... really understood... would have made a huge difference. I'm here for you now; you don't have to go through this alone, like I did."
Ella looked away, unsure and a little frightened.
Brian put a hand under her chin. “I want to help you, Ella. I’m sure it will be easier for you if you share it with someone else. And all my pain from before is gone now. All I can feel right now is yours. Even if I did feel a little pain, I would set it aside and try to help you. Trust me.”
"I do trust you," she said in a hushed whisper. "But..."
"El," he said evenly, "you know how important it is to share. You are constantly telling others to do exactly that. Now, it's your turn. You've helped a lot of people over time, let me help you."
Ella bit her lip and remained silent for half a minute. Then, finally, with wetness gathering in the corner of her eyes, she nodded. "Okay," she said. "Okay."
Brian reached out and took her undamaged hand between his own, and closed his eyes. With the most delicate of touches, he sent out an inquiry to Ella's mind.
When nothing solidified, he opened one eye and regarded her. "Ella..." he said in an urging tone.
"Sorry," she said, then shut her own eyes.
He tried again, this time having no problems entering her thoughts. Instantly he was assaulted by images, flashes of sights and sounds and sensations that nearly made him recoil in reaction. He held fast, though, and forced himself to remain open.
Angry shouts, loud noises of breaking glass and shattered peace... hate-filled faces, given to mad anger, wild eyes full of destruction and urgency. Sirens in the distance, then more breaking; shouts, cries, someone sobbing nearby. Flashes of light, the flicker of a flame... Fire!!... Heat, and a rush to escape, to run, to flee.... Panic and chaos, fighting to remain calm... find the exit, help others, and escape the hating mob...
A lone cry, one of pain and fear... she knows him, he's been coming to her cafe for years, his favorite is apple pie with cheese, he likes his coffee black with extra sugar, he... No! His fear surges, washing over her, she fights against it, resists the urge to run, to flee! Glass, fire, heat... pain, suddenly, from her hand... oh, the pain!!!
Grabbing a jacket, an arm... pulling against resistance, shouting encouragement... run, run! Another shattering of glass, then a muffled explosion nearby as the heat rises instantly. Door... door, where... hands, grabbing at her leg, at her arm… Waves of hatred crashing into her… mutant lover! Worthless trash! Burn!! Suddenly cool air, darkness, hands... helping hands, pulling her up... the man is safe, he's safe... the others are safe, too... but the hatred doesn't stop, she can feel it fuel the flames at her back, she wants to run, to hide, to go where no one can hate her any more... Pain eclipses the terrible fear, and darkness, oblivion, descends...
Brian reeled back as the images ceased. Running a shaking hand through his hair, he dimly registered Ella's sobs. He fought for control, to tame the sensations he'd just shared, but it wasn't easy. Slowly he forced his breathing to calm, and he shook off his nausea. He'd clearly felt the echoes of that terrible hate of the mob; it brought back memories he'd wanted buried.
Ella was bent over, sobbing as her arms wrapped around her middle. It was her distress that finally snapped him back to the present. Now, he knew why she was having such a hard time getting past it. No wonder she flinched from physical contact; no wonder she was plagued by nightmares and violent reactions.
Grimly, he clenched his jaw. She wouldn't have to deal with it alone, now that he knew, he understood. Carefully, cautiously, he reached out a hand and touched her on the shoulder. He was relieved when she didn't pull away, but rather leaned into his touch.
He embraced her in a gentle, supportive hug, and she leaned her head into his shoulder. They were in that same position minutes later when a sleepy, confused Kevin found the pair.
Brian sensed Kevin’s confusion—Ella had shut down most of her senses as soon as she was back in his arms—and explained.
I got through. She shared the memories with me.
Kevin nodded in understanding and headed to the kitchen; it was almost seven-thirty and no one was going back to sleep any time soon.
An hour later while Ella was in the shower after breakfast, the phone rang.
“Could you get that, Brian?” Kevin requested; he was at the sink doing dishes and his hands were soapy.
“Yep,” Brian picked up the phone. “Hello?”
“Hey, Brian!” Howie greeted. “I thought I was calling Kevin.”
“You did,” Brian replied. “I came to check on Kevin and Ella yesterday and ended up crashing here because I’d felt two bouts of pain right after the other.”
“Gosh, are you all right?” Howie asked.
“I’m fine, D,” Brian reassured him. His voice softened. “I got Ella to open up to me an hour ago. She’d just woken up from a nightmare and I could sense her fear.”
“Wow. Is she all right?”
Brian shivered as a memory surfaced unbidden. “She’s still a little shaken, but I think now that she’s shared what she’s gone through, things will start to get better. I’m sure with help from the other guys, she might progress pretty well.”
“Got any suggestions?” Howie inquired.
Kevin, guessing what Brian was talking about, suggested, “Invite the guys over for dinner, Bri.”
Brian nodded and passed the message along.
“All right, we’ll be there,” Howie said, and bid farewell.
Kevin stuck the food in the microwave just as the doorbell rang.
“I’ll get it!” Brian called as he hurried to the door. Throwing it open, he smiled as he saw Nick sitting in his wheelchair, a bouquet of flowers in his lap for Ella. AJ pushed him inside, followed by Howie.
“Got some flowers for Ella,” Nick explained, motioning to the bouquet in his lap.
Brian smiled. “That was sweet, Nick. I’m sure she’ll love them.”
"Where is she?" the younger blond asked as they came into the living room.
"Well," Brian said as he crossed over to the couch, "I'm not sure. It's been a rough day so far, and I think she was taking a nap."
AJ considered his words for a moment. "She been having nightmares?"
Brian looked at him in surprise. "Yeah, how did you..."
"It wasn't that hard to guess," he said. "How's she doing now?"
"She... shared a little with me earlier," he said. "She's still very apprehensive about physical contact, she's only allowed Kevin to really touch her today, and me when I was sharing her thoughts."
Nick bit his lip, thinking. "Well, AJ is really good at helping with... with nightmares," he said, not looking Brian in the eye. "Maybe he could help her with hers?"
Brian smiled. "She's going to need everyone's help, bro. Yours too."
"Mine?" he said, startled. What on earth could he do?
“You can be her friend," Brian answered his unspoken question. "Maybe show her some of those sketches you've been doing, or talk to her about other stuff that has nothing to do with what happened up there."
"Brian," Howie said, his dark eyes full of concern, "was it really as bad as we saw on television?"
He nodded grimly. "It was that, and worse. And you have to remember, it wasn't just the violent acts, it was the very thoughts and emotions that she was susceptible to. You can't describe how terrible raw hatred is to feel, coming over you in waves."
Howie swallowed hard. "Monica told me that when they got her to the hospital, she wasn't even coherent."
"No doubt," Brian answered. "Look, maybe during dinner we can steer clear of what happened. She'll need to talk about it all, but she's only just begun to sort through it all."
"No problem," AJ said, nodding. Then he grinned. "Maybe I can tell her all about some of my more... interesting... romantic encounters lately!"
Brian smirked. "Good grief, Aje... I said distract her, not torture her further."
Even Nick joined in the laughter. Then, a minute later, Kevin emerged from the kitchen. "Just in time," he said. "What's so funny?"
"AJ's love life," Howie said, snickering.
Kevin paused, then rolled his eyes. "Please, we're about to eat here. No details, okay?"
"No respect!" AJ said dramatically. "Nobody appreciates a true artiste!"
"If you see one, let me know," Brian joked as he headed for the table to set it.
Nick wheeled his chair towards the dining room, then caught movement down the hallway. He paused, turned slightly, and gave a small smile.
"Hey, Ella," he said, waving his fingers slightly. "You hungry?"
"Um, yeah, I suppose," she said timidly. She came forward, managing a smile for the young blond.
"You wanna see some of my sketches after?" he asked hopefully. "I brought my sketchbook along... you know, just in case I got an idea."
She smiled, just a bit. "That might be nice, Nick, thanks."
Nick beamed, then offered his hand. After a second's hesitation she moved forward and took it. He eyed her bandage critically.
"That hurt much?"
She nodded. "I have some pills, but... it was burned as well as cut some. It hurts."
"No chopsticks for you tonight," he said.
For some reason, his sincere statement made her laugh. "That's okay," she said. "I think it will be a good dinner anyway."
"Come sit by me, I'll open your fortune cookie later."
"Well, hon, that's the best offer I've had all day, thanks. It's a deal."
Nick smiled, and remembered the flowers in his lap. He lifted the bouquet and handed it to Ella.
“I got you some flowers.”
Ella took them with a smile. “Thank you, Nick. They smell wonderful.”
Kevin, who had witnessed the entire exchange, smiled broadly. Nick had gotten her to converse, and to even use her favorite term of endearment. And it was beyond wonderful to see her laugh, even if it was just a little bit. With a grin, he beckoned them all to the table.
The meal had gone surprisingly well; Ella had managed to refrain from shying away from the conversation and the boisterous company. They had even gotten her to laugh several times, mostly thanks to AJ and his storytelling talents. By the time the group retired to the living room, she readily accepted Nick's hand and snuggled close to Kevin on the couch. The healing, for Ella, had finally begun.
Ella stepped into the bathroom around one thirty in the morning, needing to take her pain medication. She opened the mirror to reveal the medicine cabinet and pulled out a small orange tube that contained her pills. She popped two of the pills into her mouth, then reached for a cup from the cup dispenser and took a drink.
It hit her sharp and hard, like an arrow piercing her chest. Pain, and lots of it. She knew instantly it wasn't her own; Kevin had been sleeping peacefully only moments before, so she was certain it belonged to Brian.
Not worrying about being polite, she rushed to his room and opened the door, his need overriding her shyness. He was thrashing about, a series of low, pain-filled moans escaping his lips. But his pain puzzled her; it was different from something remembered. This pain seemed physical, generating from an odd source, one she couldn't pinpoint. He cried out suddenly and Ella raced to his side, trying to grasp for his hand with her good one.
“Brian!” she called to him. “Open your eyes and look at me!”
Brian’s eyes opened with a whimper and his agonized ice blue eyes met her dark blue ones. Ella squeezed his hand tightly in reassurance, letting him know that she was there. He opened his eyes only for a second, and then another wave of pain hit him, hard. She gasped at the resulting zap of pain she couldn't help but receive. Whatever it was, it was enough to take her breath away.
When it was over at last, Brian's head sank back against the pillow with an exhausted sigh, beads of sweat trickling down his face and soaking his shirt. Slowly, he opened his eyes and looked back up at Ella.
“Ella,” he weakly whispered.
“Shh,” she soothed. “Let me get you a cold washcloth, okay?”
Brian whimpered, but slowly nodded. As she headed for the bathroom, she could feel his weak probe brush her mind.
Don’t… tell Kevin…
I won’t, Ella promised as she soaked the cloth under cold water. She came back and sat down beside him. She gently took his face in one hand and slowly wiped away the sweat, cooling his face. He closed his eyes and a tired smile appeared on his lips.
“How long has this been going on, Brian?”
“Mm… a few days,” he replied. “I was able to go one day without any pain. This hurts so badly. It just started when I was changing back from a hawk to a human, but now… it’s almost every night. It rarely happens during the day, like what you and Kevin witnessed the other day.”
Ella stood again to wring out the cloth and put more cold water on it, sending wave after wave of comfort and calm to Brian through their empathic link. She came back with a small bowl of water so she wouldn’t have to get up all the time and leave him; she felt his fright every time she left.
When Brian was finally cooled down and relaxed, Ella stood to leave and go back to bed. Brian reached for her good hand in panic.
“Please… stay with me a little longer.”
The fear in his eyes of another attack melted her heart and she sat down beside him against the headboard. She guided his head into her lap and ran her fingers gently through his hair, remembering that it helped her go to sleep when she was a little girl. After several minutes, she heard Brian’s breathing even out and knew he was sleeping peacefully. She sent one final wave of calm toward him then repositioned him on the bed and headed back to Kevin’s room.
Brian woke up to an empty apartment. There was a note on his dresser from Ella.
Gone for a walk with Kevin. Back in half an hour. ~ Ella - 8:45 a.m.
Glancing at the clock, Brian saw that it was nine o’clock. Fifteen minutes before they got back. Just enough time for a quick flight, he thought as he opened a window. Catching his reflection in the window, he saw his eyes flash to a chocolate brown as he began to change. There was no pain as he changed this time, but he wasn’t sure how to take it. It was great, considering it had happened every other time he’d changed, but it got him wondering as he took flight whether something would happen after he got back. However, he refused to let it bother him and set his mind on the beauty of the flight.
Just as he reached the open window at returning, it struck him hard and he fell through the window to the floor, screeching in pain. Using what little strength he had, fighting against the attack, he took on his human body. It had never been this bad before; knives were being driven mercilessly into his body and he was powerless to stop it. Just before he lost consciousness, he called out to his fiancée.
Ro! Ororo, I need you! Come back!
Something cool and wet was pressing against his face. There were soft whispers further back, but he couldn’t pick them out. He tried to reach out, but he was so tired.
“I think he’s waking up,” a voice whispered.
A groan escaped his lips. He couldn’t recognize the voice yet, but it was tugging at his memory.
“Come on, Brian. Let me see your eyes.”
The cold cloth was taken away and he whimpered; it had felt so good. Brian forced his eyes open and waited for his vision to clear. He managed a weak smile when he recognized Ororo sitting above him.
Ororo sighed with relief. “Hi,” she said. “I was worried you weren’t going to come out of it.”
“How long have I…”
“Several hours. Kevin panicked when he saw you unconscious and almost called an ambulance, but he stopped himself. He said he was afraid of what might happen if others found out.”
Brian closed his eyes for a few seconds, and then opened them again. “I’ve missed you.”
Ororo smiled. “But I’m here now. I heard you call me and came right away.”
“Thank you,” Brian whispered before he dropped off to sleep, still exhausted from the last attack.
Nick looked up as Ororo stepped out of the room. Kevin had called him and the others after he and Ella had found Brian.
“Is he all right?” Nick asked, his face pale.
“He’s exhausted,” Ro replied. “Whatever it was that happened, it took a whole lot out of him.”
"Does Ella know what happened? Can she tell?" Nick questioned. "Howie said she could understand things..."
“I don’t think Ella’s in any fit state to talk about it,” Kevin replied as he returned from his bedroom. “When we got back she could feel some of the pain still coming from him. Scared me to death, I thought she was having a heart attack! Then I found Brian."
“But what’s wrong with him?” Nick demanded anxiously.
Kevin sighed. “I don’t really know, Nick. He’s been attacked by agonizing pain several times in the past few days, but we don’t know what the cause is or why it’s happening. I’m worried it’ll get worse and… who knows what will happen?”
His words did little to reassure Nick, but the young blond knew they were honest. Since there was really nothing to be done, Nick, AJ and Howie headed over to Brian’s apartment, since Kevin’s apartment was getting crowded; none of them wanted to be far from their friend when he needed them.
The next morning, Brian awoke feeling a little wobbly but otherwise just fine. He stumbled into the living room and Ororo was immediately at his side assisting him to the couch. Brian protested the entire way that he was fine and didn't need help.
A few minutes later, the boys gathered together in Kev’s living room. Brian and Kevin gave Ro and Ella a farewell kiss and left them to planning the wedding then headed off to breakfast with the others, then on to spend a day at the studio.
Kevin and Brian returned home around nine thirty at night after a long but successful day at the studio. They paused in the living room and smiled. Ororo and Ella had fallen asleep with wedding catalogs scattered on the floor and the coffee table. Kevin glanced at one of the pictures in Ella’s lap and couldn’t stop the smile that filled his face. The model bride was wearing a simple short-sleeved ivory dress and lace veil with a bouquet of pink and white flowers in her hands.
I could see Ella in that, he thought.
“Yeah, I bet you could.”
Kevin jumped and looked up at Brian smirking at him as he held Ororo in his arms.
“Kevin, I don’t need to be a telepath to know what was going through your mind. All I had to do was look at that smile on your face and I knew.”
Kevin smiled sheepishly and gently lifted Ella into his arms and carried her into his room. He came to check on Brian just as he was climbing into bed, Ororo by his side.
“You think you’ll be okay tonight, Brian?”
“If not, I’ve got Ororo with me and Ella can sense my pain right away. But I’ve got a feeling I’ll be okay tonight.”
“All right then. Good night, Brian.”
“Good night, cous.”
“This isn’t working you guys,” Kevin pointed out. “It doesn’t sound right. It’s not complete with just a few of us singing, but it’s also too much with all of us going.”
“Let’s try breaking it up into parts,” AJ suggested. “Each of us takes a little bit and we’ll see how that goes?”
Kevin nodded in agreement. “All right, let’s do that. Nick, you start us off.”
Nick started singing his part, and paused when Kevin told him to so someone else could take over. It only took them two tries before they felt confident to try it a final time for recording.
“Let’s take a quick break first,” Kevin suggested. “Everyone get a drink so we don’t have any throat problems. I’m going to give Ella a call.”
“I’ll talk to Ro, see how everything is going,” Brian said.
“I still can’t believe you’re getting married, Rok,” AJ commented as they stepped outside the booth for a drink. “I never would have thought you’d be the first.”
Brian gave a half smile. “Well, things just… turned out that way.”
Kevin talked to Ella for a few minutes, then asked her to put Ororo on the phone so Brian could talk to her. Brian talked quietly with his fiancée for a few moments, and then Kevin watched his face and eyes light up with a smile at something Ororo had said.
“You found a dress you liked? That’s great, Ro; I can’t wait to see it… Yeah, I know. I have to wait till the wedding.”
After a few more minutes, Brian bid farewell and the boys headed back into the studio for the final recording. Nick started off.
“If we could make this world a better place do you think we would be like this?” he sang. “If we would care enough to make a change, you know we’d live in love and bliss.”
Brian closed his eyes and put a hand to his head as he felt a sudden wave of dizziness wash over him. It passed after a few seconds and he was able to pick up with the others, ignoring the dizziness and chalking it up to fatigue. They had been working for several hours, after all.
“Sometimes when we really care for someone, that’s how we should care for the world.”
He blinked several times; the words on the paper were starting to get fuzzy. He shook his head to clear it. Something was wrong with his hearing too, or was it just the headset? The voices of his friends sounded farther away.
The pain hit unexpectedly. At first, it was small, tolerable... but suddenly it turned into an explosion of anguish, relentless and overwhelming. He fell to his knees with an anguished cry. He thought he felt his friends beside him, but he couldn’t be sure of anything beyond the pain.
Ororo! he called out.
The sharp, hard pain pushed him beyond the bounds of consciousness and then, in an instant, the darkness descended without mercy.
Ororo dropped the book with a gasp of shock. She had heard Brian’s voice again, full of pain and nearing unconsciousness. She immediately looked to Ella and found her doubled over as a shriek of pain escaped her lips. Ororo was immediately by her side.
“How bad is it?”
Ella shook her head furiously, unable to speak, the pain was so terrible. Ororo could tell it was extreme if Ella couldn’t even answer. She rushed to the phone to call the boys, hoping to find out what happened.
“BRIAN!” The studio rang with the echoes of the four boys as they cried out to their fallen friend. Nick started forward in his chair, but AJ held him back as Kevin rushed to Brian’s side. Brian was deathly still, his face ghastly white and his breathing ragged.
Kevin knelt by Brian and placed a hand on his face, drawing it back immediately. “I need some cold water and a cloth! He’s burning up!”
A strangled cry came from Nick’s throat and he wheeled closer as AJ broke away to find a bottle of water and some kind of cloth. He met Kevin’s gaze and saw the raging fear in his emerald eyes. He’d never seen such fear in Kevin’s eyes before. Brian was as still as death and it was frightening. Both men were vaguely aware of someone’s phone ringing and Howie moving to answer it.
A bottle and cloth were thrust into Kevin’s hands; he immediately opened the bottle and poured the contents onto the cloth, thanking the heavens that their water had been put into an ice chest and the water was cold. He carefully lifted Brian with one arm and supported him against his chest and began to run the cold cloth over Brian’s face.
Not even a whimper as the cold water came in contact with his skin. Worry clouded Kevin’s features as he held Brian.
“What are we going to do?” Nick whispered.
Slowly, Kevin shook his head. When he spoke, Nick heard something that he’d never heard before in that man’s voice. Defeat.
“I don’t know, Nick.”
Kevin looked up as Howie knelt beside him, a cell phone in his hand.
“That was Ororo. She had heard Brian call out to her in her mind and wanted to know what had happened. She… she said Ella couldn’t even speak, the pain she sensed from Brian was so terrible.”
Kevin paled and tightened his grip on Brian. He looked down and saw that Brian was still as white as death. But he was breathing, and that at least gave Kevin a glimmer of hope. He had AJ wet the cloth again and gently dabbed at Brian’s face.
“We have to take him home,” Kevin said. “I’ve got a neighbor that’s a nurse. Maybe she can do something for him or at least I can see if she knows a mutant-friendly doctor.”
song: The World We Live In ~ Cleopatra
“Is he all right, doctor?” Kevin croaked. “What’s wrong with him?”
Dr. Collins shook her head in disbelief. “It’s strange… his body seems to be breaking down.”
Kevin’s eyes widened in shock. “What?”
“I’ve drawn some blood for testing and I’ll be sure to put a rush on it,” the doctor explained. “I’ll call you as soon as I get the results.”
Kevin nodded dazedly. “Is… is there anything we can do for him?”
“I can have a hospital bed and IV sent over,” Dr. Collins said after some quick thought.
“Thank you, doctor,” Kevin replied, still dazed but glad Brian wouldn’t be in the hospital. “Go ahead with those tests and the arrangements for the bed and IV.”
He showed the doctor to the door, thanking her once again for coming over. When she left, Kevin bolted the door and leaned against it, trembling with fear. After what seemed like an eternity, he looked up at the others and met Ella’s gaze.
Ella’s shields were still up but she could easily see the fear radiating off of Kevin. She rose and went to him, letting him wrap his arms around her. He needed something to protect and Ella was the best choice, not only because they loved each other, but also because she could feel Brian’s pain; his power was too strong against Ella’s shields.
Shortly after the doctor had left, Ororo rushed into Brian’s room and held him. Nick could hear her cries from where he sat in his wheelchair. He started to follow, then stopped, knowing she’d need time alone. He felt so helpless as he looked around at the others. He had nowhere to go. All the others felt the same way he did. There was nowhere to turn except inside himself. He wrapped his arms around himself and did just that.
AJ finally came out of his stupor after receiving the news that Brian’s body seemed to be breaking down. They couldn’t lose him, he silently protested. They needed him, especially Nick.
Nick! AJ looked over to the youth to check on him. “Oh no!”
Kevin, Howie and Ella heard his cry and saw him kneeling in front of Nick, his sunglasses abandoned on the floor.
“Nicky, come back!” AJ cried, gently shaking Nick’s shoulders.
Ella left Kevin’s arms and knelt in front of Nick, AJ stepping away to let her be there. She gently took Nick’s hands in hers and looked into his eyes. Ella entered Nick's mind, frightened to let the blond retreat to where he would never be reached. Dimly she heard a protest... from Kevin, probably... but she ignored it. Helping people was her chosen mission in life, and she wasn't about to let her own concerns get in the way.
Frantically she searched for the bright spot that was Nick's particular light; it was far away, but she had no intention of giving up. Carefully, she focused her telepathic abilities... as limited as they were... into calling to the retreating personality.
Nick... please, don't run...It's Ella!
She sensed his flight slowing, and then coming to a halt.
Nick, she called again. Please, honey, don't go. You can't go, you can’t just run away!
But Brian... came the tiny voice. He's hurt!
Yes, he is, Ella projected. But he still needs you out there. We all need you.
I can't do anything! he cried. No one needs me!
With every bit of truth and conviction she possessed, Ella spoke from her heart. Nick, she said carefully, I need you.
Disbelief met her declaration. You? he asked, moving closer. But you... you can't need me! I'm just...
You're just a friend who loves Brian, she said. And I thought we were friends, too.
We... we are, he said softly.
I need your help, she confessed. Brian's pain... it scares me, I can't handle it alone. He's too strong; I can't keep him from sending me the pain and fear he feels. If I open up, it... it hurts so much. But maybe if I have some support... someone to hold my hand and help me through all of this, maybe I can find a way to help him later.
What about Kevin? Nick asked.
I'll need him too, she said. But it won't be enough, I’m... I'm scared, Nick. You understand what that's like. We can help each other through it. Please come back. Kevin needs you, so do AJ and Howie and Ro. We need to be together, and strong, for Brian. We can't be that without you.
Nick considered her words, and was struck by her sincerity. If Ella said that they needed him... that she needed him... then... well, he would just have to stay.
Although it hurt, Nick reversed directions and slowly moved back to reality. Ella was there, guiding him, but as they continued, the light that she sent began to dim. At first, he thought something was wrong with him; but, as he began to feel the physical world around him, he knew it was something else. He gasped, coming back to full awareness with a snap. He focused his eyes on the face before him, seeing twin pools of dark blue under worried brows.
"Nick?" she said softly, searching his face.
"Ella," he sighed, drawing in a deep breath.
Something was very wrong all of a sudden. Nick felt a total withdraw in his mind and looked up to see Ella's eyes roll back. With a cry, he reached out to catch her. Luckily, Kevin had witnessed the entire thing and had a firm grasp on the woman. He lowered her carefully to the floor.
"She shouldn't have done that," Kevin said worriedly.
"She brought me back," Nick said. "Is she going to be all right?"
Kevin checked her pulse, then her breathing. "Yeah, I think so. It was all the stress of Brian's collapse, and everything that went with it."
Nick bit his lip. "But why did she go and…"
Kevin gave a sigh. "Because that's what Ella does," he said with a mix of love and sadness. "It's who she is. I'll put her to bed so she can rest. And Nick…"
"I'm glad she did it.” He took Ella in his arms and looked down at his little Brother. “We need you with us."
Nick nodded, surprised and touched at his brother's words. Ella was right… maybe he could make a difference, somehow.
He glanced at AJ, then Howie. "I'm back," he said quietly. "I'm not going away again. I promise."
The hospital bed and IV arrived soon after. Howie and AJ set the bed up in Brian’s room, and then Kevin gently lifted Brian off his bed and onto the hospital bed. The IV was hooked up then Brian was left alone, only Ororo at his side. She watched him sleep, unbelieving that she could lose him, that his body might be breaking down. She reached out and clutched the hand that didn’t have the IV in it, holding it tightly.
“Brian you can’t leave me!” she pleaded. “I love you. Why propose to me just to leave me a month later?”
There was no response except for his ragged breathing. There were lines of pain etched in his handsome face, so Ororo knew that even unconscious he could feel it. She could only imagine how terrible it was for Ella.
The tears quietly fell as she held Brian’s hand to her cheek, wishing for all the world that there was something that could be done for him. The phone rang and after the third ring, Ororo finally answered it.
“Ro?” she heard Jackie’s voice suddenly full of worry. “Is everything all right? You sound like you’ve been crying.”
Ro sniffed. “I have, mom. Brian… Brian collapsed.”
“What?” Jackie gasped.
Through tears and past choked sobs, Ororo explained what had happened to Brian to Jackie. Both women were crying by the time she finished.
“Ororo, honey, we’re hopping the first flight down to Orlando, you hear?”
Ororo nodded. “I hear, mom.”
“You give Brian a kiss for me and tell him to fight.”
The two women bid farewell and Ororo did what Jackie told her; she kissed Brian on the cheek for Jackie and told him to fight. Then she gently brushed his lips in a kiss for herself.
“I love you,” she whispered.
Ororo headed back to the living room where Nick, AJ and Howie were still sitting in stunned silence. Seeing Kevin and Ella missing, she guessed they were in the bedroom. She was worried. Through the doorway, she had seen Ella bring Nick back, then her collapse.
“Is Ella all right?” she asked.
“All that’s happened has just been too much on her,” Howie replied. “She couldn’t take it much longer. Who called?”
“Jackie. I told her what happened and she and Harold are getting the first flight down here.”
"That's good," Howie said. "Brian needs family now." He looked sadly at Ro. "Um, was he resting?"
"Yes," she said tiredly. "But the pain... you can still see traces of it on his face. Even in sleep he has no peace."
Nick bit his lip. "Can I go see him? I'll be quiet. Unless you think it wouldn't be a good idea..."
Ro managed a smile for the youngest. "I think he'd like that, Nick. Go ahead."
They all watched as he wheeled across the room and down the hall. AJ held out a hand to Ro and beckoned her over to the couch.
"You need your rest too," he said. "You'll have to keep up your strength for Brian."
Ro sighed. “You’re right, Alex, but I don’t think I’ll be able to sleep. Not with him so still like that. It’s so frightening.”
Kevin stepped into the room a moment later. "Is he resting?" he asked.
"Yeah," AJ answered. "Nick's with him for a while. Ah, how's Ella?"
"Resting," Kevin replied. "It took a whole lot out of her, feeling Brian's pain, and then having to bring Nick back to us... I'm so worried."
“Brian’s parents are coming up,” Howie said. “They called and Ororo told them.”
"Good," Kevin said, running a hand through his hair. "It'll be good to have them so near."
Howie sighed. "Kev, I know this is not the time to bring this up, but… Ella came here to escape all that pain and emotion from the riots. But now, she's so close to Brian… and we all saw what it's done to her, being caught in his projections. What's going to happen to her? She's so exhausted… and this has only begun."
Kevin shook his head. “Truthfully, I don't know. She can only block so much of his pain; but she also might be the only one able to reach him. And… she does act as a barometer… the instant he's awake, or aware, she will know it. I'll ask her what she wants when she wakes up, but I'm sure she'll say what she did before: she wants to help him, no matter what the cost to herself."
"But... what if this... all this... gets to be too much?" AJ asked quietly.
"I'll... I'll have to make her leave," Kevin said.
Howie laughed bitterly. "Kevin, you are a man of many talents, but trust me on this one: there's no way that you could ever make her do anything. I've known her for a long time, and believe me, she is as stubborn as they come."
"Kinda like you, huh, Kev?" AJ said with a raised eyebrow.
"Watch it, McLean," Kevin growled, softening his words with a slight smile.
Ro relaxed just a bit... if they were able to find humor in all of this, then things didn't seem so bad. Their spirit, and determination to move past the crisis, gave her hope. Maybe things would get better.
Brian’s family arrived in Florida around midnight and took a taxi to Kevin’s apartment. Nick, unable to sleep, heard the knock on the door.
"Alex," he whispered. AJ sat up, having only been lightly dozing. "There's someone at the door. I think it's the Littrells."
AJ opened the door and ushered the couple in. He nearly shut the door before he saw Harry coming quickly down the hallway.
"Sorry," Harry said, panting. "I forgot something in the cab."
"No problem," AJ said, letting him in.
Kevin greeted his uncle, aunt and cousin briefly, then wasted no time showing them Brian's room. While they were visiting, he came back to the living room and sat next to Nick on the couch bed.
“Can't sleep, Kaos?" he asked quietly, knowing the look on Nick's face all too well.
Kevin nodded. "Me either," he said. "Ella's not sleeping very peacefully; she seems to be restless and full of bad dreams. She doesn't mean to, but she's keeping me awake. I can't sleep because I'm worried."
"How about some warm milk?" Howie asked from the overstuffed chair he was occupying.
"Warm milk?" Kevin repeated doubtfully.
"Sure," Howie said. "It helps you sleep. I know it sounds like an old wives tale, but there is a chemical in it that is a somnolent."
AJ, Nick, and Kevin all stared at him.
"What?" Howie asked.
"Som u what?" Nick asked.
"Something that makes you sleepy. It's a proven fact."
"When did you gather this piece of trivia?" AJ asked, crossing his arms.
"Hey, I have a lot of time to kill when we're touring on the bus," Howie explained. "I like to keep informed." He looked a bit smug.
“Well, Mr. Informed,” Nick said. “Have you had any warm milk?”
"I can sleep anywhere," Howie said.
"Well, I can't," Kevin said. "And at this point, I'll try anything."
"Great," Howie said. "I'll make you some. Anyone else?"
A moment later he moved to the kitchen, ready to prepare not one, but three mugs of warm milk. His mother would be very proud of his domestic abilities. Not, of course, that he'd ever admit to them.
"I can sleep anywhere," AJ mimicked his friend. "Please! I know for a fact that he was as wide awake as I was."
"Has anybody had any sleep tonight?" Kevin wondered.
Nick glanced at his watch. "Five minutes here, five minutes there. Not much at all," he admitted.
Howie returned with the milk and handed a mug to each of his friends. Although he would never admit it openly, he had drunk a large glass of warm milk before he went to bed.
Jackie emerged from the bedroom and greeted the other boys.
"He's sleeping," she told them. "I know we're keeping you all up, so we'll be going now. I just couldn't rest until I saw my baby for myself."
Kevin stood and gave her a hug. "Aunt Jackie, you know you're welcome any time, day or night. Go to Brian's, get some rest, and come on back for breakfast."
She nodded, and then collected her husband and Harry. "We'll be back around nine, dear."
“Goodnight, boys," she called as they exited the apartment. "Sleep well."
AJ was about to make a comment when a large yawn snatched the words from his mouth.
Howie, looking entirely too smug, said, "Ye of little faith. See, I told you warm milk would work!"
"The milk, and the fact that we're all exhausted to begin with," Kevin said wryly. "Everyone, try to get some real rest. We won't do any good if we're walking zombies come morning. G'night."
This time, within half an hour, everyone in the apartment was fast asleep… though no one had a truly peaceful sleep.
The next two days passed agonizingly slow. Brian's test results came back and confirmed that yes, Brian's body was breaking down. It was a harsh blow to all of them.
Ella came out of the bedroom to a very quiet apartment. She frowned, surprised to find little activity around. She could tell, without looking, that Brian was resting… thankfully… but she wasn’t able to sense much else. Of course, her shields had been up tight lately, trying to dim the steady input of emotions from the others.
She walked into the living room and found Nick busily sketching. He was so wrapped up in his work that she had a chance to study him for a moment. His face was slightly pale, and she could tell he’d lost some weight since she’d first met him that day in the diner. Even with her shields up, she could tell he was stressed, worried for Brian. Something inside her reached out to the young blond, and she knew she had to figure out a way to make him feel needed and useful.
“Nick?” she said softly. Despite her low tone, the boy jumped.
“Oh, Ella… sorry, didn’t see you there.”
“Where is everyone?” she asked, yawning.
“Well, Brian’s folks and his brother are back at their hotel,” he said, lowering his pencil. “They were here earlier, when you were, um, sleeping,” he continued. “But they all were practically zombies, so Kevin convinced them to go and get some rest.”
“Where is Ro? And the others?”
“Kev, Howie and AJ are out getting groceries and stuff,” he said. “With everyone here, they decided that group meals would be a good idea. And Ro… she’s asleep in with Brian.” He looked away, then said softly, “I just stayed here because… well… what else can I do?”
His forlorn tone struck a sympathetic chord in her heart. She came closer and sat next to him.
“Well, I’m glad you stayed behind. I need your help, if you don’t mind.”
“My help?” Nick asked, slight surprise coloring his voice. “How?”
She held up her hand. “I’m not too good with just one hand,” she said. “And the bandages have to be changed, and such. Could you help me?”
“Sure,” he said, putting down his sketchpad. “Although… I’m not really an expert on that kind of thing.”
She smiled. “Piece of cake,” she said. “You can practice on me.”
He looked a bit apprehensive, but shrugged in agreement. Ella retrieved the supplies and the two sat at the kitchen table. Carefully, as if she were made of fine china, Nick unwrapped the bandaging and exposed her injured hand. He frowned when he saw the damage: blisters the size of quarters… cuts, one of which had stitches across it… and bruising. It wasn’t pretty.
“It looks worse than it feels,” she offered. “I have to wash it with this soap and lukewarm water.”
He wheeled over to the sink and adjusted the temperature at the faucet. She checked it herself, nodded in approval, and reluctantly put her damaged hand under the water.
Ella couldn’t help the flinch and slight cry as pain erupted from the contact. Nick released her hand instantly, but she forced herself to keep it under the stream.
“No, it’s okay,” she said through gritted teeth. “Soap…”
Although Nick was careful, by the time the wounds had been washed and rinsed Ella was sweating from the pain. Delicately, he patted her hand dry and led her back to the table, where she sank down in a chair. She was shaking, although she tried to hide it.
“Maybe Kevin would be better at this,” he said, looking at the pain on her face.
“No,” she said. “I want you to do it, Nick. That tube of antibiotic ointment there… yes, that’s the one… you need to apply it to the blisters and the cuts. Don’t worry about skimping.”
He squeezed out the substance and carefully did as instructed. He was as gentle as possible, but when he looked up about halfway through he was surprised and dismayed to find tears in Ella’s eyes. He stopped at once.
“No, don’t stop,” she breathed. “The sooner it’s done the better. You’re doing g-great.”
With determination, he set forth again. Delicately he placed the gauze bandages over her palm once the ointment was applied, then took the roll of bandaging out of the box.
“Uh,” he said uncertainly, “I don’t know exactly how…”
“Start at the wrist,” she said in a slightly shaky voice. “Then go up and around the thumb… yes, that’s it. Now bring it across the palm and up over the back… no, tighter, I don’t want it to slip. That’s it, good…”
In a matter of a minute the task was done, and Nick taped the end of the strip. Ella leaned back gratefully.
“You okay?” he asked as she shut her eyes.
“Yes, I’m fine,” she said, managing a smile. “Thanks, Nick, you did a great job.” She opened her eyes and saw the doubtful look on his face. Leaning forward, she lowered her voice. “Now, don’t tell Kevin this,” she whispered, “but I think you did better than he does.”
Azure eyes widened, and then a grin slowly formed on his face. “Really?”
“Yeah,” she said. “He’s always afraid to touch me. But you did it perfect, just right.”
Nick could hear the sincerity in her voice, and smiled at last. “Any time you want me to do it, just say so,” he said.
“I appreciate it,” she answered.
She put away the bandaging items and sank down on the couch, sighing heavily. Nick wheeled over beside her and thought for a second.
“Can I get you something? Juice?”
“That’d be nice,” she said, pleased at his offer.
It took a minute for him to complete the task, but he finally brought over twin glasses of apple juice, handing one to her. She took it gratefully, downing half the contents right away.
“You hungry?” he asked, surprised.
“I don’t know,” she said with a shrug. “I don’t feel much like eating these days.”
“But you gotta eat,” Nick said with concern. “I can fix you something… as long as it’s easy.”
“That’s too much trouble to go to,” she said, watching him carefully.
“No, really, it’s not,” he insisted. “How about… um, peanut butter and jelly?”
“I don’t like to eat alone,” she said.
He pondered it for a second. He knew that Ella needed to eat better… Kevin said just that morning that she’d been picking at food ever since Brian’s collapse. Then, an idea came.
“How about we eat together?” he said, hoping she would agree.
She seemed to consider it for a long moment. “Well, okay. If you eat with me.”
Nick grinned happily, glad he’d convinced her. “Cool,” he said, wheeling back to the kitchen. “Be just a minute.”
Ella had to fight from chuckling.
Much to Nick’s delight, Ella finished her entire sandwich; absently, he finished his own while they talked about the new songs the Boys had been working on. When they were done, he took the empty plates back to the sink and then, almost shyly, came back over to Ella.
“Would… would you like to see some of my sketches?” he asked tentatively.
She blinked at him. “Do you want to share? I thought those were really private.”
He shrugged. “Some of them aren’t that private,” he said.
“Then, yes, I’d love to see your work,” she said with a smile.
Half an hour later, when Kevin and the others returned, they found the pair gazing at an open sketchbook, engaged in an animated conversation. No one asked questions; they were all simply grateful for the change in both Ella and Nick. Any step forward, at that point, was a welcome one.
A tear slid down Jackie Littrell’s cheek as she sat on the hospital bed beside her youngest son, holding his hand in hers and running her other hand through his hair. She had almost lost her baby once before, when he was only five years old; now it seemed that she really would lose him this time. His body was breaking down and there was nothing the doctor could do for him other than to have the morphine IV so he wouldn’t feel the pain as much.
She started to sing a lullaby that would help him as a child when he was sick.
“Five little ducks went out one day
Over the hills and far away
Mother duck said, ‘Quack quack quack quack.’
But only four little ducks came back.
“Four little ducks went out one day
Over the hills and far away
Mother duck said, ‘Quack quack quack quack.’
But only three little ducks came back.
“Three little ducks went out one day
Over the hills and far away
Mother duck said, ‘Quack quack quack quack.’
But only two little ducks came back.
“Two little ducks went out one day
Over the hills and far away
Mother duck said, ‘Quack quack quack quack.’
But only one little duck came back.
“One little duck went out one day
Over the hills and far away
Mother duck said, ‘Quack quack quack quack.’
But none of the five little ducks came back.
“So sad Mother duck went out one day
Over the hills and far away
Mother duck said, ‘Quack quack quack quack.’
And all of the five little ducks came back.”
Jackie gasped as she saw Brian’s eyelids twitch. His lids slowly fluttered open, and he looked right at her.
“Mom?” he whispered.
Jackie smiled lovingly and stroked his cheek from cheekbone to chin. “I’m here, my baby duck. I’m here.”
Brian tried to smile at her. “Mom,” he whispered. “I love you.”
Ella stood beside Kevin, directing as he helped cook lunch for everyone. “Give that another five minutes, Kevin,” she instructed. “And Harold, could you get the sour cream out? We need to…”
Harold and Kevin turned to Ella as they heard her trail off. Seeing the look of wonder on her face, they stood closer.
“Ella, is everything all right?” Kevin asked.
“Brian’s awake,” she murmured.
Harold’s eyes widened and he nearly lost his grip on the green bean casserole. “What?”
Ella turned to him and repeated herself. “Brian’s awake.”
Harold set the casserole on the table and rushed out of the kitchen to Brian’s room. Nick saw him enter it and began to have suspicions as he saw Kevin following. He wheeled to the doorway and gasped. Jackie was sitting next to Brian, holding him in her arms and speaking gently to him. Brian’s eyes were barely open, but he was conscious. Brian’s eyes moved as he saw both his father and cousin; he smiled weakly at them. Nick was about to back away when Brian turned his eyes on him. A single glance told Brian that Nick was helping Ella heal, and vice versa. He smiled at his friend, managing a little more strength for it.
Thank you, he said. I love you all.
Not having strength for anything else, Brian relaxed against his mother, closing his eyes. His even breathing just moments later told them that he was resting again. Peacefully, they hoped.
A small whimper brought Kevin out of an unrestful sleep. He lifted his head slightly to see Ella begin to toss and turn. Kevin was about to reach out to comfort her, thinking it was another nightmare, but was stopped when cries of pain and choked sobs escaped her lips. Immediately, he knew Brian was having another attack. He was torn between staying to comfort Ella and going to Brian since Ororo was already in the room with him. However, his decision was made for him when Ororo called to him from the bedroom. With a quick kiss on the cheek and a promise that he would return, Kevin left Ella curled up on the bed and headed for Brian’s room.
Ella lay in bed, waiting for the terrible pain to ebb. After what seemed like an eternity, but in reality could have only been a few minutes, she heard the bedroom door creak open again and felt Kevin climb back into bed.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered. She felt Kevin’s strong arms wrap around her and she buried her face in his chest.
“What are you sorry for, Ella?”
“I’ve been such a burden on you, haven’t I?”
“No!” Kevin cried. “Of course not.”
"Kevin, it's true, and you know it. You're worrying about Brian and me at the same time. I can't keep from feeling his pain... and it's twice as hard on you.”
Kevin looked away, ashamed that he couldn't block his feelings from her. It was hard on him, but…
"You know I'm going to have to leave," she whispered. "It's the only thing to do."
"I don't want you to," Kevin whispered back. "But I know."
A tear slipped down her cheek, and he brushed it away with infinite care.
"Maybe I'll... just go home," she said.
“There could still be rioting.”
She bit her lip. "Maybe it's died down."
“Are you certain?” he asked. “You may be a strong empath, but even you can't tell that."
She looked down. "No," she said, sniffling. "I'm not certain. But what else can I do? That's where my family is. I don’t have anywhere else to go."
“I love you, Kevin, but I can't stay any longer. I can't see you losing sleep over me, worrying about my shared pain.”
“We're not over, Kevin,” Ella insisted. “I just have to go back, and you know it. I still love you dearly, I promise.”
She could feel his old fears and doubts as he thought about their parting of ways. In the midst of it was his memory of how it had ended with Kristin. He was afraid, and terrified of losing her; with a gentle grip, she took his hand in hers.
“I’ve never loved anyone like I love you, Kevin Richardson. The only way you'll ever not have me in your life is if you decide you don't want me anymore.”
Kevin smiled. “I do want you in my life, Ella,” he said. The first thing he'd do in the morning would be to go out and get a promise ring for Ella. A ring with a sapphire in it to match the dark blue eyes he was getting lost in at that moment.
“I love sapphires,” she said, smiling up at him.
Kevin laughed, and then kissed her on the nose. “El,” he said, his voice full of depth and love, “you never cease to amaze me. I could spend a lifetime discovering what you're all about.”
"That can be arranged," she said, grinning up at him. "But for now, I want to make our last bit of time together really count. I need some memories to take with me until we can be together again."
Kevin laughed. "Okay, I'll start by making chocolate chip cookies, and then I can whip up some of my potato soup..."
She hit him playfully. "That's not the kind of cooking and memory making I had in mind, mister."
"Oh?" he said, a gleam in his emerald eyes.
"Oh," she answered, cutting off any further words with a kiss.
They snuggled together, wrapped in a tight embrace, enjoying the feeling of just being close.
"How's this?" Kevin said as he drew her even closer.
"This is heaven," she said, smiling. "I feel like this is right where I belong."
"It is," he answered, kissing her head.
"I'll book a flight after breakfast," she said softly. "I'll have the world's biggest phone bill after today, I know it."
"You'll be in my heart the entire time," he assured her. "I'm going to miss you so much."
She sighed, then a small grin crept on her face. "Yeah," she said mischievously, "but think of how fun the reunion could be!"
He laughed, then shook his head. "You are something else, El."
"So I've been told," was her impish reply.
"When the others get up and come over," he said, "we can tell them what's going on. They won't like it... but they'll understand."
"Then you can focus on Brian... as it should be. He needs you, all of you, so much now."
"Yes," he said. "Now more than ever."
Nick sat by Brian’s bedside, sad and brooding as he sketched. Ella had left a few hours ago and the apartment felt empty without her. Kevin and Howie were out searching for a promise ring for Ella; possibly something more, Kevin had said before they left. Alex… who knows where he went? Ororo was out with Brian’s family getting to know them, so he was left alone.
Why alone? he wondered. If Brian wakes up and needs something, what can I do?
Something pulled his gaze up from the sketchbook to his friend. Nick watched him for a while. Suddenly, he heard Brian’s breathing become more labored. He paled and glanced at the EKG monitor.
“No,” he murmured. Brian’s heartbeat was speeding up, far too quickly. “No!”
Without thinking, Nick grabbed the phone and dialed the first number that popped in his head. “Howie, it’s Nick! Brian’s getting worse… His breathing is more labored and his heartbeat is speeding up. What do I do? … Okay, but please hurry! Can you call Ro and his parents for me?”
Within half an hour, everyone had gathered back at Kevin’s apartment. Kevin had immediately called Dr. Collins once learning of Brian’s trouble, and she was in the bedroom with Brian. When she came out a few minutes later, Dr. Collins announced with regret that there was nothing she could do for him and quietly suggested the possibility of just letting him go.
“No!” Jackie cried once the doctor had left. “I can’t lose him! He has so much in front of him.”
Harold held his wife tightly, letting her weep into his chest. He felt the same way. He glanced over at his oldest son and saw Ororo clinging to him for dear life, tears streaming down her face as she, too, tried to deny what they had been told.
“I’m going to give Remus a call,” Harold said suddenly.
Jackie looked up at him in surprise. “What?”
“He… he might be able to help.”
“How?” Jackie asked.
Harold shook his head. “I don’t know. I just have the feeling I should call him.”
He stepped away and Jackie dropped onto the couch. Nick wheeled over to her and took her hands in his.
“He’ll pull through, Mrs. Littrell,” he said. “He’s a fighter.”
Jackie managed a small smile for him, although no one was certain of who he was trying to convince.
Brian was pale; his breathing labored and his heartbeat was erratic. On the other side of him, Ororo slept on her side with her hand resting lightly on his arm. Up in first class, past the curtain, his wife and Harry, along with AJ and Howie, were attempting to sleep. Kevin was up in the cockpit with the pilots getting his chance to fly the plane. Nick was a few meters away, locked down in his wheelchair looking both wistful and forlorn.
The curtain was pulled aside and Kevin stepped through. He glanced at Nick and saw the boy’s pain in his blue eyes. He tried to give an encouraging smile, then turned to Harold.
“How is he?” he asked, nodding to Brian.
Harold sighed. “No change.”
“Do you really think Dr. Finnigan can help?”
“This will work.” Harold placed a gentle hand on Brian’s head. “It has to work.”
A quiet moan came from Brian’s lips and he leaned his head into Harold’s hand. “Dad?” he murmured.
Harold reached down and took Brian’s hand. “I’m here, son.”
Brian’s eyes weakly fluttered open. The pale blue orbs tried to take in the surroundings. “Where… are we?” he asked.
“We’re going home, Brian,” Harold replied.
“Yes; to Kentucky. Dr. Finnigan thinks there might be a way to help you.”
“Home,” Brian said again.
“Yes, Brian,” Harold replied. “Now go back to sleep. You need to save your strength.”
“Mm… love you, dad,” Brian murmured as he drifted off to sleep.
“I love you, too, son.”
Dr. Remus Finnigan was waiting for them on the ground when they landed. Stairs were attached, and he climbed up. Howie was waiting for him and led him past first class to where Brian lay. Harold was holding Brian’s hand while Ororo dabbed Brian’s face with a cold cloth. The others looked up as Finnigan entered. Kevin stepped closer and explained.
“He’s having another attack of pain.”
“Can you tell how bad it is?” Remus asked.
“Not as bad as it usually is,” Ororo replied. “But it’s still bad enough to make him break out in a sweat. Usually there’s a lot of thrashing around involved.”
Remus carefully lowered onto the edge of the bed and studied Brian. His face was pale, and lines of pain etched his features. The hand that was clutching his father’s was trembling slightly. If this wasn’t as bad as it usually was, Remus was almost afraid to see how bad it could get.
Looks like I’ve got my work cut out for me. I hope it works.
A soft voice full of fear spoke from behind him. “Can you save him?”
Remus turned around and saw a blond youth sitting in a wheelchair, his crystal blue eyes pleading to him to save his friend.
“I’ll do what I can,” he said.
Tears threatened to fall from Nick’s eyes. “Please try,” he begged. “He’s my best friend.”
Remus nodded. “We need to move him off the plane,” he pointed out. “How’d you get him on in the first place?”
“Very carefully,” AJ replied.
Harold carried his son into a facility he hadn’t set eyes on in twenty-five years as Remus led the way. It was the same place where Remus and he, along with several others, began their work on mutant experimentation. The memories filled his heart with guilt as he glanced down at the boy that had been the only successful product of this experimentation.
We’ll help you Brian, he silently promised. Everything will be all right.
“Brings back memories, doesn’t it, Harold?” Remus asked as he turned a knob, bringing the lights up.
“Yes.” None of them pleasant now.
Remus glanced at his colleague, hearing the warning tone in his voice. He motioned for Harold to lay Brian on a nearby cushioned table. Moving over to a monitor once Brian was on the table, Remus pressed a few buttons and a large scanner lowered from the ceiling.
“What’s that?” Howie asked.
“This little beauty,” Finnigan explained as he secured the scanner in place over Brian’s body, “is going to tell us what’s wrong with Brian.”
“We know what’s wrong with him,” Harry muttered, speaking for the first time since the flight. “His body’s breaking down.”
Remus glanced over at the older Littrell boy. “Indeed? Well, Harry, I just might be able to see why his body is breaking down and figure out how to help.”
Harry retreated back into silence and glanced over at his little brother on the table. He was surprised to see Brian’s head slowly moving back and forth, quiet moans spilling from him. Harry rushed to his side, fearing another attack. But seeing none of the usual pain on Brian’s face, another thought struck him.
“Turn the lights down.”
Remus looked up at him. “What?”
“I think Brian can feel the electricity. Turn the lights down.”
The lights were lowered as instructed and Brian began to still. Harry turned to Remus.
“Do you think he’ll feel the machine when it scans him?” he asked.
“There’s only one way to find out,” Remus replied. He keyed the proper sequence into the computer and the scanner activated.
Brian’s back arched and a howl of pain escaped his lips. Harry clasped Brian’s hand in fear, wishing that they still had the morphine. But it had been left on the plane when Remus told them that the morphine would do Brian no good anymore. A few seconds later, it was over. Brian relaxed on the table; Harry could feel him trembling from the pain.
“It’s all right, Brian,” he soothed. “We’re trying to help you.”
“Mom…” Brian moaned.
Harry looked back at the others and was shocked to see his mother not with them. “Where’s mom?”
“I’ll look for her,” Harold announced as he headed for the door.
He found Jackie a few meters outside the door, quietly crying. She leaned into his embrace when he wrapped his arms around her.
“This is all our fault, Harold.”
“Everything is going to be okay, Jackie,” Harold comforted. “I’ve got faith that Remus will be able to help our boy.” He gave her a squeeze. “Come on, now. Brian asked for you.”
“Yes. The lights were turned down because Harry guessed that Brian could feel the electricity. It was extremely painful when the scanner was turned on.”
“And that’s when he called for me?”
“Yes. He needs you, honey,” Harold said as they headed back to the room. “He probably hasn’t completely forgiven me.”
Remus was reviewing the information from the scan when Harold and Jackie entered. “Heavens.”
“What is it?” Nick demanded.
Remus shook his head in disbelief. “There are far too many mutant powers trying to manifest in Brian. I’m guessing this last one, the ability to change into an animal, happened while he was gone?”
“It must have,” Howie replied. “All we knew when he came back was that he could change into a hawk. Whatever it was, it happened in the two weeks that he was gone.”
“Where were you when this happened?” Remus inquired.
“A small town just outside of Pocatello, Idaho,” Kevin replied.
“Well, no wonder the fans reacted the way they did,” Remus said. “Pocatello is not a mutant-friendly place.”
Ella’s a mutant, Kevin thought. How was she able to keep her identity a secret for so long if that town wasn’t mutant-friendly?
“Can something be done?”
All eyes turned to Ororo as she stood by Brian’s side. She had been so quiet that it was a surprise to hear her speak. Jackie went to her and gave her a warm embrace, then turned to her son lying on the table.
Dr. Finnigan looked over the information he’d received from the scan a second time. “There… might be a possibility.”
All eyes were upon the doctor now, waiting to hear what this possibility might be. Anything that could help Brian, they’d accept.
“I can’t reverse what is happening in Brian’s body with all these powers manifesting in him. But, I can transfer some of the powers to another willing volunteer.”
“Just how do you plan on doing this?” AJ inquired.
"Well, this device is a genetic splicer," he explained. "Essentially, the machine is able to take genetic pattern readings, recognize and identify them, and pull out specific combinations to extract. Then the-"
"No, wait a minute," AJ said. "English. Please."
The doc thought for a moment. "Simply, then... this device can pick out particular mutant patterns... the patterns that correspond to particular powers... and extract them from everywhere in his body. Then, the pattern can be transferred into another's body. That person will then have the selected mutant power, permanently."
"So it's out of Brian, and into whomever."
"And the danger is..."
"The danger is, the person receiving the powers must have no mental resistance to the change. In this case, thoughts really can kill. If the person has any doubts, harbors any misgivings, then the transfer will corrupt and the feedback could most definitely be harmful."
AJ swallowed. "Harmful... like how?"
"If the powers are transferring, but a block is erected, then the energies will surge back into Brian's body... and would surely overload his system. Fatally."
A.J’s face paled. "Fatally?"
"Yes," the doctor said. "And the backlash would most likely destroy the person who rejected it as well. That's why the volunteer must be very willing, very sincere."
AJ gulped. “I… don’t think I’ll be able to go through with it.”
“Me either,” Howie quietly agreed.
Kevin and Nick turned to their friends in shock. AJ took a deep breath.
“I don’t think I’d be able to go through it without doubting,” he said. “I want to help Brian, honest, but… I don’t think I’m ready for something like that.”
There was silence as Nick and Kevin thought about what AJ had said. In truth, he and Howie were doing the right thing by backing out because of their doubts.
“I think Brian would understand,” Nick said.
“You really think so?” Howie asked.
Nick smiled. “Yeah.” He took a deep breath and turned to the doctor. “So… when do we get started?”
"Right now," the doctor said. "If you're ready, and sure about it." He looked at Kevin and Nick with a very serious expression. "Your lives are about to change forever."
“We’re certain,” Kevin said with determination.
"How long is this gonna take?" Nick asked as Harry helped him into the tube he would lay in during the transfer. Brian had already been put and secured into his own tube just a few feet away, still unconscious.
"The process takes about 20 minutes," the doctor explained. "Five minutes for the machine to sort out the patterns, and fifteen to collect and redistribute them. The procedure must be done slowly."
“Are we going to feel anything?” Kevin wondered as he climbed into his own tube. “We’ll be asleep, right?”
“Yes, Kevin. You’ll both be asleep. You’ll be given some anesthesia, and then we’ll begin. As for being able to feel anything, it’s quite possible. Most likely, you might feel a little pain.”
Anything for Brian, the two friends thought, as they were strapped into their tubes. AJ and Howie gazed down at their friends just before the lids of the tubes were closed.
“Good luck,” AJ said then gave Kevin a mock-salute.
Kevin just smiled. “Thanks man.”
“Time to get started!” the doctor called.
The tubes were sealed and the anesthesia administered. The two remaining Backstreet Boys waited with Brian’s family, Ororo, and the doctor at the monitor. Taking a deep breath, Dr. Finnigan typed in the sequence to begin the transfer.
For the first five minutes, not much happened; the hum of the machine and the beeping of the monitors were the only sounds. Then, a green symbol appeared on the main panel of the device, and the transfers began. Instantly, both Nick and Kevin began straining against their straps, even though they were in a drug-induced sleep. The pain on their faces told the others that they must have been feeling extreme anguish. Brian was suffering too... but he wasn't thrashing around as much. Belatedly, they realized it was because he was already so weak. But the flickers of pain that contorted his face were evidence enough that he, too, was hurting.
As each agonizing minute ticked by, the hum of the machine increased, as did the pain the three young men were feeling. A fine sheen of sweat appeared on Kevin's forehead; Nick's jaw clenched tightly. There was no mistake that the pain was increasing. Even Brian, in his weakened state, had begun a barely audible moan. The minutes ticked by far too slowly.
Finally, the green of the monitor blinked out, replaced by a glowing blue. The hum of the machine decreased rapidly, and all eyes watched eagerly for a response. All three Boys stilled, lapsing into a deep unconscious state far beyond that which the anesthesia had produced. The doctor ran several quick tests, and then hit the controls that opened the tubes.
A quick but thorough check brought relief to his eyes. "It was successful," he declared, wiping his brow. "Brian should show improvement almost at once."
"What about Kev and Nick?" asked Howie, his eyes full of concern.
"They'll be unconscious for a good while, their bodies have to adjust to the changes. It might be two days before they awaken. Brian should come around much sooner than that, since his powers were extracted... a much easier procedure."
"Which power will Kevin have? And Nick?"
The doctor shook his head and said, "I'm afraid I can't tell. The machine selects the most compatible patterns for the new body, the one that has the best chance of matching the DNA already there. There's no way to tell what power each one received now, we'll have to wait until they develop."
"How long might that be?" Howie said.
"A week or so," came the reply. "It will start slowly, and increase in strength as the individual adapts to the changes while healing."
Something’s missing. What is it? I feel… strange.
Brian realized that he was lying on his side on a bed; a soft, comfortable bed with a cover that kept him both cool and warm at the same time. He vaguely remembered fleeting images; a weakness that was harming his body, a presence that gave him comfort but no healing; he remembered pain, excruciating pain. It felt like something was being ripped from his body. Then… nothing, a blissful blackness of healing.
Slowly, Brian opened his eyes and saw someone standing by the window, waiting for him to wake up.
Harold Littrell turned from the window in surprise at hearing his name called. A smile lit up his face and eyes as he saw Brian awake. He was at Brian’s side immediately.
“How are you feeling, Brian?”
“Strange…” Brian replied. “I feel like… something’s missing.”
Harold licked his lips. “There is. Dr. Finnigan was able to extract two of your mutant powers and put them into Kevin and Nick.”
Brian’s eyes widened. “What?”
“They volunteered,” Harold explained. “It was the only way, and your best chance to survive. The entire process took twenty minutes. It was the longest twenty minutes of my life.”
“Are they all right?”
“They’re fine,” Harold replied. “They’re asleep, though, while their bodies are adjusting to the change. Remus reckons that they’ll be out for another day or so. You’ve been asleep for about a day, yourself.”
Slowly, with his dad’s help, Brian sat up and looked around the room.
“Where are we?” he asked.
Harold hesitated a moment, then replied. “We’re at the facility where Remus and I, along with several others began our… our experimenting.”
Brian looked at his father, seeing worry and true hesitation there. He realized what bringing him here must have cost the man. Behind the worry and hesitation, there was a need in his eyes. Brian knew, then, that the words had to be said.
"D-dad," he began, trying to find the right thing to say. "I know this wasn't easy... I know we haven't seen eye to eye lately. I was just so angry... angry and hurt. I felt like everything was a lie, one that you created."
"I never meant to hurt you, son," Harold said, his voice rough with emotion. "I used to watch you sleep at night, when you were young. Your mother and I would come into your room, and just… watch. You were always special to us, and the circumstances of your birth didn't seem important as the years went by. It got harder and harder to tell you the truth," he continued. "And maybe we fooled ourselves into thinking that everything would just... turn out right. But when your powers manifested, and the truth was revealed...” The older man paused. "We thought we'd lost you. Truly lost you. I understand that you have a right to be angry, but... we've never stopped loving you, never stopped thinking of you as our special, beloved, gifted son."
Brian felt an ache in his heart; the sincerity was real, his father truly did love him. "Dad," he said, his voice shaking with emotion, "I... I want to be your son; I want to make you proud.”
Harold leaned forward and embraced Brian as tightly as he could. "Oh, Brian," he breathed, "you've always made us proud."
Brian felt the wave of love and truth wash over him, and he hugged his father tighter. It felt... right.
"Dad," he said, "I'm sorry. Can we... can we just begin again?"
"There's nothing I'd like more," Harold replied.
The two spent another moment in an embrace, letting the past go. Finally they drew apart, and Harold offered his son a smile. "I think your mother would like a rerun of this conversation," he said. "It's what she's been praying for ever since that day you discovered the truth."
“Yes," Brian said, smiling. "Let's not keep her waiting."
A few minutes later, father, mother and son were reunited, at last... this time, for good.
“Looking for something, Frack?”
Nick tried to turn around and look at Brian. “Yeah. I’m hungry again. The doc said it was natural-“
“I know Nick.” Brian chuckled. “I was there, remember? I also saw your chair getting further away from the fridge, so I figured I’d better stop it before it gets far enough away that you fall out. Your brakes must have unlocked.”
“I didn’t even feel it move,” Nick admitted.
“Well, considering how busy you were on your quest for nourishment, I’m not surprised.”
Nick rolled his eyes and pulled out some turkey and mayonnaise, intending to make a turkey sandwich. Inside, he wished that the cabinet door containing the bread would just open and the bread fly to him.
Nick looked up at Brian’s exclamation of surprise. His eyes bugged out when he saw the cabinet door wide open and the bread sliding out of the cabinet.
“Did… did I do that?” he asked.
“Well, it sure wasn’t me.” He saw Nick smirk and could sense some mischief running around in that boy’s head. “Nick, what are you thinking?” he asked warily.
“Nick,” Brian warned. “You know I can easily go into your head and find out.”
Nick rolled his eyes. “I just thought it might be nice to give a little demonstration tonight at dinner.”
“Oh, lord have mercy!”
Nick laughed as he made the sandwich. Brian glanced at his watch.
“Well, I think dinner will be in two or three more hours. I can expect you’ll be hungry again.”
“Well, if I’m still hungry two hours after lunch, I’d guess I’d still be hungry for dinner.”
Everyone dug into Jackie’s homemade pizza like a pack of ravenous wolves.
“Hey, Nick, could you hand me that slice of pizza?” Kevin requested.
Nick grinned at Brian. “Sure, Kev.” He felt excited; he could show everyone what he’d discovered as his power.
Be careful, Nick.
I will… okay, I’ll try.
Nick bit his lip, then reached out mentally… and had to hold back his cry of joy when the slice Kev wanted began rising in the air. Brian smiled while the others looked on in surprise.
After a second, Kevin reached out to take the pizza. “Nick… man, of all the pranks you could… aah!”
Nick had broken concentration a little too early and the pizza fell into Kevin’s lap with a splat. Brian burst out laughing and lay back on the floor. Nick blushed and ducked his head.
“I’m sorry, Kev,” he apologized.
“It’s all right Nick,” Kevin chuckled as he cleaned off his lap.
Brian sat up and placed a hand on Nick’s knee. “Nick, trust me, you’ll have this problem for a few days. Believe me; I felt the same way when I first discovered telekinesis. Although… it wasn’t exactly with food.”
The others looked at him. “What was it?” Harold asked.
Brian smirked. “A boulder.”
Dinner done, Brian suggested everyone go enjoy the evening at the movies. He got enthusiastic agreement from his folks and Ororo, but AJ declined, explaining that he had a date with his girlfriend later. Kevin and Nick both opted to stay home; both were slightly tired. Howie took a raincheck on the movie so he could keep an eye on the two sleepy ones.
When the three Boys were alone, Howie told Kevin and Nick to relax while he did the few dishes. Nick, still excited about his near-success at dinner, offered to help. Seeing the lively gleam in his youngest brother's eyes, Howie relented. While Kevin went to make a phone call to Ella in the privacy of his room, the two started on the dishes.
"Watch, Howie," Nick said, scowling in concentration and staring at a fork.
Howie stood back, just in case. Nick's forehead began to sweat as he tried to get the fork to move. He'd just about given up when suddenly, it moved.
"That's it!" Howie encouraged.
Excited, Nick felt the energy flowing through him and watched, amazed, as the fork slowly lifted off the counter and hovered above the sudsy water in the sink.
"Make it spin," Howie said.
Nick shot him a glance. "Want me to make it sing, too, D?" he said sarcastically. Concentrating more fully, he made the fork slowly, tediously rotate.
"Wow," Howie breathed. "That's amazing!"
"It's no boulder," Nick said, letting the utensil drop into the water below.
"But it's a start," the older man said. "One step at a time."
Nick grinned. "Yeah, and it seemed like it was a little easier than the pizza."
"At least when you dropped this one, it was into soapy water instead of Kevin's lap," Howie teased.
“Hey, that was an accident!” Nick defended himself. “I just broke concentration too early!”
“Sure, kid,” Howie grinned. “Sure. Think you can try a glass?”
“I’ll give it a shot,” Nick said quietly. In all honesty, he was beginning to feel tired, but he didn’t want to let it show just yet.
Howie pointed to a glass on the counter, and Nick focused his mind on lifting it. Beads of sweat trickled down his face by the time the glass was halfway to the sink. It was beginning to hurt, and he was tired.
I… can’t hold it…
The cup missed the sink and shattered on the floor as Nick slumped forward in exhaustion, resting his head in his hands.
"Hey, Nicky, you okay?" Howie asked, seeing the boy pale.
"S-sorry," Nick replied. "I... I couldn't do it."
Kevin came into the kitchen to see what the noise was.
"Watch that glass," he said as Howie bent to pick up the pieces. "Are you all right?" he asked the blond.
"I... I tried to lift the glass, like the pizza," came the muffled explanation.
Kevin's eyebrow raised, but he decided not to point out that the pizza thing had failed too. Instead he said, "That’s okay, Howie can take care of it. Oh, Ella says hi to the both of you. She was just headed out the door when I called, so I couldn't talk long."
"How's she doing?" Howie asked from his bent-over position.
"Fine," Kevin sighed. "I just wish..." He trailed off, but both Boys understood what he was going to say.
"Don't worry, Kev," Nick said, his voice quiet from exhaustion. "You can go visit her soon, maybe."
“That's right," Howie said. "Didn't you say- aah!"
The sharp cry snapped Kevin’s attention around in a flash. Howie's face was deathly pale as he stared at his hand. Kevin groaned inwardly; Howie had always been one to get queasy at the sight of blood, especially his own. Quickly he moved to the scene, grabbing Howie's hand and pulling him up. Carefully but swiftly, he guided his slightly shocky bandmate over to the sink.
"The glass was dirty, so... No, Howie, don't look at it, just look at the floor. If you pass out it'll make it worse."
Howie swayed, but did as asked. Kevin, with a skill that came from years of practice, drained the water in the sink and started the water running. A few seconds later, he held Howie's hand under the tepid water, trying to see beyond the blood so he could judge the severity of the cut. He hoped, with all his might, that it didn't need stitches.
A strange wash of heat swept over Kevin’s body, and for a split second he felt an odd tingling dance across his skin. He shut his eyes against the strange sensations and felt something... He opened his eyes at Howie's startled gasp.
Where there had been an inch long, deeply cut wound on the palm of Howie's hand, there was nothing but smooth skin now. Kevin blinked in confusion. He held up the hand for closer examination, but there was not a trace of the cut. Startled green eyes looked up, full of questions. Nick was the one who spoke first.
"Kev," he breathed, "I think... that was you. You healed the cut!"
“You've got the healing power," Howie said in an awed voice. "Kev, this is... wonderful! A miracle..."
That's when the wave of dizziness hit the oldest. He swayed, and it was Howie's turn to steady him.
"Easy, Kev," Howie said as he held the older man steady.
“Wasn’t… expecting that…” Kevin murmured as he rubbed his face with one hand.
“Kev,” Howie suggested, “maybe you should go to bed… you too, Nick… and get some rest.”
Kevin started to move, to protest that he was fine, but another dizzy spell hit him and he agreed on the spot for rest.
“We should… keep this a secret,” he said. “I need more time to work on it and control it. I’ll tell when I’m ready.”
Nick and Howie agreed to keep it a secret, then Howie led Kevin and Nick to their rooms for rest.
“Man… just one week,” Brian remarked as he handed Nick his drink. “One week till I get married.”
“I know,” Nick replied as he started painting. “I still can’t believe you’re the first one of us.”
The two friends were sitting outside waiting for the grill to warm up so they could barbecue. Kevin was inside cleaning the grate.
Brian sighed. "Yeah, by now it would have been Kevin," he said. "If his and Kristin's plans hadn't... well, you know." He glanced at the door to the house. "I can tell that all this wedding stuff is getting to him. He tries to be happy, but... I think it reminds him of what he almost had."
Nick thought about it. "But at least he's got Ella, right? Even though she's kind of far away, and he hasn't seen her for..." His voice trailed away. He realized that his big brother really was alone.
"Yeah," Brian said. "Exactly my point."
"I guess talking on the phone isn't the same," Nick said. "When he feels better, do you think he'll go see her?"
"He calls her, or she calls him, every day," Brian answered. "This wedding stuff... it's got to hurt him. I know what it's like to be lonely."
"I miss Ella," Nick said, staring at the ground.
"She was invited to the wedding," Brian said. "That’s really only a matter of days."
Brian paused. "I think so, yeah."
Her shoes crunched on the gravel of the driveway, then swished through the grass toward the backyard. She could sense them there, having a barbecue from the smell.
"You know, Bri," Nick complained, "I don’t see why we ALL have to get dressed up in those monkey suits. I mean, you're the one getting married, not us! Are you sure we can't just wear black jeans or something?"
Brian laughed. "Listen, if it were up to me, we'd all be wearing T-shirts and shorts."
Nick grinned. "Even Ororo?"
"Nope," Brian said, wiggling his eyebrows. "She could wear a bikini. White, of course."
Nick snickered at the very idea. "Right, I bet she'd love that."
"No, but I would!" Brian said. "Look, seriously, you only have to wear the tux for like what, two hours? Then you can ditch it and-" He stopped in mid-sentence, an odd look crossing his face.
"Bri?" Nick sat forward, looking at his friend. "What is it?"
Brian held a finger to his lips to silence him. Nick quieted, but still watched Brian in curiosity. His friend stood quietly and headed over to the gate, making sure that Kevin was still facing the grill. He noiselessly lifted the latch on the gate, and then pulled the door back.
Ella stood at the gateway, a soft smile on her face. Brian let her into the yard, closed the gate, and then wrapped her in a hug.
It’s good to see you, El.
Ella smiled, the warmth glowing in her eyes. I'm so glad you're all right, Brian... so glad the pain is gone now. You look wonderful!
So do you, he replied. Come on, there are a few people that will love to see you. Especially one in particular.
She stepped forward and saw Nick; the happy expression on his face made her feel truly welcome. He opened his mouth to speak when Brian caught his attention and put a finger over his own lips. Understanding, Nick kept silent, but still hugged Ella as hard as he could. She returned it in full. Then... she saw the figure across the grass, standing at the barbecue.
Her heart skipped a beat as she took in the image of the tall, handsome man she'd missed so very much. Even seeing him like that took her breath away, and she almost wanted to burst into tears of joy. Not wanting to delay their reunion any more, she crossed the grass, all other thoughts forgotten.
She was about six feet away when Kevin turned around. The shocked expression on his face was almost comical. The spatula almost dropped from his hand as he blinked, not quite believing his eyes.
"Hi, Kev," she said softly, her blue eyes shining.
"Ella," he breathed, and then stepped forward into her open and willing embrace.
The couple stood, locked together, oblivious to everything but the feel of each other's arms. Brian smiled at the wave of love, joy, and happiness that came from Ella's unwitting projection. This kind of sensation was more than welcome.
Kevin pulled back just far enough to say, "I've missed you... more than words, El." He leaned in and kissed her hungrily, and thoroughly.
Brian blushed at the resulting thoughts Ella projected then put up a block so the pair could enjoy a moment of privacy.
A cry of greeting sounded as AJ and Howie came through the door. Soon, the group was in a happy reunion. The barbecue turned out to be quite a celebration. By the time the food had gone and tongues were tired of telling stories, it was well into the evening.
Brian spared a moment to watch Kevin, seeing a light behind emerald eyes that had been missing far too long. Ella, wrapped in Kevin’s arms, leaned in and whispered something in his ear. A nanosecond later, Brian could feel indescribable joy radiating in waves from his cousin. Not that he wasn’t able to see that from Kevin’s bright, overjoyed smile.
“What’s up, cous?”
Kevin smiled at him as Ella replied. “I just told Kevin that I’m not going back. I’m here to stay.”
Nick lay on his back staring up at the ceiling. It was the night before Brian’s wedding and he was positive that Brian was having just as much trouble as he was, perhaps more, at getting to sleep. Tomorrow evening, Brian would be married and on his way to his honeymoon. Nick sighed deeply, feeling a small twinge of pain. Though, whether it was physical or emotional, he couldn’t tell.
“Brian’s getting married,” he said aloud to the room.
There was a quiet knock on the door then Kevin announced his presence. Nick telekinetically opened the door for him and he entered.
“It’s tomorrow, Kevin,” Nick said as the older man sat beside him on the bed. “I can’t believe B is getting married tomorrow!”
“Exciting, isn’t it?” Kevin smiled.
“That’s not even the right word.”
Kevin chuckled. “I agree.” Suddenly, he got quiet. He glanced across the room at the object that had been Nick’s bane for the last few months.
“What’s on your mind, Kevin?”
Kevin turned back to him, a smile on his face. “I think you’ve been in that wheelchair long enough, Nickolas,” he replied. “How’d you like to give Brian a surprise tomorrow?”
He and Nick were talking quietly before they were to head down the aisle to where the priest was waiting for them. Brian had pushed Nick’s chair to the door when Nick suddenly held up a hand and instructed him to stop.
“You want to wheel yourself down, Nick?” he had asked.
Nick turned to look at him and smiled. “I’m not wheeling anywhere any more.”
Brian had watched in utter astonishment as Nick first placed his right foot, followed by his left, on the floor. Gripping the sides of the chair, Nick pushed himself upward. Brian’s eyes went wide when he saw his best friend standing straight and tall again after so long.
“Nick,” he breathed.
Nick turned and smiled at him. “Surprise,” he said. “This is my wedding present to you. Kevin healed me last night and helped me take my first steps.”
“Kevin… healed you?” Brian repeated.
“Yes,” Nick replied. “That’s the power Kevin was given. The power to heal the physical body.”
Brian shook his head in amazement, then stepped forward and gripped his friend in a tight hug.
It had been one of the best moments of his life.
Brian was now back inside watching his wife sleep as the rays of the rising sun peered in through the curtain and splashed over her face.
“My wife,” Brian said aloud, trying the new words on his tongue. “Ro Littrell.”
He smiled, loving the way the names fit together so well. He leaned down and kissed her cheek as he remembered walking her down the aisle for all to see. Her long white hair had been curled and styled beautifully by Ella and his mother. Ororo’s dress had been the beautiful ivory one that Kevin had seen in the book in Ella’s lap a few weeks back. Around her neck was, to Brian’s surprise and delight, the same string of pearls that his mother had worn at her wedding, still exquisite and lustrous.
He thought ahead now, toward the future. He thought about children. Two or three would be enough for him, he decided. As for his career as a singer… He sighed. It was a hard decision to make, but he figured that shortly after their first child was born would be when he would be through. He only hoped that the fans that still believed in them would support him in his decision.
He felt fingers in his hair and looked down to see Ororo awake and looking up at him with blue eyes full of love.
“Thinking about the future?” she asked.
Brian nodded. “I don’t think I’ve ever felt so happy. This is the perfect ending to an old life…”
“And the perfect beginning of a brand new one.”