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Ten - Unexpected

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.”

“Beautiful.”

“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?”

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?”

“I’m fine.”

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.

Ella!

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.

“I c-can’t…”

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.

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