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Author's Chapter Notes:
Just a few more chapters left and it'll be done.
Kevin looked up from the couch as Dr. Barbara Collins left Brian’s room. Instinctively, he reached over and grasped Ella’s hand.

“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…"

"Yeah?"

"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.

“Hello?”

“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.”

“I will.”

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.

"Who can?"

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."

“Ella…”

“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.”

“But Ella...”

“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.

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