"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.