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.