Ground Zero by Chaos
Past Featured StorySummary: Nick deals with the emotional fallout from a kidnapping.




Categories: Fanfiction > Backstreet Boys Characters: None
Genres: Angst, Suspense
Warnings: Graphic Violence, Sexual Content, Sexual Assault/Rape
Challenges:
Series: Ground Zero
Chapters: 17 Completed: Yes Word count: 88818 Read: 41260 Published: 12/13/06 Updated: 03/23/08
Story Notes:
Thank you guys for the Felix Awards. I'm sorry I wasn't there, and haven't been around to acknowledge them sooner. Thanks!!!

1. Declaration of War by Chaos

2. First Casualty by Chaos

3. Interrogation Unit by Chaos

4. Warning Shot by Chaos

5. Draft by Chaos

6. Second Strike by Chaos

7. Addressing the Nation by Chaos

8. Downtime by Chaos

9. Missing in Action by Chaos

10. Medical Assessment by Chaos

11. Prisoner of War by Chaos

12. Boot Camp by Chaos

13. Underground Information by Chaos

14. Double Agent by Chaos

15. Countdown by Chaos

16. Detonation by Chaos

17. Chapter 17 by Chaos

Declaration of War by Chaos
Author's Notes:
This story was written a few years ago. It was my first BSB fic (started as part of a bet--I won woot!) I am moving it from the old archive to the new one and possibly making a few small changes along the way...

I have to admit that I didn't see the banana peel thing coming. If it had been Brian sitting across the room watching me with a self-satisfied little smile on his face, I might have been a little more wary of my surroundings, but it was Kevin. And he usually has a self-satisfied smile on his face. It's part of what makes him Kevin. Not that I'm saying he's conceited; not at all, and I'm sorry if that's what you thought I was saying, but it's more of a..."I know something you don't know" sort of smile. And he does. Know stuff that I don't know that is. Then again, I've never claimed to be the brightest bulb in the socket. But that's another story entirely.

Anyway, back to the story at hand. I didn't see the banana peel thing coming. Then again who would have? I mean it's such a cliché prank. Entirely predictable. So, of course, right on queue, as I made my way into the greenroom--my hands completely full carrying the tray of milkshakes and bags of burgers and fries from the burger palace across the street--I stepped on it. And slid. And of course me being me, I immediately threw my arms out to steady myself, and sent the milkshakes flying. What kind of day would it be if at some point I didn't end up with a milkshake or two (or hey, how about five?) dumped all over me?

I suppose I can't blame them all for laughing. It probably would be funny if it weren't me. Okay it's still funny even though it is me, I'm just not ready to admit it to them yet. Gotta salvage a little bit of my pride. So I lay there for a few moments, letting them have their little chuckle at my expense. Letting the milkshakes soak into my shirt and pants and hair. I sat up, though, as I felt some of it oozing into my ear. There's just something kind of disturbing about that feeling.

I noticed that one of the shakes actually managed to keep the lid on and was even still sitting upright, just a few inches away from me. Heh. Strawberry's always good. Okay so I'd ordered chocolate for myself, and the strawberry was supposed to be Howie's but hey, fair is fair. The rest of the shakes were sacrificed for their prank on me, so it was only fair that the final shake be mine. Besides, it would be good to show them that I wasn't bothered by this.

So I reached out and snagged the last shake--only to have the lid pop off as I picked it up and half of it to gloop out on my hand. Which of course made them all laugh that much harder. Today just wasn't my day. But then most days really aren't.

I was still determined to pretend that this wasn't bothering me at all. So, I sat there in the mess and crossed my legs, trying not to pay any attention to the fact that the milkshake that had congealed on the floor was now soaking through my pants and into my underwear. It was pretty icky feeling, honestly, but I tried not to let my discomfort show. They weren't going to get the satisfaction of knowing that they'd gotten to me. Nope.

Instead I calmly opened the first bag and pulled out the top sandwich. Cheeseburger. I'd ordered the ham & cheese sandwich for myself, but hey, there was no way I was going to be sharing food with the others now, so a cheeseburger was as good a sandwich to start with as any.

They all watched me as I sat there in the sticky mess and ate, not acknowledging the joke at all.

"Silent treatment again, Kaos?" AJ taunted, but I chose to ignore him.

They kept trying to get me to acknowledge them but I bade my time, tuning them out and eating my lunch (and theirs) calmly. I tried not to shiver as cold shake dripped from my hair and down the back of my neck.

At least we were given a long enough break that I would be able to run back to the hotel and shower before the walk-through with the new pyrotechnics and other effects that was scheduled for this afternoon. I'm not entirely sure why the guys decided that we should just stick around for the three-hour break instead of going back anyway. Unless of course it was simply because they'd planned on doing something like this to me. Which, knowing these guys, wouldn't be completely out of the question. And admittedly, it's not as if I didn't deserve it. I was at least a few pranks up on all of them by now. But that's entirely unpointy.

I was on my third sandwich (Brian's bacon and cheddar to be exact) before finally Kevin appeared in the corner of my vision, extending his hand to me. I looked up at him innocently, as if everything was normal and I wasn't sitting cross-legged in a puddle and there wasn't really milkshake dribbling down my back. "Oh, hey, Kev," I acknowledged him as I took another bite of his cousin's sandwich. I was actually pretty full already but I had been planning to finish off the entire bag of food unless one of them stopped me. So I was actually kind of relieved that Kevin was going to put and end to it.

"Need some help up?" he asked, smiling slightly as he extended his hand to me. Though it was obvious he still found my predicament funny, there was still a hint of guilt in his eyes. Which, of course, would be played on later.

I gave him a blank look. "Why would I need any help?"

He smirked and rolled his eyes slightly. "Right." He left his hand extended and I relented, taking hold of it and letting him haul me to my feet.

I gave him a b-i-i-g smile. "Thanks, Kev," I said with exaggerated gratefulness as I threw my arms around him and gave him a nice tight hug. Making sure that he got nearly as soaked with milkshake as I already was, of course. He groaned and gave me an annoyed look. I just gave him an innocent look in return. Hey, I'm secure enough in my masculinity to hug my friend who just helped me up off the floor. Especially if he's the one who put me there. Er...even if he's the one who put me there I mean. Uh huh.

I heard AJ chuckling and made a mental note to get him back sometime later today, too.

Kevin looked down at his now grubby shirt with distaste as I backed away. He opened his mouth as if to say something, but snapped it shut again as he noticed that I still was maintaining my look of pure innocence. He, of course, knew better, but wasn't about to challenge me. Not in front of the guys anyway. He'd wait until he caught me alone and then get me back when his dignity wouldn't be compromised any farther.

So instead he just nodded good-naturedly and reached into his pocket, pulling out his car keys. "On that note, I'm headed back to the hotel to wash up and change," he announced.

"Ooh! Great. Can I have a ride?" I asked, maintaining my guiltless façade. I could just as easily drive myself, but then what's the fun in that? Not to mention I wouldn't have to clean my own car seats.

Kevin barely contained his grin as he shook his head in what might have been interpreted in disgust by anyone who didn't know better. Then again he was now wearing a soiled shirt so it very well could have been true disgust. He just doesn't understand the freedom of being dirty like the rest of us. "You got it, Messy Marvin." Like it was my fault I was covered in milkshake? No respect I tell you.

"Just going to run in, shower, change, and run out, right?" Kevin reminded me as we headed across the parking lot to the hotel.

I gave him a look that I hoped he would read as "duh".

He wasn't convinced and looked at me pointedly. "That means no stopping to play 'just one game' on the playstation," he reminded me.

I rolled my eyes and nodded. Though that did sound kind of tempting. Maybe if I hurried a bit with my shower I would have a couple minutes...

"That means no stopping to play 'just one game' on the playstation," Kevin repeated, a knowing (but fortunately at least semi-amused) look on his face. How did he always seem to know what I was thinking? Okay, maybe I am just a little predictable...about some things.

I nodded reluctantly and pulled open the door. Noticing the man coming out, I stepped back and held the door open for him. He looked up, a look of vague recognition crossing his face. He stared at me for a moment, studying me. I knew he was trying to place where he'd seen me before. Either that or he was fascinated with the milkshake ensemble I was wearing. I smiled and nodded, giving him a slight wave. With a brief smile and nod he was gone and I hurried into the lobby after Kevin, who was halfway to the elevators already.

I admittedly was more focused on catching up to Kevin than I was on where I was going, so I totally didn't notice the guy rushing across the lobby until we collided. Oops. "Sorry," I apologized as I scrambled to help him pick up some of the papers he'd dropped. He snatched them from me angrily and gave me one of those "if looks could kill" sort of looks. I held up my hands in surrender and backed away. "Sorry," I mumbled again. He snatched up the last of his things and went back on his way, purposely pushing me as he passed.

I watched him go for a moment, tempted to call after him and remind him that he hadn't been watching where he was going either. But of course, I didn't. No point in making a scene. At least not one like that.

Kevin was holding the elevator watching me with a slightly irritated look on his face. "Coming?" he called out somewhat impatiently. I quickly made my way to the elevator--this time paying more attention to my surroundings. At the last moment before the elevator closed, a voice called out asking us to hold it. Kevin amiably held the door for the two business men that were hurrying toward us.

"Thanks," the first one said as he stepped in, brushing against me. "Fifth floor, please."

I cringed as I looked down and saw that his suit now had a splotch of vanilla shake on it. I pretended I didn't notice and carefully scooted over so I wasn't still against him. The second guy grinned at me, noticing what had happened. I flashed him a smile before moving over further still.

Kevin shot me a confused look after he punched in our floor and then 5th. Then he spotted the man's soiled suit and raised his eyebrow, giving me a slight disapproving look. I feigned innocence yet again. I was rewarded with a small smile and a shake of his head.

The elevator stopped on the third floor and Kevin and I quickly got off. As I stopped in front of my door, and fished in my pocket for the keycard, I glanced back to the elevator, which was just starting to close. I heard the one guy let out a groan and muss over whatever the heck he must've spilled on his suit. Oops.

"Ten minutes," Kevin warned as he opened the door to his room. Ten minutes? What if I wasn't ready to go in ten? Like he'd just leave me here? Somehow I didn't think that'd go over too well with management. Not that I'd tell on him or anything, but Kevin was just a bit too responsible to do anything like leave me stranded alone at the hotel.

"You got it, Dad," I smiled back at him before I ducked into the room I was sharing with Brian.

"No playstation!" I heard him calling after me as I shut the door. I sighed. Of course not, Kev. Wouldn't dream of it.

Although the controller sitting on the corner of my bed did look rather tempting.

But first things first, shower. Desperately needed. I dragged my shirt up over my head as I made my way into the bathroom. I turned on the shower so it could start getting warm. The faster I cleaned up, the more likely I'd be able to get a quick game in before Kevin was ready to go. I could turn the volume way down and he'd never know. Besides, there was no way would he be ready in ten minutes. He hates being seen in public at less then his best, so he'd have to take a few extra minutes to make sure he looked just right.

I kicked off my shoes and socks and let my shirt drop to the floor. I'd take my clothes down to the cleaners after practice, so what did it matter if I hung them up? Within moments my jeans and underwear joined the small pile of laundry. I kicked everything over against the wall so that Brian wouldn't get all mad at me for being a slob and leaving my clothes in the middle of the floor. There. Much better.

I tested the water with my hand, but it was still a bit too cold. Maybe I'd go start that game while the temperature adjusted...I wrapped a towel around my waist, headed back into the main room, flipped on the TV and sat down on the edge of my bed. The Simpsons were on. Oooh. Maybe I wouldn't play the game after all. And hey, Kevin never said anything about not watching a little TV.

It wasn't until I noticed that there was a little bit of steam fogging up the mirror in the main room that I realized that I'd let myself get too caught up in the show. Probably my ten minutes were more than up. Kevin would be knocking on the door any moment. I quickly flipped off the TV so he wouldn't know I'd let myself get distracted and hurried back into the bathroom. Like I'd been there the whole time. Yep. Cleaning up. Of course that's what I was doing, Kev.

I dropped the towel and stepped into the shower, quickly adjusting the temp so that it wasn't quite so hot. Perfect. Oh yeah. I'm not sure how I managed to get distracted while I was still so sticky. Then again I hadn't realized just how gross I felt until I felt the grime washing away.

Once again I kind of lost track of time until I heard a noise in the other room. Probably Kevin. He'd probably snagged Brian's keycard earlier or something and was waiting for me in the main room. He was probably really irritated that I was still in the shower. It'd probably been at least a good twenty minutes since he'd given me the ten minute warning. Oh well.

I rinsed the shampoo from my hair and stood in the water spray for a few more moments, not wanting to get out and face Kevin and his lecture about wasting time. Unfortunately he was obviously really annoyed and overly impatient today because I became aware of the fact that there was someone in the bathroom with me.

"I'll be out in a minute, Kevin. Geez, you perv," I called, teasingly. He didn't answer. He also didn't leave. Talk about creepy. I wiped my eyes and looked at his distorted image through the shower curtain and froze. That was not Kevin. I couldn't see him clearly, but I was certain that, whoever that was, was way too tall--and bulky--to be Kevin. I blinked, hoping that when my eyes opened again there would not be some strange guy watching me shower.

There wasn't.

Instead there was a shower curtain rushing toward me. I tried to let out a scream, but something hit me hard in the stomach and I couldn't make a sound as all the air rushed out of me. I doubled over in pain, grabbing at the curtain in hopes that I could keep myself on my feet. Unfortunately, I still fell, and I took the curtain down with me. I struggled to get myself untangled and became aware of the sound of the water being turned off. Huh. An assailant concerned with water conservation. Or one who didn't want to get completely soaked, I guess. I scrambled to my feet and started trying to knock the curtain away from me but before I could the big guy was grabbing me, curtain and all and hauling me out of the shower.

I tried to take a swing at him, but the curtain was wrapped around me in such a way that my arms were somewhat restrained. This had to be a joke. The real joke. It hadn't been the banana peel thing at all--that was just the set up for this prank. It so wasn't funny. I was going to have to murder Brian in his sleep or something tonight to make up for it.

But if it were a joke, they wouldn't really have let the guy hit me...would they? That was going a bit too far. I renewed my struggles just in case this wasn't a prank. But it had to be one. No other explanation made sense.

Okay so there were lots of other explanations that made more sense, but none that I was willing to accept.

I stomped down on my captor's foot and was rewarded as his grip on me loosened just a bit. I scrambled back as best I could but I was disoriented and still pretty tangled so I ended up tripping over my own feet, toppling over and striking my head on what I assumed was probably the edge of the counter. Ow. My vision became even blurrier, which I hadn't thought possible. I didn't have time to contemplate that pain or the blurriness though. I needed to get out of there. If this was a joke, the guys could laugh at me all they wanted later, but I so wasn't sticking around in case it wasn't a prank.

I tried to throw the curtain off again, but before I got the chance the guy was on top of me again, pinning me to the ground. Oh God he was heavy. I struggled beneath him, but he was far too heavy and had the distinct advantage of having use of all his limbs. It didn't even seem like he had to put much effort into holding me down. I tried again to scream out for help. Unfortunately I still wasn't able to get in enough air to make more than a really pathetic little whimpery sound. Oh yeah, that'd be real helpful. Great.

I thrashed my body hoping that I could somehow throw him off of me. No dice. My heart was pounding faster and faster as I realized how incredibly helpless this guy had rendered me. And without much effort it seemed. I tried to kick at him, but it was no use. I was completely at his mercy.

I closed my eyes and began praying to whatever gods would listen that this was some sort of joke the guys were playing on me to get back at me for every prank I'd ever pulled on them. Cuz if it wasn't...

I felt something sharp jab into my side and froze in shock. A needle. I'd been stuck with a needle. Oh god. What was this guy doing? What was he putting into my body? There was no way this was a prank; I know the guys wouldn't allow me to be drugged. I tried to jerk away from the needle but it was no use. It was too late. After a few moments I felt the needle being withdrawn. The damage was done. No. Nonononono.

I blinked back the tears that had started to form in my eyes. Crying wouldn't help my situation any and I didn't have time to panic. I needed to keep my head. Had to think straight. Had to get out of this. Had to...my eyelids were already starting to feel heavy. Was it supposed to work that fast? Didn't matter if it was supposed to, it was. No doubt about it. I had to get away before it got any worse. Had to...had to what? My head was feeling all fuzzy. I couldn't think straight. Right. Thinking. Had to get out of this. Had to...

My arms felt like lead weights as I tried one more time to push the guy off me. Whatever he'd injected into my body was doing its work. Way too damn fast. This was so not fair.

The man shifted his weight off me and I was able to breathe again. I gulped in my first real lung full since he'd punched me the first time. My heart was still racing. In fact it was going so fast I felt as though it would probably explode within a few moments. Then again maybe that would be a blessing because I couldn't seem to move anymore. Which meant that I had absolutely no chance of protecting myself from whatever was going to happen to me. It was too much to hope that he'd just leave me alone now that I was completely powerless, so my hope now was that whatever was going to happen would happen quickly. I have kind of an allergy to pain.

"If you're going to kill me, kill me quick," I tried to beg him, feeling completely ashamed that I was already stooping to such a low. I'm not sure whether it's fortunate or unfortunate that the words came out sounding more like complete nonsensical whimpers rather than real words. At least he wouldn't know how pathetic I was being. Cuz whimpering isn't pathetic. Sure.

My eyelids were getting heavier still. I wasn't going to be able to keep my eyes open much longer. Maybe I already was dying. Maybe whatever he'd injected into me would do the trick? I let my eyes shut for a moment, but then was suddenly filled with such a profound terror that I would never open them again that I forced them open. I didn't want to die. I took back my earlier plea. He could do whatever he wanted to me if he let me walk away from it. Or at least crawl away from it. I wanted to live. I could only stare up at his distorted image as he stood over me. I didn't even have the strength to try to beg him any more. I couldn't keep my eyes open no matter how much I wanted to. The last things I saw before I gave in to the darkness were his giant hands reaching for me.

First Casualty by Chaos
His hands were reaching for me. I had to get out of there. My head hurt and my limbs were useless, but there was no way I was just going to let him do...god only knows what to me. No way. I had to fight! My heart was racing and I thrashed my body with renewed effort as adrenaline seemed to kick me into overdrive. Unfortunately, even with the adrenaline bonus, I didn't seem to be getting anywhere.

"Shhh, son, calm down, everything is okay. Relax now, buddy," a soothing voice floated toward me. His voice. I felt his rough hand run across my forehead, gently brushing my hair away from my face. For some reason that just didn't sooth me (wonder why) but spurred me on all the more. I didn't want him talking to me, and I sure didn't want him touching me again. I had to get away. If only I weren't so tangled up in this stupid thing. "We've got you now, everything's going to be okay." We? My eyes flew open.

It took a few moments for me to orient myself enough to realize that I wasn't on the bathroom floor. For one thing, I wasn't on the floor. For another I seemed to be on a cot. A cot with straps holding me down. Straps, not hands, not a shower curtain. That was actually quite a bit of a relief, but that didn't change the fact that I was strapped down and defenseless. Or that there were people around me.

One of them--him?--was reaching toward my face. I tried to flinch away but there was nowhere to go. "Just take it easy now." I could see his lips moving and even could hear him, but he sounded a whole lot farther away than he looked.

A split second later he was a whole lot closer. Practically nose to nose with me. How did that happen? I don't remember him moving. He looked a lot different than I expected when he'd tackled me earlier. He wasn't as big as he'd seemed. Or maybe this was a different guy. Oh yeah, no way was it the same guy. The other guy was definitely bigger than this one.

There was suddenly a very bright light shining directly into my face. I closed my eyes to get away from it, but immediately felt fingers prying my right eye back open and shining the light directly into it. What kind of torture was this?! I wanted to yell at him to stop touching me, but my mouth wasn't cooperating with my brain at all.

I heard a woman talking in the distance about an unidentified male age 20 to 25. Something about multiple contusions but I couldn't really catch the whole thing. Her voice seemed to be fading in and out. Plus there was that really annoying light. Which was now shining into my left eye as someone held that open. When did that happen? I tried to close my eye again and was surrounded in darkness. No, not that, please not the dark. Oh yeah. My eyes were closed. Duh. Come on brain, even you're swifter than that. My eyes opened again and there was still a man leaning over me, but to my relief, not quite so close this time. I blinked a few times hoping he'd go away, but he didn't. I wanted to ask him who he was, but I couldn't seem to remember how to speak.

"Do you know where you are, son?" a different man was leaning over me and I could see his lips moving but they didn't seem quite in connection to the words I was hearing. I shook my head. Nothing was making any sense at all.

"Ready to roll," another voice called. And then I heard something like a van door opening and a really loud wailing sound that for a moment I thought was maybe me screaming since that's what I wanted to be doing right now, too, but then I realized that it was a siren. Like a police car. Or...an ambulance.

Oh.

Now that kinda made sense. Things were starting to fall into place. I was in an ambulance. Or rather was now being taken out of an ambulance. Well, that was lots better a scenario than being attacked in a hotel bathroom. Much much better.

Except, of course, an ambulance probably meant I was hurt. And with that realization my whole body finally let my brain in on the fact that it was several minutes behind everything else and screamed out in agony. Right. Pain. I think I liked it better when my brain wasn't aware of that yet. But at least now they were rolling me into a building that in all likelihood was a hospital, and hospitals were generally pretty good about stopping pain. It's what they're there for after all.

I closed my eyes against the bright light of the hallway they were wheeling me through. And when they opened again I realized that I was no longer being moved and I seemed to be alone. Alone was good. Alone was not being poked, prodded, or punched. All good things to avoid. It seemed kinda weird that one moment I was surrounded and now I was alone, but not looking a gift horse in the mouth.

A moment later I made an even better discovery: I could move. No straps holding me down. I tried to sit up but the dizziness that struck the moment I lifted my head from my pillow convinced me that was perhaps not such a bright move and I lay back down flat.

"That's right, just lie still," an unfamiliar voice came from somewhere near my feet. Guess I wasn't alone after all. I struggled to sit up enough to see who was there. A woman in a white jacket was walking around the edge of the bed to stand at my side. She put a hand on my shoulder and gently pushed me back down. It didn't take a whole lot of her urging for me to obey. I felt a lot better when I was down. Nausea, not my friend.

"Do you know where you are?" the woman asked, looking down at me intently.

"The hospital," I heard my voice answering her before I even really thought about it. Guess my mouth was now a few seconds ahead of my brain.

She smiled. "That's right. You were brought into County General a few hours ago." Hours? But I was just on a gurney. How could hours have passed? I guess my eyes must've reflected the minor panic I was suddenly feeling because her smile became more sympathetic. "Don't worry, we've been taking good care of you." Well, that was a relief anyway. "Can you tell me your name?"

"Nick," I responded automatically. It was almost as if my mouth was working on autopilot or something, coming up with the answers before my brain even got a chance to start thinking. Then again, that was a pretty easy question. Though now that I was thinking about it, I probably should have used my pseudonym. Security would probably be mad at me for using my real name. Well, I'd do that when she asked for my last name.

She jotted my name down on the clipboard I hadn't noticed her holding, then looked back at me again. "And your last name?"

"Carter." So much for using my pseudonym.

"Okay, Nick, that's great." Yeah I can say my name. Always a bonus. "Do you have someone we should call for you?" This time I didn't have an automatic answer. Who should she call? "A parent maybe?" I nodded. Then shook my head as I realized that calling my parents would probably not be very helpful. They weren't here. Dad would probably be at home and I wasn't entirely sure what area of the country mom was in at the moment. Probably not anywhere near here, though.

"Brian," the answer finally popped out of nowhere.

"Terrific. Do you know Brian's number?"

I rattled off his cellphone number without even really thinking about it. Autopilots are pretty handy to have around.

"Okay, Nick. I'm going to go call Brian for you. Just hold tight, okay?"

I nodded and watched her until she moved out of my range of vision. Then I really was alone. Which for about the first 30 seconds seemed like a pretty good thing.

But then I started actually thinking. About how I'd gotten here, about what had happened. Someone had actually *attacked* me. And from the way I felt they'd done a pretty good job of beating the snot out of me. What I couldn't figure out was what happened after that. How had I gotten an ambulance?

Kevin. He'd probably found me and called for one. That thought made me relax a little bit until I realized that if that were the case, Kevin would probably be here at the hospital with me. Unless something had happened to him, too.

I squeezed my eyes shut as if that could somehow block that thought out. I wished I could remember exactly what had happened. Then again, considering what I did remember and the fact that things had obviously gotten worse after that maybe it was good that I couldn't remember. Except, not knowing left lots of room for the imagination to work overtime. That wasn't such a good thing either. Especially when I started imagining that the guy was there in the room with me again, ready to pounce. I felt my heart starting to race again.

I opened my eyes again and looked around to make sure that I was still alone. Seeing that I was I relaxed again. No one was going to attack me. That guy was in jail or something by now. No need to be afraid of him. He was gone. I was safe. And alone. Completely alone. I hoped that the doctor got a hold of Brian and he got here fast. I'd feel a whole lot better if he were here with me. And that he could assure me that Kevin was okay, too. What if something had happened to him? Back to these thoughts again. Aloneness definitely wasn't all it was cracked up to be.

* * *

I don't think I've ever been as happy to hear Brian's voice as when I heard him in the hallway asking someone where to find me. At last, I wouldn't be alone with all the horrible thoughts that kept going through my head. I'd been driving myself crazy for what seemed like hours but was likely only a matter of minutes.

I sat up quickly. Damn. Forgot about the splitting headache. But I didn't want to be lying down looking all feeble when he got here, so I ignored it. I reached behind me to turn the pillow up. Then I slid my body toward the head of the bed so that I could lean back and the pillow could help prop me up. My body protested the movement but I ignored it. Not gonna be a baby about the little (okay big) aches and pains. The pains that nobody had been around to tell me what was causing yet. Then again, I guess I knew what caused them, didn't I? But it just seemed weird to me that the doctors hadn't come in to tell me what the extent of the damage was. Maybe they were waiting for someone to be here with me before they told me that. That was a fairly creepy thought. See that's exactly why I didn't want to be alone. Thinking wasn't being my friend today.

I was still trying to get settled when I heard a small, strangled noise from the doorway. I looked quickly, worried by whatever had made it. And saw Brian standing there. He'd made that sound? Judging from the look on his face, that wasn't a completely far-fetched theory.

"Hey, Bri," I called out trying to sound like everything was normal. He just stood in the doorway staring at me for a moment, looking shocked. I actually wondered for a split second if maybe I'd grown a second nose or something weird. But then he was moving toward me. I saw AJ appear in the doorway behind him. That meant Howie and Kevin were probably close by too. Good. I'd be able to finally get the horrible thoughts about Kevin out of my head.

"Jeez, Nick," I heard Brian say in a really quiet voice. It could have been my imagination but he sounded even shakier than I felt. He looked really out of it, too. There wasn't even a trace of the normal humor in his face. Did I look that bad?

I forced myself to smile to reassure him that I was okay. "Hey," I repeated as he sat down on the edge of my bed and just stared at me. Again it could have been imagination but it looked like he had tears in the corners of his eyes. But then he blinked at they were gone. Or maybe they weren't ever there at all.

"Hey, Kaos," I heard AJ greet from where he still stood in the doorway. He sounded really subdued, and like he had no idea what to say. AJ tongue tied? Weird. I looked over at him and was stunned at his appearance. He looked like he hadn't slept in days. It wasn't all that uncommon for him not to sleep; he just usually didn't look that way. He lowered his head so I couldn't see his eyes beyond the rim of his hat. Something was really wrong here.

I became aware of the fact that there was a hand reaching toward my face and flinched before I realized that it was just Brian's. He quickly pulled back as if I'd slapped him or something. "Sorry," he whispered guiltily.

"It's okay. I just wasn't expecting it," I assured Brian carefully. What was going on? Why were they being so weird? Unless I looked really horrible or something. Which, I reminded myself, was entirely possible. I still didn't know the extent of the damage. Though I was fairly certain now that the pain I was feeling wasn't just all in my head.

I glanced back at AJ, who still hadn't moved from the doorway. I could see a couple more people behind him. Not Howie and Kevin though; instead it was Jack and Ed, two of the bodyguards that we usually had with us for shows and public appearances. Why were they here? They'd come with Brian and AJ, obviously, but that was weird since they didn't generally hang around when off duty. Something about not getting personal with us since that might affect their work if they somehow got emotionally involved or something. So then, again came the question of why they were here now. I tried to make sense out of it when I realized that the doctor had said something about me being here a few hours. So that probably meant that it was night. We had a concert scheduled. Had the guys come from there? Management had probably made them go on with just the four of them. It was too big a pain to reschedule at the last minute. I wondered if they'd like stopped in the middle of the show or something. That was really weird to think about. Oh well, we'd just have to reschedule after all.

Brian glanced to see who I was looking at then back at me and smiled slightly. "Permanent fixtures from now until..." he trailed off as if he seemed to realize that he was about to say something wrong. Something I wasn't supposed to know?

"Until?" I prompted, not entirely sure I wanted to know the answer.

Brian looked reluctant to elaborate, and he paused for a few moments as if he were choosing his words really carefully. "Until we know what happened to you," he finally answered, sounding miserable.

I nodded, not quite sure how to take that. They didn't know? Then again, I realized, if Kevin hadn't been the one to call an ambulance it made sense that they didn't know. But that led back to the same old 'what happened to Kevin and why wasn't he the one to call an ambulance?' thing. He'd been in the room just across the hall from mine, so it only made sense that he should've been there first. Brian hadn't said anything about not knowing what happened to Kevin. Just me. I had a really bad feeling. What if something *really* bad had happened to Kevin. I swallowed hard and stared at Brian, searching for answers. He looked exhausted, and more than a little sad. Oh no. My heart sank. No. "Kevin?" I asked, and was surprised by how small my voice suddenly sounded.

Brian looked confused for a moment but recovered quickly. "He's back at the hotel. He was afraid you wouldn't want to see him." What? That made no sense. Why wouldn't I want to see him? But at least Brian didn't seem all that concerned about him so that probably meant he was okay. That, at least, was a tremendous relief. But it was really weird that he didn't think I'd want to see him. Also couldn't be farther from the truth since I wasn't sure I'd completely believe he was okay until I saw him for myself. Brian could just be trying to protect me from the truth or something. "But he said to tell you he's glad you're okay. He's been really worried about you."

"Not the rest of us, though," AJ spoke up again. It was obvious he was trying to joke like we always do, but it sounded kinda forced. "Didn't have us worried at all," he added as he finally came into the room instead of lurking in the doorway. "You look like shit, dude," he suddenly announced as if he'd just come to that conclusion. I couldn't help it, I grinned. Brian, on the other hand, glared at him as he sank into the chair next to the bed.

"What about Howie?" I asked, wondering why he hadn't come with them, either. Did he think I didn't want to see him, too? I still couldn't figure that one out.

"Howie? Nah, man, he's looking fine. You're the one who needs work," AJ answered, a real smile forming on his face at last. Same old AJ after all. Good to know that some things will never change.

"He stayed with Kevin," Brian informed me seriously. He was still eyeing AJ incredulously. Like it was so unusual for AJ to be playin with me? Something weird was definitely going on with Brian. Maybe he hadn't figured out that I *wanted* everything to be like normal. I wasn't going to let some psycho attacking me change that.

I was about to tell Brian that when there was a knocking sound coming from near the door. I looked over to see two men in suits standing in the doorway. I looked at Brian questioningly, but he wasn't looking at me. He was nodding to them in greeting. He didn't seem all that surprised to see them.

"Sorry to bother you, Mr. Carter," one of the men apologized, even though he didn't really sound all that sorry. How did he know my name? Okay that was probably a stupid question. Good thing I hadn't asked aloud or AJ would have laughed at me.

"Uh...okay?" I replied, not sure how else I was supposed to respond.

"We just need to get your statement as soon as possible, before you forget anything."

I frowned. My statement? I looked back at the men and tried figure out if I'd seen them before. Reporters maybe? But how would they have known to come? No one at the hospital had seemed to indicate that they'd recognized me, and I know that the guys wouldn't have called the press.

"I'm Agent Harris, this is Agent Walters," the second guy introduced them, noting my confusion.

"Oh, sorry," Walters apologized, again not sounding terribly regretful. Agents?

I felt Brian's weight leaving the bed and looked back to him. He was watching me intently. "Want us to go?" he asked, stepping closer to AJ.

I shook my head quickly, suddenly feeling irrationally insecure. I didn't want them to leave me alone. Or with these two...agent guys. I didn't know them. I wanted Brian close by. "No. Stay."

Brian smiled slightly and stepped closer to the bed again, but he didn't sit back down.

"We need to talk to Mr. Carter alone," Walters informed us, looking at Brian pointedly.

I saw Brian's jaw squaring slightly and recognized his stubborn look. There was no way he was leaving until I okayed it. I relaxed and let him fight it out with the agent guys. "He wants me to stay. I'm staying. I'll be quiet."

Walters opened his mouth but Harris cut him off. "That'll be fine. We just want to get a statement while things are fresh in his mind."

AJ looked like he was torn, not sure if he should stay or leave. When Walters glared at him, he seemed to make up his mind. "I'm going to run down to the cafeteria. Want anything?" No one answered him, but he was out the door a few moments later anyway.

They wanted a statement. I had no idea what to tell them. I watched them warily as they approached the bed. Harris sat down in the chair that AJ had vacated but Walters moved closer and remained standing. I found myself tensing as I noticed how large a man he was. I didn't want him looming over me. I shifted uncomfortably and winced as the movement caused pain to shoot through my body. I still couldn't quite figure out what the origin of the pain was and wondered when someone would clue me in.

"You okay?" Brian asked immediately, concerned. "Need me to get your doc?"

I shook my head. I didn't want him leaving.

"All right, then. What can you tell us about what happened?" Walters asked. Swift and right to the point. I saw Brian scowling at him, but he didn't seem to notice. Or he didn't care.

I looked down, suddenly feeling very uncomfortable. I didn't really want to think about what had happened, and definitely didn't want to talk about it. Especially not in front of these strangers. So I looked instead at Brian. It would be easier if I were telling him about it. We usually tell each other everything anyway. He knew me better than just about anyone else.

"We--Kevin and I--" I started after taking a moment to collect my thoughts.

"That would be Kevin Richardson?" Walters cut me off.

Brian's scowl deepened slightly but he remained silent. I nodded. "Right. We went back to the hotel to shower and change..." I recounted the story to them, leaving out the fact that I'd stopped to watch TV for a few minutes. Not that they really would have cared but I figured that I didn't really want it getting back to Kevin. Old habits die hard. "And that's when I blacked out," I finished after I told them about how the guy had attacked me.

For a few moments it was silent in the room, then Walters spoke up again. "And then what happened?"

I couldn't help smirking. "I don't know, I was kind of unconscious."

Walters wasn't amused and he made an aggravated sigh. Harris moved forward in his chair, looking like he was deep in thought. His brow furrowed. "And when you woke up...?" he prompted, no sign of the irritation that his partner exuded.

"I was in the ambulance," I answered, not sure if there was another answer he was looking for. I looked at Brian, confused. He was watching me with a somewhat apprehensive look. What was that about?

"Nothing else?" Harris sounded surprised.

I shook my head slowly, my eyes still locked on Brian, whose eyes got just a little bit wider. "No. That's it," I thought back trying to figure out if I'd missed something. Other than leaving out the watching a few minutes of The Simpsons thing there really wasn't anything else. And that really didn't seem like it was any of their business. Nor did it seem like it would have any relevance to what had happened. "Nothing else happened. We went back to the hotel to clean up, so we could go back for the walk through this afternoon. I was attacked in the shower. I woke up in the ambulance," I summed the story up again. The room fell silent again. I could actually feel them all staring at me.

"Nick..." Brian spoke very slowly, glancing at the agents as if looking for their approval to speak.

"What?" I was getting that bad feeling again. Something was really wrong. I glanced at the agents to see if I could get some sort of clue from them. Harris nodded at Brian, so I turned my attention back to him. I don't think anything could have prepared me for the next words out of his mouth.

"You've been missing for six days."
Interrogation Unit by Chaos
A lot can happen in six days. I've never really stopped to think about that before. There've been weeks when we've been on tour that I've complained that our schedule was so hectic that we barely had time to breathe, but I've never really considered just how much stuff happens in that amount of time. Having a six-day block of time missing from my memory, however, gives me a new appreciation (or perhaps that's depreciation?) of time. Six days. That's one hundred forty four hours. Or if you prefer it's eight thousand six hundred forty minutes. I don't even want to think about how many seconds that would be. My brain already hurts without trying to figure that one out.

In the past two hours (for those of you keeping track, that's one hundred twenty minutes) I've really developed a delightful new obsession. Playing the "What I Could do in Six Days" game.

Did you know that you could pick all the pepperoni off an entire pizza in under a minute (assuming you're skilled, of course)? Which means that I could have picked pepperoni off eight thousand six hundred forty pizzas during those six missing days. No, I don't honestly think that's what I was doing during that time, but it's the best scenario that I could come up with. The rest were not nearly as amusing.

I really didn't want to tell Brian or AJ (or anyone else for that matter), but it was really bothering me that I couldn't remember anything from that time. It scares me thinking about all the things that could have happened. My overactive imagination really hasn't helped. It's what made me start playing the stupid game.

I wonder how many times you could sing the alphabet song in six days. I really needed to stop playing this game.

I'm so glad that Brian stayed with me while the agents interviewed me. After they figured out that I didn't remember any of my captivity, they started questioning me about my assailant. Walters, of course, got really annoyed by the fact that I couldn't give a very detailed description.

He was big.

Really big.

Bigger than I am, anyway, and I'm really not a small man.

He also seemed to know exactly what he was doing because the first thing he'd done was punch me in the diaphragm so that I wouldn't be able to get enough air in to scream. And he'd rendered me defenseless in less than sixty seconds. Not that I'm a fighter or anything, but I like to think that without the element of surprise (and a really pesky shower curtain) that I would have been able to hold my own at least a little better than that. It's kind of embarrassing that I got taken down so easily. Of course I hadn't expected to be tackled while I was in the shower. Yeah that's why I didn't fight better. Hey, a guy can make excuses if he wants to.

I bet you could probably shampoo your hair a pretty good number of times in six days. I wonder if that would make your hair fall out or something though. Damn, I really have to stop this game.

Back to the guy. His hair color? Honestly I couldn't tell. It wasn't really my concern at the moment. I think it might have been dark, but I'm not sure. He could have been wearing a hat or something. How sad is it that I don't even know that much? I also couldn't ever get a look at his eyes. The curtain had made his image blurry enough that I couldn't even tell if he had any real distinguishing features. For all I know he had a tattoo of the state of Arkansas on his forehead. I kept that theory to myself though, cuz I knew Walters would give that same annoyed sigh.

Oh, the guy had big hands. And he carried a syringe filled with something that knocked me out really fast. Did that help at all?

Judging from the look on Walters' face, I'm going to have to answer that question with a hearty "no".

After what seemed like hours of going over the same questions with me feeling like a complete idiot because I couldn't give better answers, they finally seemed to be ready to quit for the night. "If you remember anything else," Harris rose from the chair and handed me a business card, "be sure to call right away. Day or night."

I wondered if he would be the one to answer or if I'd have to talk to Walters. Somehow I really didn't want to see what that man was like when he was woken up at 2 in the morning so I could tell him that the guy was wearing a black shirt. Which I think he was, now that I think about it, but I guess I didn't really pay that much attention to that either. Next time I get attacked I have to remember to try to get a better description. Not that I ever want to be attacked again or anything. But if it ever did happen again I wanted to be able to answer these questions without feeling like a moron.

Walters stepped closer to the bed and without even thinking about it I jerked back. A movement I instantly regretted as the pain flared up again. Stupid me. I don't even know why exactly I flinched like that. I know that he was a good guy, even if he was extremely grumpy.

Walters scowled but he reached out a hand. "Thank you for your time."

I took his hand to shake it and winced as he suddenly twisted my arm and peered at it closely.

"You have marks on your wrists," he informed me. Like I couldn't see that for myself? Okay, given I hadn't actually looked at my wrists, so I hadn't been aware of the marks, but still, I didn't need him telling me about my injuries. That's what the doctors were supposed to do. Not that they had yet. I looked to see what he was staring at. He reached over and took hold of my other wrist, pulling it closer. "On this one, too."

He was right. I had marks on my wrists. They looked sort of like bracelets except that the marks were at an angle so they weren't perfect rings. The marks were perfectly smooth lines. They weren't cuts, more like bruises. But that was kinda weird because someone hitting me wouldn't leave bruises like that. "Tied with wire," he muttered as he let my hands drop. I felt my face flush as I absorbed that new little tidbit of info. Thank you for more fodder for my overactive imagination to play around with.

And then suddenly Walters was practically in my face. Staring at my neck. He made a little "huh" sound and took hold of my head with both his hands. I felt my heart rate speed up and tried to pull back but he didn't let go. Instead, he tilted my head to the side so that he could get a less obstructed view of whatever it was he was looking at on my neck. Excuse me? Hello? Could just ask me to turn my head. I really didn't like that guy...

"We'll want to take photographs," Walters told his partner as he released me and started to walk away. Nice getting to know you, too, pal.

"You'll have to excuse my partner. He's not much of a people person," Harris smiled at me as he extended his hand to me. I was kind of hesitant to shake it after that last spectacle, but this guy seemed nice enough. I noticed that his eyes went to my neck and ended the handshake abruptly. Oh no. Not gonna do that again. My hand went up to protect my neck. "We'll be back tomorrow before you're released. We will want to take pictures of the bruises on your neck," he told me as he stepped back, seeming to realize that I wasn't really happy with his close proximity anymore.

I was being released tomorrow. Great! That meant that there probably wasn't anything too wrong with me. Weird how he knew that before I did though.

They wanted to take pictures of my neck. That was different. I'm pretty used to the picture thing, but why did they specifically want to take pictures of my neck? Bruises, I know, but the rest of me had a fair share of those too. More than a fair share, actually. I must have had a confused look on my face because Harris reached forward again, his hand hesitating over my skin, looking at me for permission to touch. I nodded warily, curiosity winning out over annoyance. I moved my hand away. "You have very precisely formed bruises right here," he touched my neck in the hollow just below my adam's apple, "and here," his hand moved to a spot a lot farther around toward the back of my neck. Precisely formed. So the others were very vague or something, I guess. Once they leave, I really should try to find a mirror. Then again maybe I wasn't ready to see the damage. "They're consistent with an attempted strangulation." I really wish you hadn't told me that, guy. Add another really disturbing image to my repertoire. "We'll want measurements of these here," he indicated the ones at the front, "to compare with our perp's thumbs...and these here..." I shook my head and pulled back. I got the idea.

"Are there any leads?" Brian asked quietly, speaking up for the first time since he'd told me that I'd been missing for six days. Six days! I wonder how many miles you could walk in six days. I shook my head. That was so not important. I needed to concentrate on what the agent was saying.

Harris' smile faded and he shook his head somberly. "So far we don't have much to go on. We've got some evidence that will help put him away when we find him," he assured me.

Wait. Back up a minute. The guy was still out there? He wasn't, like, in jail for kidnapping me? I suddenly felt really cold. I have no idea why I just assumed he'd been caught. Why would they have grilled me so many times for a description if they knew what he looked like? God, I'm really not thinking right today; I should have figured that out earlier. It just seemed to me that if I were here, relatively safe, that the guy must have been caught. Otherwise how had I gotten away? I really wish I could remember. "The uh...pictures and stuff. The bruises. They'll help you find him right? Like...a handprint or whatever?" I asked, trying to sound casual even though I wasn't really feeling calm about this at all. That guy was still out there. Somewhere. And I didn't even know what he looked like. He could be anyone. Anywhere. Okay, gotta stop thinking like that.

Harris smiled again, but this time it looked kind of fakey. "We'll get him." Right. Thanks. Really cleared everything up. "We'll be able to match up the size and shape of the bruises to his hands," he explained. "There's no way to find him based on that, but it will help make prosecuting him easier."

Oh.

That made me feel much better. Really. And if you believe that...

Brian seemed to realize that I was starting to feel pretty agitated because he moved around to the side of the bed closer to me again and put his hand lightly on my shoulder. I don't know why but that really did calm me a little bit. Go figure. Brian Littrell, human security blanket.

"Your doctor said that you would be released some time in the morning, so we will be here early. Is that okay? Or would you rather we come to the hotel during the afternoon?"

The hotel. Despite Brian's protective hand on my shoulder the thought of going back to the hotel made my panic flags start waving again. I didn't want to go back there. Especially not if that guy was on the loose still. Brian's grip on my shoulder tightened a little, and I glanced up at him. He gave me an encouraging smile. Like I was a scared little kid.

Okay, I was being kind of a baby. That's really embarrassing. I forced the panic back down again. The hotel would be safe. Jack and Ed would be there apparently. And probably the other bodyguards on our staff. It would be okay. I could go back there. Right. Okay. Calm now.

"Here's fine," I blurted out. Okay maybe I wasn't that comfortable with the hotel idea yet.

As soon as the agents left, AJ came back into the room after his several hour trip to the cafeteria. I imagine he spent at least a portion of that sitting out in the hallway with Ed and Jack. He really should have gone back to the hotel. I felt bad that he'd waited around doing nothing for so long. Especially considering how tired he looked. I wondered if he had slept at all during those six days.

I wonder what everyone else did during that time. If it had been me left behind while one of them was missing...I honestly don't know what I would have done. I would have gone completely crazy. That's just too weird thinking about them worrying about me like that. I wanted to ask how they did it, what they did while I was gone, but on the other hand I didn't want to sound all conceited or anything and assume that they were thinking of me the whole time or something. So I didn't ask.

"You should call home, dude," AJ said, handing his cellphone to me.

He was right. Geez, that should have been the first thing I'd done. Why hadn't I even thought of it? My doctor had even suggested calling my parents right before I'd said to call Brian. God, did my parents know I'd been missing? Did they know I'd been found? They had to be freaking out!

"Howie called them to tell them you were safe," AJ said, as if he could read my mind. "But you should really call them. They won't feel better until they hear from you yourself." I could understand that. I kind of needed to talk to Kevin for that same reason. Not to mention I was still completely confused by why he hadn't thought I'd want to see him. "You can just hit redial," AJ informed me as I flipped the phone open. He'd called them, too? How weird was that?

"Hello?" I heard my mom's voice less than a minute later. I suddenly didn't know what to say again. She sounded so freaked out. I was afraid that if I spoke I would freak out, too, and that would make her freak out more. "Hello?" she said again.

"Is it Nick?" I could hear my dad's voice in the background. I smiled. It was really good to hear their voices.

"Say something," Brian whispered into my ear. Right, that was probably a good idea.

"Mom," I finally managed to get out.

"It's Nick," I heard my mom announcing to whoever else was there. And pandemonium broke out back home.

I can't even really describe the next several minutes. It was one heck of a roller coaster ride. There was a round of everyone there having to talk to me and hear my voice, but I couldn't seem to say more than a couple words at a time. Part of that was that I was afraid that I was going to blurt out something really inappropriate (like "hey, guess what, I could have picked pepperoni off eight thousand six hundred forty pizzas in the last hundred and forty four hours!") and make them all really worry about me. Another part was that I was just too happy to hear their voices. It had been a while since I'd talked to all of them. When I'm on the road sometimes I don't call as much as I should. Next time I'm not going to wait for something bad to happen. I would call them at least once or twice a week. No matter what. The third part was that they were all just too excited and were talking enough for the both of us.

After that round was done, my dad got back on the phone and informed me that they would all be on the next flight out if I wanted. That kind of scared me. I didn't want them to come. Not that I didn't want to see them. I wanted that more than just about anything. But I didn't want them to see me like this. And I didn't want them here with that guy still on the loose. I didn't want to worry everyone and make them think I was still in danger or anything. I finally convinced him that I didn't want a big deal made and that I wanted things to go back to normal, but promised that I would come home on our next days off. That would also give me something to look forward to rather than focusing on what was happening here.

After we got that squared away, I talked to my mom for a while. And got a reality check on what the six days had been like for the others.

She and Aaron had been in Denver when my dad had gotten in touch with her that first night. He'd been contacted by the FBI about my disappearance, which had been ruled a kidnapping from the very beginning. They'd kept it out of the press at that point, so at least she hadn't found out that way. Could you imagine? So they'd flown home immediately and waited there for word. They waited for someone to call and tell them I was found. Mom said that she knew I hadn't been killed--she insists she would have felt it--but they were also prepared to get a ransom call for me.

On the fourth day someone in the press broke the story. No one is sure how the media caught wind of the situation since there hadn't been any announcements and the FBI had taken every precaution possible to keep the story out of the press. But someone somewhere must have leaked it. And so the media circus began.

Within hours of the original story--which apparently they'd even interrupted regularly scheduled programming for--people from all over the United States and even one from Mexico had called in to news stations, police stations, even the FBI to claim they had me hostage and were demanding money for my release. Calls flooded in with sightings of me everywhere from Alaska to New Zealand. Of course all of those turned out to be false leads, but it had been pretty horrifying to my family every time another report came in.

The worst call, my mom said, was one that came directly to the house. Since our number was unlisted, that one had scared them the most. Fortunately the FBI had set up equipment to trace calls and stuff, and the person was tracked down pretty fast. Turned out to be just a really bored idiot who thought it'd be funny. There are some pretty sick people out there.

The rest of the time, it sounds like my entire family had just sat around, waiting for the phone to ring. They hardly even spoke to each other. It's hard to imagine my family being so...quiet. It's just hard to imagine the whole situation at all. I'm still actually a bit numb to it, not quite believing it really happened.

I wonder if anyone has told the press that I've been found yet. I was not looking forward to the press conference that I was probably going to have to attend. The whole world would know that I didn't know a darn thing about what had happened to me. That'd be fun.

After that sobering conversation with my mom, there was another round of me talking to absolutely everyone else and assuring them that I was alive and well and would be coming home to visit soon.

By the time I got off the phone with my family, AJ had totally fallen asleep in the visitor's chair. I had Brian wake him and tell him that he should go back to the hotel to sleep in a real bed. I told Brian he should go, too, even though I was terrified at the prospect of being left alone. He saw right through me, as usual, and said that he wasn't leaving without me. He can always read me like that. Sometimes it's a little annoying because he'll call me on it every time he catches me trying to hide something from him, but other times it makes my life a lot easier. I really didn't want to look like a wimp and ask him to stay, but hey, if he wanted to insist on staying that was a completely different story.

So Jack escorted AJ back to the hospital and left Ed to watch over Brian and I. I wondered if Ed was just supposed to stay awake all night or what. I thought about inviting him to come sit in the visitor's chair or something, but he had one of the nurses bring him a chair so he could sit outside the door and keep anyone and everyone else away. Except my doctor of course.

She finally decided to make another appearance and finally gave me the complete rundown of what they knew about my condition. As soon as she showed up, Brian returned to security blanket duty, hand on my shoulder, being all protective of me again.

All in all there wasn't much physically wrong with me. I was a bit on the dehydrated side, had a mild concussion, and my entire body was pretty much covered in welts and bruises. That's not much wrong? You should try it sometime, Dr. Lincoln. But the good side of her diagnosis was that I would have a complete recovery--there probably wouldn't even be any permanent scarring--and I was going to be able to get out of the hospital in the morning. They just wanted to keep me overnight for observation.

Unfortunately that was the good portion of what she had to tell me. The bad news...well...it was pretty bad. She gave me lots and lots of new fodder for that game I'd been playing. Gave me lots of ideas I never would have come up with in a million years. Ideas I really wish she hadn't given me because now I couldn't get them out of my head.

See, it turns out the doctors were able to establish why I couldn't remember anything of the past six days. Seems they drew blood when I first was brought in to the emergency room so that they could run some tests on it. Including a tox screen. Dr. Lincoln indicated that if I'd been brought in any later the tests probably wouldn't have turned up anything, but as they got to me in time, they found minute traces of flunitrazepam. Try saying that three times fast.

Of course that meant absolutely nothing to me. I probably wouldn't have asked, but Brian did that for me.

Flunitrazepam. Better known as Rohypnol. Commonly referred to as the date rape drug. See, that's something I really would never have thought about. Things like that don't happen. Well, not to me anyway. I felt really sick at the thought. From the way Brian's hand tightened on my shoulder enough that I was starting to worry that his fingerprints would be embedded into my skin like the ones on my neck I figured that he was as freaked out as me at that prospect.

Except for his hand, though, he didn't react at all, which is probably good because I think if he had freaked out even a little, I would have lost it completely. As it was, I was having trouble focusing on the rest of what she was saying. My mind was now playing an even worse version of 'the game'.

I made myself listen as she explained that Rohypnol was a powerful sedative known for causing "blackouts" or memory loss for anywhere from 8 to 24 hours depending on the person's tolerance, the dosage taken, and whether there was alcohol involved or not. Generally it's pretty hard to trace, I guess. By the mere fact that they had been able to detect it at all meant that I had probably been given a dosage less than two hours before the blood was drawn. She guessed that I had probably been kept sedated with that stuff during the entire time I was held captive. It was likely that I wasn't actually unconscious for that whole amount of time, and that I could maybe start to remember bits and pieces of what happened. But I shouldn't count on it. And odds were good that if I did remember, the memories would come in the form of nightmares and it would be pretty hard to determine what was real and what wasn't. Makes it real tempting to go to sleep, doesn't it?

Considering the results of the tox screen and the fact that it had been obvious that I'd sustained a "nasty" beating--like there's any other kind?--they had done a complete exam in the ER. Trying to collect evidence and make sure I wasn't...damaged. God, that is just so humiliating.

Brian never said a word, but I could tell he was getting more and more frustrated and angry as he listened to Dr. Lincoln describe their findings. Which didn't take long as they really didn't find anything. There was nothing conclusive one way or the other. Nothing to say that I had been...assaulted, nothing to say I hadn't been. Thank you muscle relaxant qualities of Rohypnol. I think I'll choose to assume that nothing happened.

I wasn't raped.

I wasn't.

I would know, wouldn't I? That's just too horrifying a thing to have happen and not remember it. No matter what drugs were involved. I'd know. I'm sure of it. So it didn't happen. I may have eternally bad luck, but something like that would never happen to me.

That didn't really stop me from thinking about the possibility though.

A lot can happen in six days.
Warning Shot by Chaos
Author's Notes:
Okay so three years later I'm finally getting around to moving this into the "New" archive. Okay so I've had some pretty good excuses, but still, how embarassing! Nothing really new here, just wanted to get it moved...
Brian's finger traced lightly along my jawbone. "It's dark through here. And around here," he held his hand up near my right eye and made a bit of a circular motion above the skin. Then his finger grazed lightly across an area at the corner of my mouth. "And there's kind of a scrape-y thing here." He was sitting cross-legged on the bed facing me as I sprawled out, propped up by the pillow again. My head didn't hurt as much this morning as it did last night, but it still pounded when I fully sat up. I hadn't gotten much sleep, and what little I had gotten wasn't terribly restful. I'm fairly sure that I had a nightmare, but I don't remember what it was. Imagine that, me not remembering something. Shocking isn't it? (Not gonna let it bother me, not gonna let it bother me...)

Brian didn't get more than half an hour more sleep than I did, but when he woke up he was back to his normal energetic self. Not that I'm jealous or anything. Well...maybe just a little. "Really it doesn't look so bad," he assured me for about the zillionth (okay, fine, the third) time since I'd started asking what I looked like. "Except for this kinda weird thing here," he added, tapping my nose lightly.

My eyes crossed as I tried to look down at my nose. I couldn't see what he was seeing. "What? Is it like a really bad bruise or something?" And then I looked up and noticed the gleam in his eye. Right. Fell for it again.

"No, Frack, it's your nose. Jeez," he chided me mockingly. I reached out and smacked the back of his head lightly. Jerk. But I couldn't help but grin anyway. He was joking with me again, which meant that things were going to be okay. It would all go back to how things were before and we could put the whole thing behind us. "So, you're good to go, then?" he asked.

Right. Bathroom. I really needed to go, but I'd been putting it off for several hours. I hadn't wanted to see myself in the mirror without knowing what to expect. I know it's kinda stupid and you're probably thinking it was me being vain or something, but it was more like...seeing all the bruises and stuff would make it that much more real. But it was getting to the point where either I was going to have to get up and face the bathroom or they were going to have to attach me to one of those catheter things. And that was so not happening. I have my limits. Plus I somehow don't see Dr. Lincoln being amused at me asking to be hooked up to one unnecessarily anyway, so even if there wasn't the really disturbing thought of a needle being inserted eh...nevermind not gonna even go there.

At least now I knew what to expect so it wouldn't be so bad. "Yeah. Thanks, Frick."

"No problem. Need help?"

"I think that'd be taking advantage of our friendship," I deadpanned.

He shook his head. "It's okay; you're hurt."

Duh, Bri, wasn't aware of that. "I meant you were taking advantage."

His jaw squared for a moment then he nodded, hiding a grin. He was obviously trying not to let me know I'd gotten him back for the nose thing. "You're warped, Frack."

Don't I know it?

I realized that I made a mistake in turning down Brian's offer of help as I slowly made my way across the room. Pain wasn't the only problem, though it was a pretty big factor. Every step I took sent pain racing throughout my body. The bigger problem, though, was that I felt inordinately weak, like my legs were going to collapse under me and I was going to end up flat on my face at any moment. But I didn't want to humble myself for asking for his help now. So I stubbornly shuffled my way into the room on my own.

At first I was just going to avoid looking in the mirror. Brian had told me exactly what to expect, but that didn't mean I really wanted to see it. But after I relieved myself and had stopped at the sink to wash my hands, curiosity won out again and I looked. It's a really good thing I'm not a cat or I'd probably be dead by now.

Brian had done a pretty accurate job at describing the injuries. Though I think he was being less than honest about it not looking so bad. Our makeup people would have their work cut out for them if we kept our schedule for the photo shoot tomorrow. Or wait. That was a few days ago. That's still going to take some getting used to. With any luck they'd just canceled or postponed that shoot indefinitely because I'd had enough of photo shoots to last me a while and I doubted that the photos the agents took of me this morning would be making any of the promotional posters.

One thing I'll have to say for the photographer they brought in for the job was that he was a lot faster than most of the photographers we usually work with. Maybe we should hire him for the next promotional shoot. Then again that was probably because he didn't have to worry about getting me at the best angle and didn't care if I had a goofy smile or if my eyes were crossed or something. Besides, he'd had very little regard for modesty when he'd made me take off the hospital gown so they could get pictures of the rest of my injuries. The others might not mind that so much, but I kinda prefer keeping my shirt on, thanks. Guess we'll stick with the regulars.

I could see what the agents had meant about the bruises on my neck. They were very distinctly finger-shaped. And they proved my statement that the man had large hands. I shuddered as I thought about those hands choking me hard enough to leave bruises like that.

The thing that worried me was that if my neck didn't really hurt and the bruises looked that bad, what did my back and my stomach look like? I reached behind me and tugged at the strings on my gown until it came untied. I must be a glutton for punishment. I slid out of the gown and let it drop to the floor and stood before the mirror, stunned by the reflection. That wasn't me. Couldn't be. For one thing I was at least fifteen pounds heavier than that guy. And I certainly didn't have marks all over my body like that blonde freak that looked vaguely like me did. Unfortunately when I blinked the reflection didn't change. Damn.

Why would someone do that to me? I'm not a bad person. I try to be nice to people. I'm a bit grouchy in the mornings, I admit it. When I'm really tired and just can't keep the smile pasted on any longer I confess have a bit of a temper. And I know I get on Kevin's nerves sometimes when we argue about a vocal arrangement or I don't act "adult" enough for his tastes, or on Howie's when I don't realize that I've teased him too much in too short a period of time. Maybe that's why they hadn't come to see me.

But I've never done anything that would deserve the beating I'd gotten. Had I? Maybe I'm just a little too biased on that one. But I still don't think I did. Did I?

I slid my hand across the dark purple--almost black--splotch that covered most of my right side from my chest to my hip. That wasn't the only mark by a longshot, but it was the worst one. There was another one that was almost as bad though--right where I'd been hit the very first time. The blow that had started it all. I wondered if that strike was what did all the damage or if I'd been hit there again later. It would probably be lighter in color if it were a week old. The rest of the marks probably would have normally bothered me, but when comparing them to those two it kind of made them seem unimportant.

What had I done? Why had someone hurt me like that? My legs suddenly felt even weaker so I leaned against the wall. My hand moved over the dark patch again and I winced at the tremor of pain that went through my body. What did I do that was so wrong? I couldn't understand it.

My legs didn't want to hold me up, which is okay because I really didn't want to be standing up anymore. And I really didn't want to be looking at that grotesque image in the mirror. I wanted this to all go away. I'd be happy if I suddenly woke up and found out this was some sort of horrible nightmare. It could be a nightmare, right? That's the only thing that makes sense. So, any moment now I was going to wake up gasping for air and sweating like I'd run twenty miles in my sleep. Any moment now.

...

Okay maybe not. It was a good try, though, wasn't it?

I closed my eyes and let myself slide down the wall until I was seated on the floor with my knees drawn up to my chest. It kind of hurt to be in that position, but I didn't care, I felt more secure. A smaller target. I wrapped my arms around my knees and tucked my head down so that I was as small a target as possible. If I were little, maybe, I wouldn't get hit again. Not gonna get hit again. Hurts. Leave me alone. Please leave me alone.

There was a soft knock on the door and I raised my head, staring at the knob, praying it wouldn't move. It didn't, but a moment later the knock came again. For a moment I was petrified with irrational fear of whatever was coming. What had I been thinking coming into the bathroom alone? Okay, that's really not a normal question, is it? The bathroom is usually safe. Just that one time it wasn't. It's safe now. Breathe. Inhale; exhale. Calm.

"Okay in there?" Brian's concerned voice came through the door. No. I'm not. I'm not okay. Help me. "Frack?" Oh, jeez he sounded upset. I had to answer him; I couldn't let him know how panicked I felt, he'd only worry more. I had to calm down. This was so stupid. I wasn't usually like this. Not that I'm the bravest guy in the world or anything, but I'm not usually that easily freaked out, either. And I'm not usually so dense that I wouldn't have guessed it was Brian knocking. He was, after all, just in the next room. I felt really idiotic for freaking out.

It took me a moment to find my voice. "Yeah, I'll be out in a minute," I called. My voice sounded shaky despite my best effort to sound normal. I hadn't realized that I'd started crying at some point, but my cheeks were wet. I wiped them dry with the back of my hand and started blinking to stop any further tears. I didn't want Brian to know what a wreck I was. He'd just go back to babying me and being overprotective. I didn't want that. Well, part of me did, but I didn't want to want that and that's what's important. Okay, that thought confused even me.

"I'm coming in." Brian sounded even more worried. Damn, Brian, I'm sorry.

I wanted to get back up on my feet before he came in, but I just didn't have the strength. I thought about telling him to go away, but the truth is, I did want him there. I wanted him to hold me and tell me that everything was okay. That I was okay. I'm twenty-one years old and I shouldn't need that. I'm a man now, not a little kid. I didn't want him to see me like this.

I tucked my head back down again. Oh yeah, that's the grown up thing to do.

The door opened slowly and I became aware that someone was towering over me. I felt my body start to tremble. How dumb could I be? I knew it was Brian, but still I was shaking like it was some monster coming to rip me to pieces.

"Hey," Brian's voice floated down to me and then a moment later I felt his hand on my shoulder. I knew it was him and that he'd never hurt me, but for some reason that's not the message that my reflexes were given. I jerked away from him and pressed myself back into the corner created by the counter and the wall. "It's okay, Nicky." His voice surprised me. He sounded almost as panicked as I felt.

I looked up at him finally. He looked frightened, and a little hurt. Oh no. I'm such a dork that I hurt his feelings. Of course I did, pulling away like that. What was I thinking? That was the problem. I wasn't thinking right at all. I don't know what was wrong with me. "I'm sorry," I apologized, my voice sounding incredibly small.

"Oh, hey, no," he soothed. "It's okay." He picked up my discarded hospital gown and moved very slowly toward me, as if he was afraid I'd freak out again. All right, so that was a perfectly valid fear, since I couldn't seem to control my own reactions. I hope that's just another effect of the drug or something.

I could feel myself tensing up as he dropped down beside me, but I forced myself not to flinch away. "You want me to go get your doc?" he asked. "Are you hurting?"

I shook my head. "I'm okay," I lied. "Just freaked out." That much was true anyway. "Sorry."

Brian nodded, as if he understood. I don't think it's possible to understand what I was feeling. I didn't even understand it, so how could he? He draped the gown over my shoulders, then very cautiously reached into the sleeve. He watched my eyes apprehensively, ready to pull back at the first sign that I was going to freak again. I was actually starting to feel normal again. Well, as normal as one could be while sitting in hospital issue boxers while his best friend dressed him. He helped me get my arms into the sleeves of the gown then sat down next to me, and reached his arm around me in sort of a half embrace.

For a moment I hesitated, but then I let myself lean against him.

"You're okay," he assured me again and held me just a little tighter. I let my head drop against his shoulder and closed my eyes. How did he always seem to know exactly what I needed to hear?

I'm a little embarrassed to admit that we sat in the bathroom for the better part of an hour before I felt ready to get up and resume normal life again. We didn't speak at all, which was just fine by me. I think that if either of us had spoken I only would have felt even more humiliated. I probably would have lost it again. I would have told him how scared I was that this had happened to me, or how terrified I was that it could happen again. I know he wouldn't make fun of me or anything like that; he probably already knew anyway. I don't know why I let myself get so freaked out. I can't even really tell you what I was thinking about that entire time. Mostly I think I just kind of numbed out. I was aware of Brian watching me and of him occasionally stroking my hair soothingly. A couple times he started to rub my back, but he'd stop that when I'd wince because he'd hit another bruise. I'm glad I couldn't see what my back looked like in the mirror.

When at last I was ready to get up and face things again, I slowly sat up straight again and smiled shyly at Brian. He hadn't had to comfort me like that since we were first on the road and I used to get homesick. But he definitely hadn't lost the touch.

"You okay?" he asked as he got to his feet and reached out his hand to help me up.

I nodded. "Thanks."

"Anytime."

"Is three o'clock good for you?" I asked, trying to joke a little to let him know I really was okay again. Show's over folks, nothing to see here.

His face scrunched up as he pretended to consider. "I guess it could be penciled in," he agreed with mock reluctance.

Jerk.

I got released from the hospital about an hour after we finally emerged from the bathroom. Dr. Lincoln came in and checked me over one last time, gave me the "almost clean" bill of health, and sent me on my way with instructions of what to do should I have any sort of withdrawal symptoms. Thank you again, flunitrazawhatevertheheckitwas. She gave a copy of my instructions to Brian as well, just in case I couldn't read mine or something. And then we were free to go.

Except for the clothes factor.

Which led to another really discomforting discovery. I know I should have seen this coming a mile away, but again, I was blindsided. It makes sense. After all, I was abducted while I was taking a shower. My captor had apparently been kind enough to furnish me with a blanket--which they now were keeping as evidence, so at least I hadn't been found wandering the streets completely naked or something, but...well, I'd been found passed out in a city park clad in a blanket. Huh. I really hope nobody recognized me.

Fortunately, the nurses were able to scrounge up a nice set of scrubs for me to wear back to the hotel, so I wouldn't have to wear the hospital gown in public. I've always liked green, but somehow I think I'm going to burn the outfit first chance I get anyway. The fewer reminders I have about the whole thing, the better.

Lon, the bodyguard who had magically replaced Ed some time during the night, made me sit down so we could have a little talk before we made our exit. "When we're in the open, you will stay at my side at all times. Never more than two feet away," he lectured me. Two feet. That's pretty close. Not really crazy about anyone being in my personal space like that. We'd had this talk a few other times, but generally he said it in such a way that led me to believe that there was room for discussion on the matter. Today, there was no room. We were going to be attached at the hip. I suspect he would have put a leash on me if he could have. "If I say to get down, you drop without asking why, and you do so immediately." I nodded. "If something happens and you see me go down, do not stop to help me. You run. Get somewhere safe." Lon's lecture was starting to scare me again. Somehow when we'd been given the rules before, they hadn't seemed quite so serious. "We will not be stopping for autographs or photographs." I nodded. I was kind of glad he was making that non-negotiable today because I hate not stopping for the fans, but I really didn't want to face them looking like this. And really I just wanted to be left alone. Well, alone with the guys anyway. I don't think I'm ready to face alone alone.

"Are you ready?" Brian asked me after Lon had finished laying down the laws.

I was a bit uneasy about venturing back out into public for the first time, but it would be over quickly. I hoped. "People don't know I'm here, do they?" I asked.

Lon shook his head. "We've been lucky so far. As far as the public knows you are still MIA. It was decided that it would be in everyone's best interest to get you somewhere safe before making a public statement about your recovery." Not that I wanted people worrying about me or anything, but it was good to know that I wouldn't have to face a crowd just yet. I could handle this.

"Okay. I'm ready."

Brian put his hat on and handed me his sunglasses to put on. "Exit, stage left."

I started for the door only to feel Lon's hand grab the back of my shirt and pull me back. "Never more than two feet away, Nick," he reminded. I rolled my eyes and nodded miserably. This was going to take some getting used to. I wondered how long we were going to be on DEFCON 1. Not that I don't appreciate it, since it's because of me and all, but...doesn't mean it can't be annoying. I nodded obediently and waited for him to go. "Oh, and kid. In case I forget to tell you later. It's good to have you back with us." He didn't wait for me to answer before he headed out. I was careful to stay in the two-foot range. Brian strayed a little once and got the look of death from Lon so he quickly got back into the zone.

We were waiting for the elevator when one of the nurses caught up to us. Lon stepped protectively in front of me, which I thought was probably a little bit overboard considering she was a nurse and all, but then that's why he's a bodyguard and I'm the body being guarded.

"Someone left this for you at the nurses' station," she explained, holding out a teddy bear that had a card-shaped envelope taped to it. "I just wanted to make sure you got it before you left." She looked a little bit embarrassed. I wondered if the "someone" was maybe her. After all, as Lon said, nobody knew I was here.

Lon raised an eyebrow and eyed the bear then glanced at me with an amused look on his face. He nodded and I took the gift from her with a smile. "Thanks. It's really sweet."

She smiled back shyly, and nodded. "I hope you feel better!" She turned and practically fled back the other way.

Lon winked at me. "Still got the touch, kid."

As predicted, there weren't people waiting outside when we left, so we got to the car quick and easy. And since it was Lon's car, there was little to no chance that anyone would be watching it. So assuming that nobody had taken to hanging around the hotel, I would be left alone.

I was going to wait to get back to the hotel to read the nurse's card, but as soon as we were settled in Lon's Jeep Cherokee, Brian began eyeing it and grinning, looking up at me with a look that could only say "Open it! Open it!"

Okay. Twist my arm. I grinned and pulled the envelope loose. To taunt Brian I made a show of opening it veeeery slooowly. He looked as if he wanted to reach over, grab it, and rip it open himself. But of course he didn't.

I would have.

I finally pulled the card out. There was a cartoon picture of a bear lying in a hospital bed with its leg being suspended. Why is it that Hallmark(tm) seems to think injured animals are cute? Oh well, moving on. I flipped the card open.

It took a few moments for me to get over the shock. And then I was on the floor of Lon's Jeep emptying my stomach of the little content I'd managed to choke down for breakfast.

Lon swerved to the side of the road and was out of the car in a flash. He flung open my door and waited for me to stop retching. He and Brian exchanged looks. They hadn't seen it yet. I didn't want them to. But somehow I didn't think that they'd just take my barfing as me being suddenly carsick.

As soon as I thought I could handle it I sat back up slowly and found that both Lon and Brian were staring at me with terrified looks on their faces. "What did it say?" Brian asked gently.

It wasn't so much what it said. That was...kinda upsetting despite the fact that they were words I'd heard literally thousands of times now (well most of them anyway). Unfortunately the card had come with a little momento.

I handed the card to Brian, but held on to the other item.

Brian's brow furrowed as he read and he looked slightly disturbed but also confused. Lon gave him a questioning look.

"Looking back on the things I've done, I was trying to be someone. Played my part. Kept you in the dark. Now let me show you the shape of my heart." Lyrics. Not terribly appropriate for a get well soon card, but not disturbing. Well except for the kept in the dark part maybe. "You look so pretty in Black & Blue?" Brian read the added line with a look of distaste on his face. It could have been in reference to the photos in the cd booklet or something, but I knew better.

Lon noticed that I was still holding something. "Nick?" he asked softly, not wanting to upset me. I couldn't look at him. But I handed him the Polaroid that had been included.

Seeing my reflection in the mirror had nothing on seeing myself in that picture, my arms bound to a pipe that ran over my head, a gag in my mouth and my eyes wide with terror.

But it wasn't even the picture itself that had made me retch.

It was what was written below it.

"I'm a star with no light, a day with no night, if I don't have you. See you soon!"
Draft by Chaos
"I am so sorry," I apologized yet again as I followed Brian out his side of the Jeep so that I could avoid the mess on the floor. In the four mile stretch between where Lon pulled over when I yarped and the hotel I'd already apologized at least twenty times and they were probably both really getting sick of hearing it. But it's hard not to feel guilty when there's a fragrant reminder present, so I kept apologizing anyway. "If you want, I'll go in and grab some towels and come back out and--" I shut up as Lon gave me his patented look of Death. With a capital D this time, even. I looked away guiltily. Okay, so it wasn't a brilliant idea for me to be cleaning his car out when I was being targeted by a psycho. I realized that, but I also felt kind of bad making Lon deal with it.

"Don't worry about it, kid," Lon's voice sounded a lot more sympathetic than his look had been. "It would have happened to anyone." It wouldn't have happened to someone like Lon, though. He doesn't strike me as the toss-his-cookies sort. I bet he wouldn't have gotten himself kidnapped to begin with. He was the same height as me, but he looked threatening with it while I just don't, apparently. For some reason, people seemed to see me as "cute" or "sweet". Not exactly the same as the menacing image Lon projected. Then again, he had a good 20 or 30 extra pounds of pure muscle over me, so that made him someone that no one would want to tangle with. Not anyone who didn't have a death wish, anyway. The other thing Lon had over me was that he had that "infallible" attitude he used in public. He may be nice on a one-to-one basis, but you'd never know it if you only saw him when he was on duty. Nothing was going to get to him. Ever. And don't you forget it.

I think I want to get me one of those attitudes. Think I could carry it off? I kinda have my doubts.

I took a deep breath as we started crossing the parking lot toward the hotel. I didn't want to go there. The guy who was after me knew where I was staying. He'd gotten to me there once already, so what was to keep him from getting to me again? The card and photograph that Lon was carrying were proof that my assailant had every intention of coming after me again. The hotel was the worst place I could be staying. Well, aside from the hospital or wherever it was that I'd been for six days, it was the worst place. I didn't want to go there. Maybe if I walked slower the building would somehow collapse before we got there.

"You okay?" Brian asked as he slowed his pace to match mine.

Lon noticed that we were dropping out of the zone and stopped walking entirely. He took the moment to scout out our surroundings for the third time since we'd reached the lot, then his gaze fell on Brian and I. Specifically me, I guess. "I know you're nervous going back in there," he said. Me? Nervous? You're obviously mistaking me for someone else. I'm downright petrified. "But there will be someone guarding your door at all times, kid. There is also extra hotel security. They've even got the parking lot being watched." He pointed out the extra hotel security guards that were at each entrance to the lot. That would probably explain why there wasn't a crowd of fans hanging around, since I'm sure that they had to know by now where we were staying. They usually figured it out within 24 hours, so it would be highly unlikely that they wouldn't know if the guys had stayed here the entire week. "It will be a lot safer for you inside than it is out here," he added pointedly.

I knew he was right, but I still didn't want to go into that building. Why couldn't we just stay at another hotel? Why did it have to be here? For that matter, why didn't we just get the heck out of town? We had concerts scheduled elsewhere. We were already going to have to reschedule the missed ones. We should just pack up and get out.

Then again, I suppose I was probably going to have to stay in town for at least a few days while they tried to find the guy who attacked me. But what if they didn't find him? How long would we have to stay here? Surely they couldn't keep me here since I hadn't done anything wrong.

"Don't make me go all Kevin Costner on you, kid," Lon warned when I still didn't start moving. "Cuz you ain't no Whitney Houston."

I really needed that. I laughed at the thought of making Lon carry me through the hotel lobby. It was almost tempting to test him and see if he'd really do it. On the other hand, I really didn't want pictures of that showing up in a tabloid somewhere. I could only begin to imagine what sort of headline they'd come up with. Somehow I didn't think that having myself 'romantically linked' with the big bald black bodyguard that was old enough to be my father would do wonders for my career...or my social life for that matter, but that's another story.

I took a deep breath and nodded. We'd go in quickly and quietly and we'd be up in the room and safe in just a couple minutes. I could do this. "Okay. I'm good."

Brian put his hand on my shoulder and left it there as we followed Lon across the lot. I'm not sure if it was meant to comfort me, or to keep me moving. Either way, it was at least somewhat working.

I was actually doing pretty good until we reached the lobby. The amusing imagery of Lon carrying me was still keeping my mind distracted. Unfortunately because I was distracted I wasn't really paying attention to what was going on around me. At least I wasn't until I saw someone rushing toward me.

In that moment, time stood still. I was going to die. The psycho was going to grab me and before Lon or Brian would be able to do anything to help I would have a knife stuck in me. Or maybe I'd have a gun to my head. Or it could be any number of the other horrifying things that I was suddenly sure were going to happen. Point was that I was a dead man and there was nothing anyone was going to be able to do to stop it.

So I did what any normal dead man would do. Well, okay a normal dead man would have just laid there in his coffin or whatever, but work with me here. I screamed and turned to flee my assailant. I wasn't even aware of where I was going, I just knew I wasn't going to stand there and let him get me again. And he had already proven he could subdue me pretty easy.

Before I even got three steps away I felt an arm wrap around my waist and pull me back against a body. No! I screamed again and struggled to pull free. This wasn't going to happen to me again. Not again. No.

"Shhh, it's okay, kid," Lon spoke directly into my ear. "It's okay, I've got you."

I stopped struggling and looked over my shoulder. Sure enough Lon was the one holding me. Oh god, I am so dumb. I felt my legs trying to give out again, but Lon held me up. Maybe he was going to get to do the Kevin Costner thing after all. I forced myself to put my weight back on my own feet so I could stay standing, reminding myself of the tabloid story I really didn't want to see. It took a few moments for me to get my heart to start slowing back to normal rate.

And then I looked around and realized that there were lots of people staring at us. Especially a man who was standing just a couple feet away looking mortified. Likely that was the poor guy who I'd freaked out on just because he'd tried to make his way across the lobby like a normal person. "I'm sorry," I whispered, not able to look the guy in the eyes. "I thought..." I felt my face start to burn as embarrassment set in. My eyes started to water and that just made it all that much worse. So much for not making a scene. I stared down at the floor so I wouldn't have to see the people watching me. And so they couldn't tell that I was about two seconds away from bursting into tears. Wouldn't that just complete the picture? "Please. Just...get me back up to the room?"

"Course, kid," Lon took hold of my arm and put it around his neck. For a moment I thought he actually was going to pick me up and I tensed, ready to resist. I'd made a big enough scene without that. But then I realized he was just supporting me so I could walk. Which was a smart move because I'm not sure my legs were working quite right. I could tell that people were still watching and I hated it. I should be used to getting stared at but this was different. I wasn't usually this much of a wreck. Especially not when anyone could see me.

As soon as we were on the elevator I pulled away from Lon and moved to the far corner of the elevator. I wanted to be alone. I hated this. Why was I letting everything freak me out so much? And in front of everyone, too! Brian stood near Lon, but was watching me worriedly. He looked like he really wanted to come closer, but wasn't sure I'd let him. In all probability it was a good call for him to steer clear, because my brain obviously still wasn't working quite right. At the rate I was going he'd get closer and I'd start having a heart attack or something. I think maybe I took a few too many blows to the head and I've gone completely daft.

"Sorry," I heard myself saying again though I wasn't even sure why I was saying it this time. Probably for making such a spectacle of myself downstairs.

I heard both of their voices reassuring me again that it was okay, but I just couldn't make myself believe them. I forced myself to smile anyway and look over at them to let them know I was okay. Even though I wasn't. I didn't feel like I'd ever be okay again. But I could fake it. I didn't want to keep worrying them. I didn't want them to know how pathetic I felt for not being able to deal with things on my own. I should be able to handle this. I wasn't a baby, despite how I'd been acting.

The elevator stopped on third floor and I could feel my heart start pounding again. We were almost back to the room. They couldn't really want me to go back to that room again, could they? I'm okay. I'm okay. I can do this. I'm okay. Keep breathing. Calm. I'm okay. Not being a baby. Check.

The doors slid open. Almost there. I took a deep breath and made myself start moving forward.

Another couple of our regular bodyguards--George and Ryan--were standing in the hallway in front of our hotel room doors. There was a chair sitting across the hall from each other and a deck of cards was spread out on the floor between the two, so it was obvious that we'd interrupted a game. But they'd been on their feet before the elevator doors even started opening. Weird. How'd they know we were coming?

As we approached the two bodyguards I felt myself starting to tense again. It was stupid. These were two of our regular bodyguards. I knew them fairly well. Well, sort of. I didn't know where they went when they were off duty, or if they had families or anything like that even. But they had both been protecting me for over a year. So I should trust them completely. And yet I was nervous simply because they were large men. This was ridiculous. I wasn't going to be afraid of my own bodyguards. I made myself relax. Much better. I could do this.

"Hey, good to see you, Nickolas!" George greeted with his booming voice, his face breaking into a big grin. He was a gigantic man--the biggest of the guards we employed, except maybe Ed, it was a close call--and he had one of those faces that was normally void of expression. Now I knew why. His grin was just so goofy looking that it was infectious and I found myself smiling back at him.

"Hey, Geo."

"You look good," Ryan lied, his eyes giving him away. It was okay, I knew he meant well. What was he supposed to say? "You look like shit, dude?" AJ already had that line covered.

As if he somehow knew I was thinking about him, or more likely because he'd heard voices in the hallway, AJ opened his hotel room door and bounded out. He looked infinitely better than he had when he'd visited the hospital. He'd obviously come back here, cleaned up, and gotten a good night's sleep. Everyone sleeps good except me. Again, I'm not jealous. "Hey, Kaos, how ya feelin' this morning, peckerhead?" Always the inappropriate one.

I hope he never changes.

"Nick!" Howie's voice called from within their room. A moment later he joined us in the hall. His smile faltered for just a split second as he saw me, but then it was pasted right back on. I wondered how long it would be before people could look at me without cringing. "I'm so glad you're back." And he did seem genuinely glad. So I had just been paranoid about him not wanting to see me.

I glanced toward Kevin's door, which remained conspicuously shut. Why didn't he want to see me? Or had they lied to me and something had happened?

Howie moved closer, noticing that I was looking at Kevin's door. "Kev's been really sick," he informed me softly. Could everyone read my mind? Wait. Kevin was sick? Sick like how? I kept staring at the door as if it would magically open if I watched it long enough. And it did.

Okay it wasn't magic, it was Geo and his keycard, but it had the same overall effect.

"Hey, Kev," Brian called to his cousin. "Come on, Nick's here." He disappeared into the room.

AJ followed Brian into the room. "Come on Kevvy-Kev, get your slothy butt up." Now there's a mental image I didn't need, Aje.

I wasn't sure if I should follow the others or not. I wanted to see Kevin, but he apparently hadn't wanted to see me. And he was apparently sleeping. Oh and hey, look, I'm still not jealous.

I felt Howie's hand on my back and quickly bit my lip to keep from crying out as he hit a sore spot. Not that there were many good spots to hit. In fact, I think I'd like to keep hitting to the bare minimum. But I didn't want to hurt Howie's feelings the way that I had with Brian so I didn't let myself flinch away. He pushed me gently toward Kevin's open door.

"He's going to want to see you," Howie assured me. "He's been driving himself crazy the last several days." Know the feeling. But why was Kevin doing that? I moved into the doorway, but didn't enter the room, unsure of whether I was welcome or not. Howie moved right up behind me, and seemed surprised when I stopped. Either that or he just liked running into me and was using my stopping as an excuse. I'd venture to guess the former option.

I watched as AJ stopped at the end of the bed where Brian was now seated whispering to the lump under the blanket that I figured must be Kevin. He reached out and grabbed the lump's foot and gave it a gentle little shake. "Come on, Kevvy. Rise and shine."

Maybe I should just go back to my room after all. I was dreading it, but it was inevitable that I'd have to go back anyway. So, I should just get it over with and let Kevin sleep. I didn't want him madder at me than he apparently already was, for whatever it was I'd done to make him mad this time. God, most likely he was mad that I had let myself get kidnapped like that. I was big enough to take care of myself. It shouldn't have happened. No wonder he was so ashamed of me...

Maybe Geo could let me into the room? I suddenly didn't want to have to look at Kevin's face and see how disappointed he was in me.

I glanced back over my shoulder and saw that Lon was talking to Geo and Ryan. They were looking at the Polaroid. I felt my face heating up again. Did Lon really have to show that to everyone? I knew that they'd need to be aware that the psycho was still targeting me, but they didn't need to see me like that, did they?

"We should call Walters, get them working on this," I heard Lon telling the others. Great. More people to ogle my picture. I knew Lon was right, though. The photo would be more evidence against the guy. Plus they'd have to go back to the hospital and find that nurse. I knew it was a necessity, but that didn't mean I had to like it.

"Nicky?" I heard Kevin call my name. I hadn't gotten out of there fast enough. It was too late. I was going to have to face the wrath of Kevin. I turned back toward the bed, but kept my eyes on the floor, not able to even look straight at him. I waited for the axe to fall. One of Kevin's lectures about being a responsible adult. His voice sounded horribly raspy, but then Howie had said that he was sick.

I heard the blanket being thrown back and feet hitting the floor. A few moments later, Kevin was right in front of me. I still couldn't look up at him, but I'd know his feet anywhere. I'd spent quite a bit of time studying them during his lectures over the years.

"I am so sorry, Nicky," he whispered so quietly I could barely even hear him though he was practically standing in my personal space.

Sorry?

What was he sorry for?

I looked up, confused. And blinked. Jesus. "Are you okay?" I blurted out.

For a moment he just stared at me incredulously. Then he let out a small chuckle and smiled a wintery little smile as stepped even closer and very carefully put his arms around me in a hug. I felt myself tensing but I didn't pull away. "That was supposed to be my line," he said only a hair louder than when he'd apologized. Coming from anyone else and it would have sounded like he was teasing, but I'm fairly sure he was serious. After a moment I returned the embrace suspecting that he needed it more than I did. After a moment he backed away again and just looked at me. He still hadn't answered my question, and he seemed to realize that I still wanted an answer. "I'm just great, Nicky," he answered hoarsely, still smiling that same grim smile. He reached out and tousled my hair gently.

His eyes got sadder as he really got a good look at the bruise around my eye. He had some pretty dark rings around his eyes, too, and I wondered just how much he'd slept while I was gone--if he had at all. Or if he'd been eating, for that matter. I think he may have lost more weight during the week than I had. Well, maybe not, but it was more noticeable on him because he didn't have any extra weight to lose. His eyes were sunken in and he looked horribly pale. He looked almost as bad as I did. "You just had us all worried sick is all..." he added.

I felt heat rising to my face. "Yeah. Um...sorry." I don't know what was wrong with my voice; it was so tiny again. It was probably just because he was being quiet, too.

He looked at me with an expression I couldn't quite seem to read. "Sorry? Nicky..." he paused for a moment, studying me intently. "You have nothing to be sorry about. You know this wasn't your fault...right?" He stared into my eyes, searching for something. I wasn't sure exactly what he was searching for, but I was fairly sure he was looking for my response. Problem was I wasn't sure exactly what it was that I wasn't supposed to think was my fault. Because if he was talking about the kidnapping...who else's fault would it be? I know, I know. My captor was ultimately responsible since if he hadn't attacked me...well...I wouldn't have been attacked. No brainer there. But putting that aside, I hadn't been able to take care of myself like a normal man, so how was that not my fault? My eyes lowered back to the carpet. "It wasn't, Nick."

"It wasn't your fault, either, Kev," Howie spoke up. The tone in his voice set off my internal warning bells. It was too...insistent sounding. Like maybe Kevin needed convincing.

Sure enough, when I looked up at Kevin again, he was looking at me with such a guilty look on his face that I was almost convinced that maybe he had done something horrible. I might have actually been except that it was Kevin for god's sake. He would never do anything to hurt me. Ever. Sure we had our disagreements and occasionally said hurtful things to each other and all, but over the years we'd been together he'd practically been my substitute dad. Or at least an over-protective big brother.

It seemed to be Kevin's turn to find the carpet interesting because after a moment he couldn't look at me anymore. What could he possibly have to feel so guilty about? I looked at the others to see if they had any answers. Brian was whispering to AJ and nodding toward the door. They were going to make a break for it. My eyes narrowed suspiciously. Something was up.

I looked back at Howie since I knew that he knew what the deal was. He had, after all, been the one who'd indicated there was a problem in the first place. Howie gave me a grim smile that resembled Kevin's. "We should let you guys talk." Uh oh. That indicated that they were planning to leave us alone. Which meant that they probably thought we were going to fight about something. About whatever it was that Kevin was feeling so guilty about. What exactly did he do?

Brian and AJ slipped past me and out into the hall. Howie pushed me forward just a little bit, then followed the others, shutting the door behind them.

Kevin glanced up at me, then looked over at his unmade bed. "I'm sorry, Nick," he said miserably. "I didn't mean it."

"Didn't mean what?" I was still thoroughly confused.

He moved away from me, and sat down on the edge of the bed. It was really weird watching him because for the first time in the entire time I'd known him, he looked really vulnerable and lost. Kevin was always the one who held us all together. He was the one who took care of the rest of us and was strong when we needed him. But at the moment he just looked helpless and maybe even a little scared. He said something, but it was so quiet that I couldn't hear it. I moved to sit next to him.

"What?"

"I left," he confessed.

I didn't understand. "What do you mean?" I asked carefully.

"That day." He sounded so miserable. I still didn't get why he was so upset, though, so I waited patiently for him to explain himself. He looked at me and saw that I still wasn't following him. "I got mad when I heard the TV on when I came to get you. So I just left without you." He was beating himself up over that? His eyes lowered again. "On my way out, I ran into Ed and Geo down in the lobby and I was mad at you and...I said some really terrible things about you...I didn't really mean any of it..." Ah. Getting to the truth. I was relieved that was why he was upset, actually. I didn't blame him. I've said stuff when I've been mad, too. "I didn't know..."

I shook my head. "That's right. You didn't know. It's okay, Kev."

He glanced over at me, still looking miserable. "I shouldn't have left. If I'd been there..."

"If you'd been there, you might've gotten hurt, too," I cut him off.

"But I'm supposed to take care of you."

Like I was a little kid. "Get paid extra for that?" The words were out of my mouth before I thought to edit them a little. It came out a lot harsher than I intended, too. I wasn't mad at him. Not at all. I was mad at myself for never acting grown up enough for him to see that he didn't have to watch out for me anymore. Even madder because I probably did need someone to take care of me since I obviously wasn't very good at it. But I shouldn't ever have been his responsibility. He was only 29, and that was nowhere near old enough to be dad to a 21-year-old kid.

He looked up, surprised by my angry tone.

I smiled to let him know I wasn't mad at him. "I just mean that I'm twenty-one, Kev. You shouldn't have to baby-sit me anymore. And that was never really part of your job description, you know. Just because you're the oldest doesn't mean you're responsible for all of us." Now this was a switch. Me lecturing Kevin. Never thought I'd see the day. I could tell he wasn't convinced, but I honestly didn't know how to reassure him. Especially since he was right to assume that someone needed to take care of me. I just wanted him to know that I didn't expect it to be him.

Not knowing of anything else to say and not wanting to think about it anymore, I flopped back on the bed. It wasn't very comfortable lying half-on/half-off the bed, so I pulled my legs in, turned, and stretched out behind Kevin. I got as comfortable as I could then lay staring up at the ceiling. It was one of those tacky spotted ceilings that I thought only existed in schools. I wondered just how many dots there were on those tiles. I bet I could have counted them all in six days.

"Thirty-eight thousand, four hundred, seventy-nine." Huh? He pointed at the speckled tiles. Damn. Am I like an open book or what? I went back to my own count as Kevin crawled to the other side of the bed and lay down beside me. After a couple minutes of silently counting with me, he reached over and took hold of my hand. I glanced over to find that he was watching me. He still looked sad and more than a touch guilty, but he smiled that old self-satisfied little Kevin-smile. I smiled back and we both went back to staring at the ceiling without a word. Things were going to be okay.

At least for a few hours.
Second Strike by Chaos
Tears of frustration and humiliation stained my cheeks as I struggled to lower my arms to protect myself from the hand that was sliding slowly across my belly. I could feel the wire biting into my wrists as I strained to pull free, but it was to no avail. I had very little strength, and that was being used to simply keep myself on my feet. I was afraid that if I fell and my entire weight was suddenly supported only by the bindings, the wire would cut through my skin, effectively slitting my wrists. Then again, considering what was happening, maybe that was the way to go.

My body was arched as far forward as it could to get away from the large man behind me, but he'd moved with me, blocking any chance of retreat. With his arms encircling my body, it was impossible for me to move in any direction without coming into further contact with him. Since it couldn't escape, my body tried to shrink away from what was happening. One of his hands was gripping my jaw so hard I was afraid the bone would break. My head was forced back so that I could pretty much only stare up at the ceiling. I could barely see through my tears anyway, so it really didn't matter where I was looking, but I didn't want him to have that sort of control over me. But that had faded to only a minor concern since his other hand had begun slowly roaming over my bare skin, making my body shudder violently with revulsion. There was nothing I could do to protect myself from the unwanted contact.

I felt more helpless than I had ever imagined possible. I was having trouble breathing around the cloth that was stuffed into my mouth and tied so tight that I was fairly sure it would leave permanent tracks across my face. Which made screaming way beyond the realm of possibility. I couldn't fight, I couldn't scream, I couldn't even stop myself from crying. And that just made it that much worse because I could tell he was totally enjoying making me cry. I wanted to stop, didn't want to give him the satisfaction of getting the best of me, but I couldn't control it. I was too humiliated by how helpless I was and too terrified by what his rubbing my stomach might be leading up to. I had the distinct impression that he was just drawing this out to capitalize on my fear. That really didn't do anything to calm my fright.

I could still feel the man's breath against my neck as he hissed into my ear. The whispering had stopped but I could still hear it echoing in my head.

spoiled brat think everyone should cater to your every whim think you own the world spoiled brat got news for you spoiled brat you're worth nothing to me nothing worthless spoiled brat got news for you I own you I own you I own you

My eyes flew open and I woke with a gasp. My heart was pounding and my body was drenched with a cold sweat. It was just a nightmare. See, I told you it was all one big nightmare. I knew if I waited long enough I'd wake up and it would all be yet another production courtesy of Nickolas Carter's Overactive Imagination Theater. But wow, that was a doozy. Remind me to never watch another scary movie so long as I live.

I rolled onto my side and immediately came face to face with AJ. Gyah! Nothing against him, of course, it was just a little surprising to see him so close while I was sleeping. He was kneeling on the floor right next to the bed. How long had he been there? Must be pretty bored if his entertainment for the night was to watch me sleep.

Make that us sleep. Kevin was stretched out on the bed next to me. Kind of like in my dream when we were counting spots. Maybe that part was real and everything else wasn't. Sure, that worked. We were just bored and didn't want to watch TV so we'd fallen asleep counting ceiling dots.

"You okay, Kaos?" he asked quietly, watching me with an overly worried expression on his face. AJ wasn't supposed to be giving me looks like that. He was supposed to be smirking and laughing at me and asking me just what sort of wild dream I'd been having to get me that sweaty. But he wasn't laughing. He looked genuinely concerned. Damn. That probably meant that I couldn't keep convincing myself that it was all a nightmare. I'm glad that the last little bit wasn't real, but I was still kind of hoping for that big wake up scene where I learned that none of it was.

"I'm okay," I heard myself answering him, even though my heart was still going 90 miles per hour in the school zone. The words were automatic, and completely untrue. I wasn't okay. The images from my nightmare weren't fading yet, and they weren't really images that I wanted to be stuck with. I didn't want to think about some guy touching me like that. Even though he had done nothing more than rub my stomach, it wasn't too difficult to conclude that if I hadn't woken up that's not where it would have stopped. And it wasn't like the nightmare meant anything. In reality it probably hadn't happened anything like that anyway. Dr. Lincoln said that it would be hard to tell what was memory and what was just a regular nightmare. I'd gotten freaked out by that stupid photo and the little date rape drug talk that Dr. Lincoln had given me, and the nightmare was what my brain had come up with to torment me with. Nothing like that had happened. Obviously it was just a stupid old nightmare.

So why couldn't I stop my body from shaking?

Because I was damp and the air conditioning was cranked up. Right. I reached for the blanket and pulled it up around me as I sat up. There. Much better. "I'm okay," I repeated, noticing the funny look AJ was giving me. It wasn't a funny ha-ha look, but a funny not-believing-me-ready-to-call-for-help look. I don't think I was convincing either of us with my declaration of okayness, but I had to try.

AJ actually letting on that he was worried was a bit overwhelming, and way out of the realm of normalness. Not that he didn't worry on a regular basis--he just usually didn't like to show it. Like it would ruin his rep or something. I could understand that. We all have the face we show to the world and the one that we let only those closest to us see. And, of course, there's also the face we let no one see. Like the one where I'm this terrified little boy hiding inside of a man's body. I really don't want anyone to see that. Not even the guys, who are more like family to me than simply best friends. They'd be nice about it--at least to my face--I'm sure, but they'd also probably be really disappointed in me. I know I am. I should be able to deal with stuff by myself and not go running to them every time I have a problem.

"Really," I insisted, seeing that AJ still wasn't buying my answer.

AJ's concerned look deepened, and he looked as though he wanted to contradict me and make me tell him that I was a complete wreck. And I think if he had pressed the issue, I probably would have done exactly that, but he relented and nodded, giving me a little smile that didn't reach his eyes. Those still were filled with pity toward me. I really hated that. He reached out and patted my arm lightly, then backed away and sat back down on the floor, leaning against the other bed.

I closed my eyes and took a couple deep breaths to try and convince my heart that it was time to slow back down again.

"If you want to talk about it, though," I heard AJ offering.

I stifled a groan as I opened my eyes and gave him a look that I hoped passed as appreciative. I didn't want to talk about it. I didn't even want to think about it. And I sure as hell didn't want anyone to know that I was having dreams like that one. Even though it wasn't real and nothing like that had happened. I mean, what would they think of me? It's bad enough that I let myself get kidnapped; they didn't need to know that I'd let something like that happen. In my nightmare anyway, since it didn't really happen.

I needed to think about something else. Like the fact that Brian and Howie were conspicuously not in the room. Either that or they were being unnaturally quiet. I glanced around and confirmed that they were indeed absent. Which begged the question where had they gone and why hadn't AJ gone with them? I looked back toward him and found that he was still watching me.

"Where'd Howie and Brian go?" I asked as I slid carefully out of bed and sat on the floor opposite AJ. I heard Kevin make a groggy, discontented sound and realized that I'd pulled the blanket along with me. Sorry, Kev.

"They're downstairs telling the world that you're alive and recovering," he replied, giving me a smile. He raised one eyebrow. "Wanna go watch?" I glanced down at my sweat-dampened scrub uniform and then back at AJ, giving him an "are you nuts?" stare. He grinned. "I meant on TV, it's live coverage."

Oh. That was really weird. I wondered what they were saying about me. That was really really weird. I hoped that Brian would leave out the whole Rohypnol thing. Nobody needed to know about that. I wondered if they were saying what I looked like or if they said anything about the guy sending me that photo. Oh lord, what if they were like showing the photo?

"Kaos?"

I realized that I hadn't answered him. I took a deep breath and tried to clear my head. Maybe it would be a good idea to watch so that I didn't keep imagining that they were saying the worst things possible. I nodded.

"Groovy. We should go in the other room, though. Let Kevvy sleep."

I nodded again and got to my feet. I glanced at Kevin, wanting to wake him up. I don't know why, but I was nervous about leaving him. But AJ was right. Kevin hadn't slept enough lately so it would be good to let him keep sleeping now. I'd already caused him to lose enough sleep.

Draping the blanket around my shoulders as if it were a cape, I followed AJ to the door but hesitated before going out into the hall with him. I peeked out to make sure nobody else was around. Which, of course, was a laugh. As it turned out, there were several people hanging around in the hallway.

"Nickolas! We're so glad you're okay!" Wendy, a representative from our PR staff, called out as she practically pounced on me, hugging me tight. I gritted my teeth as several bruises became aggravated again. On the other hand, the pain probably kept me from panicking at her sudden unexpected move. At least I hadn't had time to freak out like I had down in the lobby. I was a bit uncomfortable with the hugging thing, though. It wasn't like when Brian or Kevin had hugged me. They were family. But this was different. I hardly knew Wendy aside from the occasional public relations meeting. But I knew I was going to have to suck it up and get used to it all over again. After all, I get hugged by an average of a hundred people every single day, more on the meet-and-greet days. So, I couldn't let hugs make me jumpy. I forced myself to relax and give her a little hug back.

"Hey, Wendy," I greeted. I peered over her to see who else was in the rather crowded hallway. Ed was sitting in the chair next to our door. He looked up and gave me a little nod, then got to his feet and moved to stand protectively by my side.

Lon was standing a few feet down the hallway talking with agents Walters and Harris. Walters was holding a couple of clear plastic bags, which I could see contained the card and photo. Well, I guess that at least it meant they couldn't be showing it off on live television.

David, another rep from the PR staff, was standing opposite them, but as soon as he saw me, he broke away and came to talk to me. AJ glanced at me, looking apologetic. I don't think he'd considered the idea that I'd get bombarded by people in the less than six-foot distance between the rooms.

"Nick," David acknowledged me as Wendy stepped aside. I nodded and smiled. David, on the other hand, frowned as he looked me over. "How're you feeling?"

Like crap, thanks for asking. "I'm okay," I said, instead, being as that was the answer that would get me the least number of follow-up questions. His frown deepened. "A little shaken, you know."

He nodded seriously and kept looking me over. I half-expected him to ask me to turn around for him or something. "Think you're feeling up to making a statement?"

"I already did that," I told him, nodding down toward Walters and Harris. David smiled patiently, and I could tell that I'd screwed up again. Right. He was one of the PR reps, so he was probably referring to the dreaded press statement.

"Brian and Howie are down in the conference room now, just to give a brief overview of what we know, but the press is going to want to get a statement from you, too," Wendy informed me.

I felt myself tense again at the idea of doing a press conference by myself. I'm used to getting interviewed and all, but it's almost always been about good things like how successful me and the guys are, or what I like to do with my spare time, or what I was like as a little kid. Not stuff like, "How does it feel to know that your life as you knew it is over and you'll never feel safe again?"

"You don't have to do it tonight," Ed spoke up, looking to Wendy and David for confirmation. I glanced up at him. He rarely spoke up while on duty; he was more the speak only when spoken to sort of guard. But he was obviously taking his job as my protector seriously tonight. I gave him a little smile and he gave his traditional barely perceptible nod in return.

Wendy and David both verified his statement by nodding, but David added, "The sooner you get it over with, though, the easier they'll be on you. The longer you wait, the more time the press will have to come up with questions, and the less...sympathetic they'll be toward you." In other words they'd be gentle with me now because they'd see me all pathetic and hurt. But in a few days healing time would be considered over and I'd be back to being fair game for the media jackals. Then they'd start asking the hard questions and wouldn't take "no comment" for an answer.

I knew David was right, which was the worst part. It hadn't ever really happened to me, since I'd never gone through anything even remotely similar to this, but I'd seen it happen to enough people over the years. Tragedy strikes, there'd be a little bit of recovery time, and then the rumors and accusations start to fly. The sooner I got my side of the story out in the open, the better off I'd be. But the idea of being questioned about what happened in front of all those people was just...terrifying. I'd never hated being famous before, but a life of anonymity suddenly sounded like the best thing in the world. But I guess it's a little late for that now.

"We can sit down and write out your statement before we go down. And we'll screen questions for you," Wendy assured me.

I looked over at AJ, who was still looking like he wanted to die a thousand deaths for subjecting me to this. I gave him a half-smile to let him know I didn't blame him. I cocked one of my eyebrows questioningly to see what he thought I should do. He shook his head and gave me a "whatever you think" look. Some help he was.

I felt Ed's hand on my shoulder and looked up at him again. "If you're not ready for this, it can wait," he reminded me again. Wow, he was really in overprotective mode. Which reminded me just how much things weren't normal. The sooner I got this over with, the sooner it would be over.

"I'll do it," I decided.

David smiled. "Okay I'll run down and let them know you're coming down in about an hour. Think that's enough time to get cleaned up and go over your statement?"

I nodded, feeling nervous all over again. An hour. I took a deep breath to help keep myself calm. "Can the others stay, too, and we like talk about...normal stuff and everything?" David looked at me like I'd grown an extra head or something. Okay, I admit it was kind of a dumb idea, but he didn't have to look at me like that. I just didn't want to make such a huge deal out of this thing. I realized full well that it was unlikely anyone would really be asking questions about our love lives or what we ate for breakfast, but maybe--"We could maybe talk about rescheduling the missed performances and stuff? Not make this all about me?" I could feel that embarrassing blush starting again.

"Yeah, can't let this guy get all the attention. Gives him an inflated head, you know?" AJ spoke up, getting me off the hook. My hero. Remind me to swoon later. "And it's already big enough as it is," he added, flashing me a little grin. Cancel that swooning thing.

David seemed to consider the idea for a moment then relented. "Okay. If it'll make you more comfortable, we'll do it your way. Do we already have the revised schedule set up?"

AJ nodded and the two of them headed down the hallway a little ways to discuss it.

"Should I wake Kevin?" Wendy asked.

I glanced back into the room and at Kevin's sleeping form. Not even all of us standing in the doorway talking had wakened him. Selfishly I wanted him to wake up and stay with me through the press conference. I wondered how mad he would be if I woke him up so that I wouldn't have to go back to my room alone. It wasn't like it was two in the morning or anything. He would normally be awake at this time. So...he'd probably be okay with it. I was about to nod, but I couldn't do it. He probably would have understood, but that wouldn't change how ridiculous I felt about even considering waking him up for such a stupid thing. It wasn't a big deal. And he looked so peaceful in his sleep. It would be kind of mean to wake him up for no real reason. And I could certainly dress myself without help. I was just being a baby again. Besides, I reminded myself of what I'd told him a few hours earlier, it wasn't his responsibility to take care of me. It was mine. Which meant I had no right to wake him. I sighed and made myself do the right thing. "No. Let him sleep. We can just do this with the four of us."

She nodded and gave me a little smile before turning to go catch up to David and AJ.

Which left me to face the room by myself. I took a deep breath and silently began chanting my new mantra: I'm okay. I'm calm. I can do this. I'm okay. I'm calm. I can do this. I wonder if that's how Stuart Smalley started out. Or any of those real self-help guru-types for that matter.

"Want me to go in there with you?" Ed asked quiet enough that no one else would have been able to hear it. I glanced up at him, surprised by his offer. And more than a little grateful for it. I nodded quickly, relieved that he'd picked up on my nervousness even when no one else had. And figured out what was causing it. He nodded his trademark barely detectable nod.

I shut the door to Kevin's room before I realized that I didn't have a keycard to get back in. I also didn't have my card to get into my own room. Oops. I'd forgotten about asking for mine back earlier. Not exactly security conscious of me, huh? Ed's eyes narrowed and he gave me a confused look as I made no move to open the other door. "Could you open the door for me? I kinda don't have my card with me."

He gave me a "what're we going to do with you" sort of look but pulled out his security card and opened the door for me, stepping back and letting me go through first. This was it. Time to prove my mantra right. He followed me into the room and closed the door behind us.

For some reason I expected the room to look scary, but it really didn't. It looked pretty much exactly as I'd left it. My bed was still as unmade as it had been the last time I'd seen it. My bags were still strewn around my side of the room, open and spilling stuff out onto the floor. The playstation was still hooked up and ready to go. Huh. Maybe I'd have time for a little game before the conference. Games usually had a way of calming my nerves.

I glanced toward the bathroom.

While the main room was totally non-scary, the bathroom still had major evil vibes coming from it. I didn't want to go back in there. Not yet. Well, honestly, not ever. Unfortunately I was well aware of the fact that my hair was pretty oily and probably I hadn't actually gotten any sort of a shower in a week. So unless I wanted to go on national TV looking like a greasy little tater tot I was going to have to shower first. Besides, I realized, I was feeling pretty gross, and probably smelling even worse. A week of not bathing probably does that to a guy. I just hadn't noticed it yet because I'd had so many other concerns. But getting clean would be a really good thing. For me and those "fortunate" enough to have to hang around me.

I took another deep breath and tried to mentally prepare myself to go back in there. It was stupid of me to be so afraid. It was just a room. I was safe. Ed was here to make sure of that.

As if on queue, he spoke up again. "You sure you're up for this?"

"Yeah," I assured him, even though my stomach was still doing flips at the idea of going into that room. "I'm good."

Ed frowned a little. "You sure?" He was really being protective guy.

I smiled at his concern, but it was still a little weird having him be so attentive. This thing had everyone acting all weird around me. Not that I wasn't flattered that they all cared and all, but it was still a bit unnerving. I guess they all just needed to be assured that I was same old me and they could all just stop worrying. "Nah. I'm okay. You know me. Bounce back from anything. I'll be driving y'all up the wall before you know it."

Ed's frown deepened for a moment then he seemed to realize that I was kidding and the corners of his mouth turned up in a slightly amused grin. "I'm sure you will, kid." He'd obviously been hanging around Lon too much and picked up the "Kid" habit. I don't mind it so much from Lon because he's like twice my age at least, but Ed's maybe Kevin's age at most. Oh well. I can live with the nickname I guess. There are worse things they could call me. "I saw the picture," he informed me, his smile completely gone again.

Great. I felt my face heating up again. I was never ever going to live that photo down. I hoped that the other guys hadn't seen it. Brian had, of course, but hopefully they hadn't shown Howie and AJ. I knew Kevin probably hadn't since I don't think he left me at any point after we talked. With any luck he'd never see it or his guilt complex would probably go guilt multiplex or something.

"It's okay if you're scared, Nick. It's normal to be scared after something traumatic happens."

"I'm not scared," I insisted automatically. Yep it was still a complete lie, but it was sort of working for me. No point in telling the world I'm spineless, it'd just keep them all hovering. I could still get through this with some semblance of dignity. Maybe. "It happened, it's over, I'm okay." I forced a smile to back up my words.

Ed raised an eyebrow. "Well...okay. If you're sure. But if you want to talk or anything..."

I nodded. Why is it when I used to whine they'd all tell me to shut up and now they were all wanting me to? Mixed messages, people. "Thanks. But I really am good. I just want things to get back to normal and get on with it, you know?"

He let out a small chuckle. Thanks for the vote of confidence there, Ed. "All right, kid." Enough with the kid thing. "Just promise me if you get any more notes or threats or anything you'll tell us, won't try to deal with it yourself or anything stupid like that?"

I could feel my face getting redder again. They really did all think of me as a dumb, defenseless little kid. Then again I hadn't ever proven otherwise and had recently gotten myself kidnapped. So...I guess I couldn't fault them for not trusting me to take care of myself. Besides, it's not like I was planning to go all vigilante and go after the guy myself or anything. Unless maybe I got a gun. But somehow that thought made me pretty queasy, so I'm thinking that's not the way to go. So, I guess vigilanteism wasn't in my future. So I would go to them with the threats anyway. But he didn't have to make it sound like I wouldn't have. I'm not stupid...usually. Or at least not that stupid. Usually. "It's a deal," I agreed.

I looked back toward the bathroom. If I was truly going to convince him I was okay, it would probably be necessary to actually go in there. My legs didn't want to cooperate at first, but after noticing the odd look on Ed's face as he watched me I convinced myself that I was going to have to just bite the bullet and do it. I thought about stalling long enough to pick out clothes to wear to the conference, but that would just give me more time to blow the whole thing up in my head and get even more nervous.

It was just a stupid room. I could do it, damn it. My feet were just not cooperating. Besides, it'd be good to have my clothes ready to go when I got out. Or since Ed was here and I didn't really feel like dressing in front of him, I should probably take clothes in with me. See, I wasn't just stalling.

I went to my bags and pulled out my grey pullover sweatshirt, some underdrawers and a pair of jeans. That didn't take nearly long enough. So much for stalling. Which I wasn't doing, remember?

I was about to finally face up to the fact that I had no more excuses to avoid the bathroom when there was a knock on the door. It was a sign. Delaying the inevitable is good. I was about to answer the door when Ed grabbed my arm and pulled me back, giving me a look that told me that I wasn't being security minded again. Like there weren't still several people in the hall that wouldn't notice if someone unauthorized tried to get in. Besides, if it were that guy, he probably wouldn't be knocking.

"Who is it?" Ed asked as he pushed me back away from the door.

"Just me," AJ announced. Ed gave his infamous nod and let AJ in. "They're going down to warn the press that they're going to set you loose on them in an hour," he informed me. Then he turned to Ed. "Lon wants you to go talk to security and make sure we get more people down there."

Ed nodded and started to go.

I felt that I should probably say something. "Hey, Ed," I called after him. He turned. "Thanks." He started to go again when another thought struck me. "Oh, hey?" He looked slightly annoyed when he stopped again. Or maybe that was just me being paranoid. "Could you take this back to Kevin? I kinda stole it from him." I set my pile of clean clothes down on the bed and pulled the blanket from my shoulders so I could hand it to him. Ed raised an eyebrow and shook his head a little, but took the blanket from me and left with it.

Once he was gone, AJ sat down in front of the TV and flipped it on. "Gonna watch with me?" he asked, looking up at me as he leaned back against Brian's bed. Another excuse to delay going into the bathroom, which made it rather tempting. Except for that tater tot factor. Probably should just get it over with.

"Nah. I don't want to go down there looking like this." I headed into the bathroom. As soon as I was fairly certain that AJ couldn't see my face I closed my eyes so that I wouldn't have to look at the room. I knew that I'd have to open my eyes eventually, but as I learned just minutes ago, delaying the inevitable was always good. Or not, but at the moment it was good, so I was going with it.

My heart was starting its now familiar racing. Just a stupid room, I reminded it, but it didn't care and sped up even more. I felt for the wall blindly, still not wanting to open my eyes. Once I found that, I headed to the shower. Just a regular shower. It would be safe.

But what if that guy was already in there and just waiting for me to come back. I should have had Ed check the room out before he left. My heart beat faster still. I knew that it was a stupid fear because there was no way the guy would just be hanging out in the bathroom. He wouldn't even have been able to get into the room with the number of people there were guarding it. I was safe. I forced myself to open my eyes so that I could confirm that I was being ridiculous.

Nobody was in the room with me. It was just me in a plain old hotel bathroom. Someone had even straightened up in there. My milkshake soaked clothes weren't on the floor anymore and the shower curtain had been hung back up. A regular bathroom.

Careful not to look toward the mirror, I stripped off the nurse's scrubs and hospital issue boxers and kicked them up against the wall so Brian wouldn't get mad at me for leaving a mess. Then I reached into the shower to turn on the water. I could do this. It was just a stupid shower. One that I desperately needed. I just didn't really want to take it there. It was absurd, but I was terrified of the idea of standing on the other side of that shower curtain. Maybe it's just because I wouldn't be able to see anything clearly. Sure, that was it. This was so dumb. But it didn't change the fact that my body was starting to tremble. Fear isn't always rational.

I toyed with the idea of asking AJ to come in the bathroom with me, but dismissed it quickly. He'd probably be okay with it right now, but I'd probably never hear the end of it once he decided that my period of recovery was over. Besides, family or not, I didn't like the idea of being naked in front of anyone. Besides, this was something I was going to have to do on my own. I couldn't go running to everyone else every time I wanted to take a shower. Talk about an embarrassing prospect.

There had to be some sort of compromise. I had to get clean, but there was no way I was getting into that shower. Which left the sink. It was better than nothing, I figured. I grabbed my shampoo and the washcloth from the shower and took my place in front of the sink. Which of course had to have a big mirror in front of it. I was careful not to look at myself in it. I couldn't stand that pitiful image. Maybe I could cover it up? I grabbed one of the towels from the rack and draped it across the light fixture so it hung down over the mirror. There. Much better.

It took a lot longer than normal to get clean trying to wash up in the sink, but it wasn't like that was the first time I'd ever had to do that. There'd been tours early on where accommodations hadn't really allowed for anything else. I was just out of practice. Eventually I managed to get my hair washed and rinsed and had scrubbed my skin clean using the washcloth. I was kind of grossed out by the amount of grime that stained the cloth by the time I was done. But the important thing was that I was done, so I could get the hell out of the bathroom. I grabbed one towel and wrapped it around my waist, then a second one to drape over my shoulders. I wasn't really that wet, but I didn't really want AJ to see all the damage that had been inflicted on me.

"...have just been told that Carter will be making a statement within the hour," the reporter on the television was informing AJ and however many other viewers were actually watching the report.

"Notice no mention of McLean," AJ complained, giving me a sideways glance as he gestured at the television with an annoyed little wave. The slight smirk on his face was the only way to tell he was kidding, but I'm good at spotting that sort of thing.

"Who?" I asked innocently as I headed over to the pile of clothes I'd picked out earlier.

I heard a pillow being snatched up and tensed, realizing it was probably about to be thrown at me. But the blow never came and I relaxed. Not that pillows usually hurt, but the idea of anything hitting me right then was just not welcome.

"You're just lucky you're hur..." AJ cut himself off, apparently realizing that was a really stupid thing to say. I let out a little snort to confirm that assessment. I glanced at him and realized that he was actually blushing a little. AJ, who is about the hardest person to embarrass in the world, blushing? I wished I had a camera. "Sorry."

I turned away so he wouldn't see me frowning. Why couldn't everyone else just act like things were normal? Probably because I wasn't being normal either. Washing in the sink when there was a shower just a few feet away wasn't normal. At least AJ was tactful enough not to mention it. Damn it. Why did this have to happen? Why did that stupid guy have to attack me?

I quickly dressed while AJ kept watching the report. There really wasn't anything being said on TV, it was just a bunch of press people wandering around and lots of talking amongst themselves, with occasional footage of Brian and Howie sitting at a table talking to each other and looking generally uncomfortable strewn in. I wasn't sure why they didn't just go back to regular programming or something, but then I don't run a TV station or anything, so I'm sure they probably had their reasons.

I finished getting dressed and was about to flop down on my bed to watch the broadcast with AJ when a phone started ringing. More specifically, my cell phone started ringing, I realized. AJ glanced behind him and his hand snaked under Brian's bed and pulled out the familiar cell. I was always losing that thing. Wonder how it ended up under Brian's bed, though. Oh well. AJ tossed it to me.

When had my cellphone been switched on? There's no way it had been on all week without the battery dying. With that thought, I hesitated to answer it. I had a really strange feeling in my stomach. Then again I hadn't eaten much all day so it wouldn't be surprising if that were just hunger. But I strongly suspected it was more than that.

"Gonna answer that, dude?" AJ asked after I let it ring a few more times. He was right, I should answer it. It was probably my family or something. Only a handful of other people actually had my cell number. It wasn't important when the phone got switched on.

"Hello?" I answered. When no one responded, I tried again. After another few moments of no response I was about to hang up, but then I heard a familiar voice on the other end.

Mine.

"I need you tonight
I need you right now
I know deep within my heart
It doesn't matter if it's wrong or right
I really need you tonight..."

I frowned, wondering why on Earth someone had called me up to play my own song. I hung up the phone.

"Who was it?" AJ asked, looking up at me with an odd expression.

I shrugged and tossed the phone back on the bed. It was probably nothing. Just some weirdo.

Wait.

I stared at the phone for a moment as my brain began making a few connections. The guy who'd attacked me had left me a card and a photo that both contained quotes from our songs. Wouldn't it then follow that maybe...

I nearly jumped as the phone started ringing again.

"Want me to get it?" AJ asked, getting up and reaching for the phone I'd discarded.

I grabbed it up before he could get to it. "Hello?" I answered again, trying to make my voice sound normal.

"Don't you ever hang up on me," a strangely distorted whispery voice hissed into my ear. I nearly dropped the phone. Well, it wouldn't have been hanging up anyway. But instead I completely froze, gripping the phone tight in my hand.

"Nick?" I hear AJ calling my name, but it seemed like he was suddenly miles away.

The caller chuckled softly, sending shivers down my spine. Hell, sending a damn earthquake down my spine. I'd heard that laugh before, I was fairly certain. I couldn't remember it, exactly, but I was positive that I'd heard it. And that whisper. Oh God.

"AJ?" I heard myself practically whimpering as I looked to my friend for help. He was immediately at my side, peering at me with a look of intense concern that might actually have seemed comical if I hadn't known it was completely sincere.

"Mr. McLean can't help you."

"What do you want?" I made myself ask, keeping my voice as steady as possible. Which really wasn't steady at all.

"You shouldn't have left, we weren't done yet."

I shuddered. Done with what exactly? I kept the question to myself, though, because I really didn't want to know. "Leave me alone," I squeaked pitifully. Yeah that'd convince him.

"You don't learn very fast do you?" So they've told me, thanks for the reminder. "I don't cater to your whims." Ohgodohgodohgodohgod. If I'd had any doubts left that this was the same guy who'd abducted me, they were obliterated now.

"Looking forward to seeing you again at the press conference."

I shook my head even though he wouldn't be able to see it. At least I certainly hoped he couldn't see it. "I won't go," I tried to sound defiant, but even I could hear how weak my protest was.

"You don't and I'll just have a little chat with one of your little friends. They can't watch all of you all the time," he spat out in a vicious growl. I felt my legs give way and I would have dropped like a lead weight had AJ not grabbed me and steadied me long enough to get me sat down on the edge of the bed. "It's up to you. I'll leave them alone unless I don't have a choice. Want that on your conscience?" I shook my head, but couldn't make myself speak at that moment. He chuckled again. "Assuming you even have one, you little brat. No one can help you. You're mine. I own you." I own you I own you I own you. I squeezed my eyes shut as if it could stop the words from echoing in my head. I felt AJ try to pull the phone away from me, but I couldn't seem to let go. "Don't you even think of running to your little guardians for help. They won't be able to save you. Those pitiful agents sure won't save you. Tell no one of our little chat or I'll gut you so fast you won't have time to scream." I swallowed hard. This wasn't happening. The voice changed back to the whisper as he added, "Though I really like to hear you scream." I squeezed my eyes shut even tighter.

"Why are you doing this to me?" I somehow managed to ask, though I'm surprised he was able to hear it, my voice was so faint.

"It doesn't matter if it's wrong or right..." the whisperer started quoting the same lyrics from the song he'd played during the first call. I felt my stomach trying to turn itself inside out. I'd never be able to hear that song again without getting sick.

AJ finally managed to pry the phone from my grip and threw it away from me as if it were poisonous. The phone hit the wall hard, breaking on impact. For a moment we both stared at it as if we were expecting it to explode or something.

AJ put his hand on my shoulder. "You okay, Kaos?"

I shook my head. I wasn't. No point in even trying to hide it, which probably wasn't even an option at the moment. I was so very far from okay it wasn't even visible anymore. I was shaking so hard that I probably looked like I was having some sort of seizure. I wanted to curl up in a little ball and hide from the world.

AJ started to reach toward me, but then hesitated awkwardly. It was obvious that he had no idea how to console me. He wasn't used to being the one to comfort me. He let out a big sigh and I felt even worse. I'm sorry, AJ, I don't mean to be such a hassle. "I'm going to go get Lon," he informed me, his voice exaggeratedly gentle.

I grabbed onto his shirt as he tried to get up. He couldn't leave. I didn't want to be alone. And the guy's threat was still repeating itself in my head. If I tried to get help, he was going to kill me. And if I didn't go to that conference he might attack one of the other guys. Ohgodohgodohgod. AJ couldn't tell Lon. They'd never let me go to the conference if they found out I'd been threatened.

"Can't tell them," I whispered as forcefully as I could.

AJ looked at me with a horrified look on his face. "Nick, we have to tell them."

I shook my head emphatically. "No!" I tried to tell AJ about the threat that the guy had made about what he'd do if I told. I was far from coherent, but somehow he got the gist of it anyway.

"Well...shit." He closed his eyes and furrowed his brow, seeming to be lost in thought. "Okay," he said at last. "We can't tell them about the call, but maybe we could tell them that you're really nervous and can't do the conference tonight."

I shook my head again. I didn't want to panic him about the other threat. Not if I could help it. The guy said he'd leave them alone if I cooperated. So I had to do the conference no matter what. "No. I want to do it. I just...I need to calm down a little, you know?" Understatement to end all understatements. I'd probably never be able to calm myself down. I wasn't strong enough for this. But I had to be. I couldn't let the guy hurt them. I'd never forgive myself if I could have done something to stop it and didn't.

AJ rubbed my back lightly, careful not to apply any pressure to the bruises. "Okay. Whatever you want." I could hear the frustration in his voice.

I sat there for a few more minutes until I was reasonably calmed again. I probably wouldn't be truly calm...ever, but I was at least back to being able to fake it. "Let's get this over with."

AJ nodded, still looking very unhappy about going along with this. I couldn't blame him. I wasn't too thrilled either.

I guess I wasn't done with understatements after all.
Addressing the Nation by Chaos
What I want to know is whose bright idea was it to make all the hallways look exactly the same in this place? How was anyone ever supposed to find the conference room they were looking for? It was like a little maze or something in the back hallways. If it weren't for the fact that I was being escorted to the right place by three bodyguards (Lon, and two guys from the hotel staff), a PR rep (Wendy), two federal agents (would you believe Harris and Walters?), and one highly tattooed pop-singer (take a wild guess), I would probably have ended up addressing the Sewing Circle that was meeting in Conference Room B3. On the other hand, that would probably have been an easier crowd to deal with. Not nearly as nerve-wracking. And I could probably answer about as many questions on sewing as I could on what happened to me.

Wendy went over my "statement" with me as we headed down to the conference, but I still felt like I had no idea what to say. I mean I had the first 30 seconds covered with "I was attacked in my hotel bathroom, I was drugged into unconsciousness, I woke up in the hospital six days later with a mild concussion and other minor injuries." Okay so I only had about the first 15 seconds covered. I could possibly repeat it a couple times to fill some time. Or maybe I'd just talk reeeeally slow. But then everybody'd probably make fun of me like they do to Kev sometimes.

Noticing that I didn't have a lot to offer as far as a press release went, Wendy suggested that maybe I talk about what I was feeling and what I was doing to recover. No way was I going to tell everyone about what I was feeling. Could you imagine? "At the moment I feel kinda like Jell-O. You know how it doesn't ever really stop shaking and like even when it looks like it's all still, all it takes is a tiny little nudge and its back to full fledged quivering-mode? That's me." There's a reason I don't like to speak up much at interviews. Somehow it all sounds better in my head than it does on paper when I read it later. And to be honest that one doesn't even sound all that good in my head.

And what could really be said about recovering? I mean basically my plan was to do this stupid conference then hide in a locked room with guards watching over me until the whole thing went away. Doesn't exactly sound like a solid plan, does it? Especially after my brief discussion with Walters and Harris before we headed down for the conference.

They still didn't have any leads, and didn't know anything more than I did about what happened. They talked to that nurse at the hospital, I guess. They believed her when she said she didn't have any idea who'd left that...gift for me. So there was still basically nothing to go on other than my really pathetic description. Hiding in a locked room for the next several years didn't really sound all that feasible. Especially since concerts rarely take place in locked rooms and the revised schedule of our tour seemed to have a performance in just a couple days. AJ assured me that management wasn't going to push me into performing until I was ready (like Kevin'd let them) but the other four would be going ahead with the show with or without me. I haven't decided about that yet.

I didn't have much time to dwell on the lack of things I was going to say because, after making several turns heading into the labyrinth of conference rooms, we were getting pretty close to the "Executive Conference Theater". Cool name for a conference room huh? Can you imagine having an entire theater inside a hotel? Maybe we should just hold our next concert there. I mean wouldn't that be pretty handy to have the concert venue right in the hotel? Of course it's probably more like a movie theater thing than like an actual stage or anything, but it was a cool thought anyway.

Is it me or wouldn't it make sense to have the largest room nearest to the lobby? That way you wouldn't have to have everyone traipsing around getting all lost and stuff. On the other hand, maybe that's why it's tucked way back in there so that people would get lost and they wouldn't have to worry about finding seating for everyone.

Unfortunately from the sound of it, more than enough people had managed to find the place and cram into the room without getting lost. I could hear them before we even reached the final hallway. Enough people, in fact, that they didn't all fit in the theater and were crowding the hall. We found that out as we turned into the final stretch. Somewhere among those people could be the guy that had attacked me. He'd said he'd see me at the conference. My heart started pounding as I scanned the small crowd that overflowed from the room. To my relief there were no really large men, but then there were a lot more people waiting inside, so that didn't mean he wasn't present. He might've just simply meant that he would be watching the press conference on TV, which was what I was really hoping. But I had my doubts and it didn't make me any less nervous. I swore I could feel him watching me. Waiting.

Of course, all the people out in the hall were waiting and watching me, so that's probably where that feeling came from. I willingly moved closer to Lon even though I'd already been within his two-foot range rule. I didn't feel too bad about that, however, since AJ moved with me. He was probably doing that more for my benefit than him being scared, though, I suppose. AJ doesn't ever seem to get freaked out by the crowds. Neither do I, most of the time, but every once in a while it gets kind of scary. Like now. These people weren't screaming or anything like crowds of fans, but as soon as we turned into the hallway, their attentions were all focused on me. I could hear them whispering things about me as we passed, which was way worse to me than screaming. The whispering sent more shivers through my body. I was practically stepping on Lon's feet I moved so close to him. He didn't say anything about it though, and just placed a hand lightly on my back and guided me past the reporters.

I looked around, trying to spot the nearest exit should one be needed in a hurry. It never hurt to be prepared. Just past the crowd I could see a door marked "Stairs: Basement Access". Duly noted. It didn't say it was an exit, but usually where there's a stairwell there's a door.

We made it safely to the conference room door and I slowed so I could peer in cautiously and get an idea of what I was facing. Lon stopped with me and scanned the crowd like I was doing. It was absolutely packed in the room. I'd guestimate (is that a word?) at least a hundred and fifty reporters were crammed into the room that was intended for only about a hundred. And the guy could be anywhere among them, seated in the crowd where I wouldn't be able to spot him.

I suddenly realized how much I really didn't want to be there. I wanted to turn and run, get back to my room and lock myself in. Then again I'd been in a locked room to begin with and that hadn't saved me.

Nowhere was safe.

But, if I didn't go do this, I would be putting the other guys in danger. Damn. So much for running away. Then again that seemed to be out of the question anyway since I couldn't seem to make myself start moving again.

"Kaos," AJ called my nickname quietly, trying to get my attention. I glanced at him and he gave me a reassuring smile. Sure, AJ, it was all going to be okay. I wanted to believe that, but I just couldn't. But I had to go on like nothing was wrong. Sure. I took a deep breath and made myself start walking into the room. I heard AJ let out a relieved sigh as he followed me in. Everyone from the hall started filing in behind us, too, making the room that much more overcrowded. Giving my stalker even more people to hide among.

"Nick!" I heard an unfamiliar man's--his?--voice call from somewhere to my right. My attention was instantly drawn toward the voice and a camera flash snapped--

"That'll look good on the internet don't you think?" a voice whispered gruffly in my ear. I felt myself being lifted and dragged out of what I could only guess might be a car trunk. I was slung over my captor's shoulder as if my size and weight were inconsequential. Since I couldn't see anything, was completely disoriented and not entirely conscious, I couldn't be sure of anything, but I was fairly sure I was outdoors...but then a few moments later the breeze that I'd thought was present wasn't there anymore, so I guess I was indoors. Or maybe I'd just been carried inside. I couldn't tell. I could have been having some sort of drug induced dream, but then if that were the case I thought I would have been able to see something. It was scaring me that I couldn't see, so I kept my eyes closed so I could pretend that I wasn't blind. Even then I was pretty damn scared considering that I was being taken somewhere that I was fairly sure I didn't want to go. At any rate, reality seemed to be fading in and out.

A brief time later I was jarred fully awake, however, as my body struck the ground hard. I tried to scream in pain but instantly realized that there was something stuffed into my mouth to keep me from doing so. My eyes opened again, but it was still pitch black. I finally realized that there was a strange pressure across my eyes, and determined that I was blindfolded. That would explain the whole not being able to see thing. Moments after that realization was made, I felt a large hand moving through my hair and tugging at the cloth that was obstructing my vision until it was jerked away. I was sprawled face down on a concrete floor and I couldn't move even if my life depended on it. Which I was fairly certain it did. But I still couldn't move. I could only lie where I'd been dropped.

My captor had pulled the blindfold off, but my eyes were having trouble adjusting to the darkness. After a few moments, my vision started to clear and thanks to a small bit of light that was streaming in from somewhere near the excessively high ceiling, I determined that I was in some sort of storage room. There were large cabinets and lockers lining the wall to my right side and there were several boxes and a few pieces of abandoned furniture strewn throughout the seemingly enormous room. Everything seemed to be covered with a fairly heavy layer of dust. Which meant that nobody ever checked up on this place, nobody would somehow accidentally stumble on the scene and rescue me.

I discovered that at some point I'd been wrapped in a thin blanket, which was clinging to my still damp skin. While I was thankful at least for the scant protection it offered, the material wasn't enough to keep my body warmth from being sucked into the cold concrete below me. I was freezing and still being wet--I assumed from the shower I'd been so horrifyingly interrupted from--didn't help fight off the chills. On the up side, if I was still wet that meant I'd probably only been unconscious for a few minutes. That meant that I probably wasn't far from help. Someone must have seen me being taken. I mean how exactly would someone go about smuggling a 6'2" man out of a hotel without being noticed? Especially a...uh...less than fully clothed 6'2" man. I'd think that would be pretty hard to miss.

But if anyone had seen what was going on why wasn't someone helping me? They'd have made themselves known by then. Wouldn't they? Maybe they'd followed and were now going to get the police or something. But I couldn't count on it. Since no one seemed to be trying to rescue me, I had to assume that I was going to have to get out of this by myself. My arms and legs weren't cooperating with the orders my brain was trying to give it, though. I knew I needed to get up and get away, but my body wasn't obliging, which just added to the terror that filled me. I'd been paralyzed! My heart was pounding wildly as I kept trying unsuccessfully to make my arms or legs move. My limbs just kept ignoring the commands.

If I were paralyzed, I wouldn't feel pain, though, right? So...the pains in my arms, legs, and chest were good things. I wasn't sure whether to laugh or cry at that realization, but I was so terrified that my system opted for the latter. I tried to blink the tears back, but my body was completely out of my control. Why couldn't I move?

Concentrating all my effort, I finally managed to raise my arm off the floor for a few moments. Now I was getting somewhere. I concentrated on getting my arm beneath me so that I could push myself up, but then strong hands were suddenly gripping my wrists and I was jerked violently to my feet.

I screamed, but the sound was almost completely stifled by the gag in my mouth. Something was being looped around my wrists and a moment later both my arms were yanked upward. They were stretched almost to the point where I thought they were going to be pulled right out of my sockets, but then the pressure lessened and my arms were allowed to relax slightly. My head lolled back and I saw that my wrists were bound with a thick wire that was then secured to a pipe that ran overhead.

My captor abruptly let go of me and my legs collapsed beneath me. I expected to go crashing to the ground, but there was no give in the restraints and all my weight was suddenly being taken on by my wrists. Which hurt. Lots. I struggled to get my legs stabilized enough to take the pressure off my wrists before the wire cut through my skin. It took a few tries, but then I was standing and the pain lessened considerably. In my wrists anyway.

I shivered uncontrollably, whether from fear or from cold was debatable. I wished that the blanket were thicker until I realized that if it had been heavier, gravity probably would have taken it from me already. As it was, the only thing that was holding it up was the fragile bond created by the dampness of my skin. It was probably only a short matter of time before I would lose what cover I had.

Unfortunately, I was right about that, but it was my captor that ripped it away from me, not gravity. I closed my eyes and tried not to think about the fact that I was completely exposed to him and there was nothing I could do about it. My body's shaking intensified, but this time I was fairly certain it was the fear, along with an overwhelming feeling of shame, that was causing it.

I heard my captor moving slightly away from me, and turned my head instinctively to see if I could get a look at him. As frightened as I was, I still had questions. Like who was this guy and why was he doing this to me? Unfortunately he wasn't ready to supply the answers.

Before I had even turned enough to really get a look at him, I felt a horrible pain explode in my face. It took a moment to realize that he'd punched me. And I realized that only as I saw the fist coming at me another time. I tried to turn away from it, but it still caught me in the jaw, snapping my head back and making me lose my balance. My body cried out the agony I couldn't voice.

As I struggled to get my legs stabilized again, my attacker moved away from me. I didn't repeat the mistake of trying to look. I was too afraid that he'd hit me again if I did. Being very careful not to look in his direction, I listened to what sounded like him rummaging through a bag. If I didn't know what was coming, I wouldn't be able to prepare myself for it. Not that I could do anything anyway. I squeezed my eyes shut as if that could protect me from what was coming. If I couldn't see it, it didn't exist. Not the most brilliant defense tactic, but it was all I could manage at the moment.

"Smile for the camera," I heard my captor hiss out in a harsh whisper.

My eyes flew open and I turned my head toward the sound reflexively. A camera flash snapped--

I was completely disoriented for a moment before I realized that I was on my hands and knees on the ground. The wire had snapped? Nothing was around my wrists, but I could see the bruising that the wire had caused. I became aware that there were several people towering over me, and I wanted to scream but couldn't quite find my voice. I crouched back and raised my arms, trying to protect my head even though nobody seemed to be hitting me or anything.

I became aware of a lot of gasping and whispering going on but couldn't comprehend what was being said. It sounded like it was coming from all directions at once. Just how many people were there surrounding me? Ohgodohgodohgod. I looked around fearfully and realized that I was at the press conference, not in a dank storage room. And the people towering over me were friends (or at least acquaintances), not attackers. Damn it, I'd gone completely off the deep end. In front of cameras and countless reporters no less. They were going to have a field day with this. I noticed at least two video cameras directed at me and wondered if the footage of my little collapse had gone out on live television. Damn it, damn it, damn it!

AJ was kneeling down next to me, and I could see that his lips were moving but I couldn't seem to understand what he was saying. Nothing made any sense anymore. He was staring at me with wide eyes. Countless other people were staring at me, too. I couldn't do this. I covered my face with my hands so that I wouldn't have to see everyone looking at me.

"I've got you, kid. It's okay," I heard Lon directly whisper into my ear as he crouched down next to me. I shivered at the sound. It wasn't even remotely the same whisper as the one from my nightmare--memory?--but it had the same effect on my totally fried nerves. "I'm going to take you back upstairs. We can do this later. You're not ready."

I wanted very badly to take Lon up on that. I wanted to hide, wanted to curl up in a little ball and stay where nobody could touch me, where nobody could even look at me. I wanted to go home. Hell, I wanted to be anywhere that wasn't there. As long as it was somewhere safe and nobody would be looking at me. I was about to take Lon up on his offer to get me the heck out of there when I glanced up, and caught sight of Brian and Howie pushing their way through the crowd to get to me. Seeing them, I remembered that I couldn't leave. I had to do this stupid conference or the guy might decide to hurt one of them. That's the only reason I'd ended up coming down after the phone call. And it was still a valid reason. I couldn't leave now, no matter how much I wanted to. Damn it all to hell.

AJ moved aside a little to let Brian through, and what seemed like a split second later, my best friend was on the floor next to me. He reached toward me, but stopped short, hesitating with his shaking hand only a fraction of an inch away from my skin. Why was he shaking? I was the one that was scared nearly to death, here. I looked at him in confusion and saw that he was nearly as frightened as I was. That actually made me feel better in a weird sort of way. I wasn't alone. Is it horrible that him being scared made me feel better?

I nearly knocked Brian over as I impulsively launched myself toward him, desperately needing him to hold me and tell me that it was all okay again. I wondered if it was actually three o'clock, and if he'd actually penciled this in on his calendar or not. He recovered quickly and seemed to know exactly what I wanted because his arms were around me almost immediately. A moment later, I felt someone else join us and realized that it was Howie. And then AJ decided to get in on the action, too, and they surrounded me in a little impromptu huddle. Oh yeah, the press was going to have a field day all right. But at that moment, I didn't even really care. As the others hung onto me, I felt like they were literally passing their strength to me, and I really needed to borrow some of that to get me past the practically crippling fear. The press could just all go to hell. That's probably not an appropriate attitude is it? Oh well.

I couldn't help but grin as I started thinking about what we probably looked like at that moment. A little backstreet pile-up in the middle of the floor. I'd definitely needed the group hug thing, though; I was feeling a ton better already. The fear was subsiding. I could breathe again, and my heart was returning to normal rate.

When I finally felt reasonably calm again, I let out a deep breath and started moving a little to let the others know that I was ready to get up. They backed off enough so we could all get up, but stayed crowded around me.

"I have to do this," I informed Lon, refusing his earlier offer to take me back to the room. He gave me an appraising look. "I'm okay now. The camera just...spooked me, you know?" To prove that assessment, another camera flash went off and I flinched. Brian moved in closer again as if he were trying to shield me from the cameras. If I weren't concentrating on keeping my now somewhat controlled fear in check I probably would have found that really funny. Brian's my best friend and all and I really appreciated his attempt but him trying to shield me from the cameras was just not happening since I tower about a half foot over him. It's the thought that counted though.

"No more photographs!" I heard AJ instructing the crowd. "He doesn't want any more photographs! They freak him out!" I groaned. Did he really have to tell them that part? Now they were probably going to ask why during the question and answer thing. Thought that counted, thought that counted.

Regaining my composure the best I could, I headed toward the front of the room where they'd set up a table and five chairs. I should have had Wendy wake Kevin so he'd occupy the fifth chair. It would be weird to leave one empty; besides, I wanted him there. I wanted him to help watch out for me like the others were doing. Except that wasn't his responsibility, damn it. Why did I keep forgetting that? It wasn't any of their responsibilities, for that matter, I reminded myself, feeling a little guilty again. I glanced at the other guys, who were still hovering around me. I really needed to get a grip so they wouldn't have to keep dealing with me causing scenes like that. They hadn't seemed to mind, but I couldn't keep expecting them to do that.

Once I got up to the platform at the front of the room, I sank into the chair at the close end of the table--the one that happened to conveniently be nearest to the emergency exit. I suspected that the chair in the center was where they'd intended for me to sit since most of the microphones were centered there. But I didn't care. I felt a little better knowing that there was a door I could bolt for if I had to. Paranoid much? Probably. But I still felt better anyway. Besides, it was kind of fun watching all the stationary video-camera operators quickly readjusting their angles. AJ tapped me on the shoulder and nodded toward the chair with all the microphones in front of it, but I shook my head and stayed put. Fortunately, he didn't push the matter. Brian took the chair next to mine. AJ took the dreaded hot seat in front of the mics, and Howie sat on the other side of him.

Maybe I should have sat in the second seat rather than on the end. It was a little unnerving having one side unprotected. I glanced at Brian and considered asking him to change seats but then remembered that then I would be that much farther from the emergency exit. I'd stay where I was. Lon wouldn't let anyone get that close to us anyway.

I closed my eyes and concentrated on breathing and keeping myself calm while everyone in the room got settled. I still hadn't really figured out what exactly I was going to say, and it was unnerving to know that no matter what came out of my mouth it was going to be broadcast on live television. No editing to make me look better. If Kevin had come to the conference he'd probably be sweating bullets worrying that I was going to say something really stupid like I usually end up doing. There's another reason I should have had Wendy wake him when I'd had the chance. I imagined him sitting in the chair down at the other end of the table all tense and fretting over what disastrous comments would come out of my mouth. Is it wrong that I almost started laughing at that image?

Finally the room quieted and I knew that everyone was waiting for me to say something.

Showtime!

I opened my eyes and found that all eyes were, indeed, on me. I could do this. It was just like any other performance, I tried to convince myself. I'd gone onstage several times when I'd been sick as a dog and ready to pass out from exhaustion; I'd gone onstage several times when I'd been extremely pissed off after an argument with one of the guys, one of my parents, or my ex-girlfriend-who-shall-remain-nameless. Once in the spotlight, none of that can matter. The trick is to keep smiling and leave all other concerns completely behind. Can't let anyone see what's really going on behind-the-scenes, so to speak. The cool and completely (or at least mostly) in control stage persona takes over and Nickolas Carter the individual with worries and insecurities ceases to exist until the show is over.

With that in mind, I flashed the best smile I could and gave a little wave to the room. "After that little scene I bet y'all are wondering what I'm gonna do for an encore," I started out. There were a few genuine chuckles and a lot of polite laughs. Tough crowd. Gotta loosen 'em up a bit. That's usually AJ's job, though. Then again it usually doesn't take a whole lot because everyone's usually really riled up anyway.

Note to self: make sure next press conference starts with a few strategically staged explosions.

Okay, maybe not.

Let's see, skipping the explosive intro...next thing we usually do is a song, but that'd be kind of inappropriate at the moment. Although it would certainly throw everyone for a loop if I suddenly broke into song.

Next stop: the padded room.

Okay, not going to sing, so fast forwarding a little. After the first set we always stop and thank people for being fans and showing up and everything. Okay, yeah, that would work if I altered it just a bit. "We..." Oops. "I want to start by thanking you all for all your concern and your prayers during the past few days." I took a deep breath as my mind searched for something more intelligible to say other than the "statement" I'd come up with earlier. Brian reached over and squeezed my hand reassuringly, likely assuming that my pause was due to nerves.

"I know there were a lot conflicting reports going on out there as to what happened to me, so I guess you want me to clear that up for you." Better luck next hostage crisis, people, because: "The truth is I can't really tell you much more than what you've probably already been told." Which reminded me that I probably should have asked exactly what the public had been told. But that would have been the bright thing to do, huh? "I'm sure by now you all know that I was abducted from my hotel room the other afternoon." There had to be something more interesting to tell them than that I couldn't remember anything--or at least nothing that I wanted to share. "Contrary to all those internet rumors, it was not by aliens or overzealous 'N Sync fans." I had no idea what sort of rumors were on the 'net, but those were a couple that I imagined were out there somewhere. If not, they would be in a matter of hours, knowing the rumor mill. Besides, that line got a few more laughs than the previous attempt at lightening up the mood and making the conference at least a little less painful.

I kept talking, dishing out the few details I was willing to disclose. I continued to joke a little bit here and there to cover up the fact that I didn't really know much and that I was still scared half out of my mind that I was going to lose control again. I purposely left out everything about my nightmare, about the flashback that I'd just had, and especially about the fact that the guy was still contacting me. The public really didn't need to know that stuff, and I didn't want it to turn into "Poor Little Me Hour" or anything.

All in all I think it went over pretty well. I didn't say anything too dumb sounding, and managed to keep my cool the entire time. Thank god for stage personas.

"And now I'm going to turn this over to AJ and he's going to tell y'all about our newly revised concert schedule," I concluded my statement, cutting off any chance at a Q & A session at that point in time. They'd probably still ask questions after AJ was done, but I figured it would maybe divert the attention off me at least a little bit.

As AJ started his spiel, I sank back in my chair again and leaned back a little, tuning him and the rest of the world out a little so I could relax. The worst was over as far as the conference was concerned. And nothing had happened. It was all good. The guy was probably sitting home in front of his TV watching the coverage. He probably got a huge thrill out of my pre-interview breakdown if they aired it, but I had the satisfaction of making it through the rest of it in good form. I actually hoped he was watching and that it ticked him off a little that I wasn't cowering. Well, not visibly anyway. Sure it was all an act, but he probably wouldn't know that.

Then again if I pissed him off it might make things worse if he ever got his hands on me again. But Lon and the other guards were around to make sure that didn't happen. So yeah, I hoped it pissed him off while he was out there watching. Okay, maybe I was getting a little cocky hiding behind my stage attitude, but it was working for me.

At least it was until the lights went out.

Welcome back to reality, Nickolas Carter.

I've always hated the dark. Always. Scary things lurk where you can't see them. You can't see them until suddenly they're right there ready for the kill. You don't even know what form the evil will take until it's on you. And having an overactive imagination makes it all that much worse because when you hear a noise instead of thinking things like "oh, hey, there's my hamster running in it's squeaky little wheel thing again" you think of stuff like "oh, hey, there's a squeaky evil beastie thing attacking my hamster." I'm not saying the thoughts are rational, I'm just saying how it is, you know?

I was relatively calm in the moments before all hell broke loose. But isn't that always how it works? Maybe I should be as scared of calm as I am of the dark. Have to start thinking of it as the eye of the storm rather than the end of it. That's healthy, no? No. But at least if I were scared of the quiet I'd be more prepared for moments like when the entire auditorium was thrust into total darkness. As it was, I think my heart stopped beating entirely for a few moments. And then the terror hit me full force.

The lights wouldn't have gone out for no reason. It hadn't been storming. No reason for a sudden power outage. Which meant that this was because someone had purposely cut the power. There was no valid reason for anyone to have done that. The building wasn't on fire. Or maybe I shouldn't make that assumption, but I doubted the building was on fire anyway. Someone intentionally cut the power. Someone. Him. He was in the building.

I felt a hand on my shoulder and nearly killed myself scrambling out of my chair to get away from whoever was trying to grab me. My knee slammed into the table and my foot got tangled in my chair enough to send me sprawling to the ground. I could hear people calling my name, but I didn't care. I had to get out of there. He was here. I had to get out. The emergency doors were just a few yards away. I could make it.

I felt a hand on my leg and screamed, kicking at my attacker. He wasn't going to get me again. I had to get out. I kicked my assailant again and was released. The moment I was freed, I launched myself to my feet and bolted for the door. Amidst all the panicked sounds behind me I heard Lon yelling at us to all sit still that security was already headed to find out what was going on. No way, Lon. Not staying here. He was here, damn it.

The emergency door had just shut behind me when it hit me that I'd just left the other guys behind. Oh God, what if that guy took one of the others because I ran off? What had I done? I turned to go back into the room but discovered that the exits were one-way doors. There was no handle to let me back in. Damn it! What had I done?

"Brian!" I screamed out for my best friend, hoping he could hear me over the pandemonium that was going on inside. "Howie! AJ!" I pounded on the door hoping that someone would let me back in. What was I thinking when I ran without them? What was I thinking?

Nobody was letting me in. I'd have to go back around to the regular entrance. I turned to run back that way when I saw a door opening at that end of the hallway. The door to the stairwell. To the basement. Where the circuit breakers probably were. Where the power supply for the whole building probably would be. Where whoever cut the power would be coming from.

I am quite possibly the stupidest man on the face of the Earth. My attacker couldn't have been in the auditorium if he were off somewhere else cutting the power. It had probably been one of the guys or maybe Lon that had grabbed my leg. And I'd totally kicked whoever it was. Not just that, but I'd separated myself from Lon, from my friends, from all potential witnesses and protectors. I can't believe I did something so dumb. I slowly backed the other direction down the hall, trying to be as silent as possible so that I wouldn't attract the stairwell guy's attention. Just in case.

A large figure--him, I knew it would be him--appeared in the hall. I couldn't see him any clearer than just a shadowy outline, but it had to be him. He was big enough to be, anyway.

The figure seemed to be headed for the auditorium door, and I wasn't sure what I should do. If I ran for it, I would be leaving the others behind, but if I went in there, he could grab me. Not knowing what else to do, I froze, waiting for him to get out of my sight so that I could think rationally. If I didn't move, maybe he wouldn't notice me, and I'd get a few moments to make my decision without the pressure of his presence diverting my attention.

But my luck is never that good.

Just before he disappeared around the corner he hesitated. Then he turned and looked right at me. I was so dead. Then again I could see him no clearer than an outline, maybe he couldn't see who I was, either.

A moment later, though, I found myself in the spotlight. Or rather a flashlight beam. Oh, SHIT! I turned and fled. I could hear him starting after me. I was too panicked to scream, but since no one had heard me trying to get back into the auditorium anyway it was unlikely that screaming would help.

I ducked around the first corner and raced down the dark hallway. Every door I passed I half expected someone to jump out and grab me, but no one did. I could still hear someone chasing after me, though, and that was scary enough. I turned another corner and wished I could remember exactly how to get back out of the back hallways to the lobby. If I kept making right turns though I should get there...no, wait, that would just take me in a giant square, that wouldn't work. Next turn should be a left. Oh shit, I'd already made two right turns, so I was headed in completely the wrong direction, wasn't I?

But I couldn't turn around. If I turned around, I'd run right into the guy.

Maybe I could find somewhere to hide? I spared a look over my shoulder and couldn't see my follower. For the moment I was unobserved. I yanked open the door to the nearest conference room, let myself practically fall inside and shut the door quickly behind me, careful not to let it slam or make any noise. With any luck the guy would think that I'd made it to the next corner and--

I really am the stupidest person on the face of the planet. If I'd gone to the next corner and taken a right I would have been headed right back to the protection of Lon and the others in the theater. Instead I'd just cornered myself in a dark room. A very dark room. Evil always lurks in dark rooms.

I swung around and tried to let my eyes adjust to the darkness enough to see any obstacles. Last thing I wanted to do was make any noise and alert the guy of my whereabouts. Unfortunately it was pitch black in the room since there were no windows and no lights. I doubted that there were any emergency exits in this smaller room, either. I was very trapped if he decided to check the room out. I needed to find somewhere to hide in case he did. Somewhere that he wouldn't be able to see without searching thoroughly. I dropped to the floor and as quickly but carefully as possible moved farther into the room, feeling for any obstacles, and better yet anything to hide behind. I felt a couple chair legs and figured that I was well on my way to crawling under a table. If he hadn't had a flashlight that would probably be enough cover, but I needed something more foolproof than that, so I kept crawling. Finally my hand hit something solid that was wider than a chair or table leg. It seemed like some sort of box. I carefully maneuvered around it. It was a fairly large box. The third wall of it (the side farthest from the door) was made of cloth.

It was a podium. And I was delighted to discover that the cloth concealed a nice little cubbyhole where presenters could hide stuff like overhead projectors and stuff. Perhaps even a terrified man in desperate need of a hiding place? It was a tight fit, but I managed to get myself inside with knees drawn tightly up to my chest.

I forgot to breathe a few moments later when I heard the sound of the door opening and a beam of light hit the wall in front of me. I'd found shelter just in time.

My heart was pounding so loud I was afraid that it would give my location away. If that didn't do it, then the cold sweat that had broken out and was dripping off my body would probably do it. Then again those sounds were probably just amplified to me because I was so incredibly scared. The beam of light began sweeping the room. Most of the time it was out of my line of vision, but it kept coming back again and again.

Finally I heard the door close and I let out the breath I'd been holding. I closed my eyes and let my head drop down against my knees, letting out another big sigh of relief. He was gone. He hadn't found me. I could breathe again. All the tension flowed out of my body and I was left feeling absolutely exhausted. Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, Adrenaline has left the building.

I let my legs slide down so that I wasn't crammed entirely inside the podium cubby and let my head loll back against the solid wall with a soft thump. I was safe for the moment, but I'd wait right where I was until the lights came back on and I could get back to the others safely. I wasn't about to risk going out there while the guy was still searching the hallway, or while he could be lurking somewhere between this room and the theater. I just prayed that Lon and the other guards would keep the other guys safe in case the guy took this opportunity to try and get to one of them since he'd lost me. Please keep them safe.

I heard a soft chuckle a few feet away and my heart skipped a few beats.

No way.

Remember what I said about being the stupidest man on the face of the Earth? I should just repeat that a few more times and bang my head against the podium a few times for emphasis. Of course that would really just further illustrate how dumb I was because I'd be wasting precious seconds that I should be using to try to make a break for it. Right. Much better idea.

Before I could, though, I felt strong hands grip my ankles and cried out as I was yanked out of my hiding spot. This wasn't happening. Not again. Please, God, not again. For a moment my legs were released and I rolled onto my stomach and used my arms to propel myself up onto my feet. Unfortunately a moment later I was back down on the ground again with a very heavy man pinning me down.

I really hate déjà vu, don't you?

I felt a hand grab a fistful of my hair and wrench my head back for just a moment before slamming it hard against the floor. The surface was carpeted, but it still hurt, damn it. "Don't move a muscle or you're a dead man," the now familiar whisper hissed in my ear. I believed him wholeheartedly. I suspected that I'd been living on borrowed time as it was. I don't think I was supposed to have gotten away from the psycho the first time.

The man shifted his weight off me and I wanted more than anything to make a break for it. The way I had it figured, if I followed his order and stayed still, he'd take me with him and I'd probably end up dying a slow painful death. On the other hand if I tried to run he'd probably shoot me or stab me or whatever and I'd die anyway. But a quick death would be better wouldn't it? Regardless, I couldn't seem to make myself move, so it seemed like a slow death was in my future.

I heard him rustling around a little bit and then a few moments later felt something sharp jab me in the side. A needle. Tears sprung to my eyes as reality struck home. I swore I could actually feel something being pumped into my bloodstream. It was really happening again. Why was this happening to me? Why? What had I done that was so wrong that I deserved this?

Nothing, damn it! Adrenaline was back with a vengeance.

I pulled away from the needle quickly and kicked at the man trying to inject me with that horrible drug. I heard him grunt and fall backward as I made contact. Yes! I launched myself to my feet and scrambled for the door, reaching down to pull the syringe out of my body as I went. I wasn't sure how much, if any, of the drug had actually been injected, but I was going to have to assume that the damage was done and I'd soon be out of commission. So I had to get to help fast.

My instinct on that matter proved to be well founded as the dizziness hit me before I even made it to the hall. I forced myself to keep going, though. I had to get back to the auditorium. Back to safety. I clawed frantically at the door handle and flung the door open, stumbling out into the hallway.

Which way did I have to go? Damn it, I couldn't think. Which way back to the auditorium? My head was spinning. Or else the hallway was. Either way it was making it harder to figure out which way to go.

Okay. I'd gone out the side door of the auditorium, went right down that hall and then made two consecutive right turns and then ducked into a conference room on the left side. So that meant...I needed to go left? No. Damn it! Which way?

I heard someone coming up fast behind me and realized I didn't have time to think it out carefully, so I just turned and fled as fast as I could down the hall. Unfortunately that was not very fast at all because I was getting weaker and weaker and it was taking more and more concentration that I just didn't have to keep myself upright and moving.

I was grabbed around the waist and pulled back against my assailant. One of his arms locked itself around my waist while his other hand shot up and clamped hard onto my jawbone, forcing my head back until my neck felt like it was going to break. "Don't make a sound or I'll snap your neck."

My legs kept trying to give out, but I was forced to walk along with my captor guiding me through the dark hall. I couldn't figure out where we were headed until I was pushed through a doorway into a stairwell. Where there are stairwells, there are usually exits. This was really happening. I was being taken again.

I was suddenly blinded as the stairs were flooded with light. The power was back on. Not that it was going to help me now.

"FUCK!" my captor swore in a high-pitched semi-panicked sounding whisper. He was panicking? Try being in my shoes, guy. Except I was too lightheaded to panic any more.

I was suddenly slammed hard against the wall, my head striking full force. My legs stopped supporting me entirely and I started to fall, but my captor caught me before I hit the ground. His arms were wrapped around my chest, holding me up by my armpits. I sure hoped he didn't expect me to be able to walk anymore because my vision was clouding over with hundreds of little black dots.

I was aware of being dragged a small distance and found myself looking down a flight of stairs. I felt myself being hoisted up a little and knew what was coming. This was it. This was how it all would end. Sorry, guys, looks like the band is gonna be short one member permanently.

My borrowed time was up.

I felt myself being thrust forward and released. The world went black before I even hit the ground.
Downtime by Chaos
I didn't think that people were supposed to still feel pain after death. Unless maybe they were in hell or something. I couldn't really think of anything I'd done that would warrant spending eternity there, though. I wasn't as religious as Brian or anything, but I'd been a good person. I'd sinned, I suppose, but then it would be near impossible to go through life without screwing up at least a little here and there. But still, I hadn't done anything too awful, so I hoped that wasn't why I still hurt. Besides, I didn't think I could be in hell because I was really cold, and hell was supposed to be all fire and brimstone and such, not all cement floor and staircases. So maybe I was some sort of limbo? I'd seen movies and read books (well...comics if you must know) where people who were murdered got to hang around for a while because they hadn't lived out the lives they were supposed to or something. Of course nobody who was still alive could really ever know what it was like to be dead, so it was all just theory anyway. I guessed I was going to get to find out for real what it was like.

So far I was not terribly impressed. It seemed an awful lot like being alive, actually. Except for the fact that I couldn't move, which was kind of a major setback. Spending eternity lying face down at the bottom of the flight of stairs where I'd died just didn't seem like a terribly exciting prospect. Of course there were a lot of other things that were really bothering me about being dead.

For one thing, my head was pounding so bad that I was fairly certain that it was going to explode. I was actually kind of looking forward to that. It would really make the perfect ending to my life. (Or I guess, the beginning of my unlife?) Not to mention "Head Exploded" would be a kind of cool thing to have listed on my death certificate as the official cause. I wondered if it would still be considered a murder if that were to happen. Or would that be a natural cause? Then again my head probably wouldn't be in danger of exploding had I not been thrown down the stairs.

Damn. What if they found my body sprawled at the bottom of the stairs and assumed that in my panic I had done this to myself. Wouldn't that suck? If I had done it myself, I mean. Could you imagine? I could picture a reporter describing how I'd survived a vicious beating and being held captive for almost a week only to freak out and die falling down the stairs. Which, of course, would be followed by the spontaneously combusting head thing. Though I wasn't sure if that would then be the cause of death or not since I'd already died before that happened.

I contemplated that for several minutes before I finally reached the conclusion that not only was my head probably not going to explode, but my heart was still beating and I was still breathing. Which led to the deduction that I was probably still alive. I'm slow to catch on sometimes, I admit it. But I think I had a perfectly valid excuse that it was the drug that was making my thoughts process really slowly. I'd fully expected to die, so it wasn't all that dumb a mistake, I don't think.

Forgive everything I said about being disappointed in the afterlife; I take it all back. When that time comes for real, I'm sure it'll be a lot more impressive.

It seemed that there would be no need for that death certificate after all. Not only wasn't I dead, I was getting more alert--not less--so that probably meant that I wasn't going to die. At least not from the fall down the stairs. All bets were off once Stalker Guy figured out he hadn't killed me. But I digress.

Not being dead was the good news. The bad news was that I couldn't move. My body wasn't listening to my brain again. Just like what had happened in that little nightmare thing I'd had before the press conference. A quick physical inventory revealed that my body still hurt--though my left leg was kinda numb...not sure if that was a good thing or a bad thing--so I was fairly certain that it wasn't real paralysis, so I guess that was somewhat of a relief. But it didn't change the fact that I was for the time being unable to get up and get myself somewhere safe. Assuming there even was such a place.

For that matter, I couldn't even seem to get my body flopped over so that I would be on my back. Being on my stomach wasn't terribly comfortable, especially since my legs were still partially on the stairs, cement edges pressing against my now bruised shins. Maybe that's why my leg was numb, it was probably cutting off circulation or something. More than for reason of comfort, though, I wanted to be on my back so that at least I could look up and see if someone was coming. In lieu of that, I was going to have to adopt the "if you can't see it, it doesn't exist" defense again.

I wondered how long it would be before I'd be able to move again. At the very least I wanted to be able to reach up and scratch the really irritating itch that was plaguing my left temple. And to be able to wipe away the sweat that was trickling down my face would be good. Oh and hey, getting up and going upstairs to conk out in a bed rather than on a cold hard floor wouldn't be too much to ask, would it?

With any luck someone (other than him, of course) would find me and help me get upstairs in a couple minutes. Surely people were looking for me now that the lights were back on and they'd figured out that I'd disappeared. At the very least the guys would be searching. And security would be since it was their job to watch me and all. They'd probably flipped out when the lights went back on and I wasn't there. I imagined that they were combing the hotel at the moment searching for me, so it was only a matter of time before someone checked the stairwell. I was hoping for sooner, of course.

It would probably help speed up the process if I yelled a little bit, but I was a little afraid to do that. The way I had it figured, for whatever reason, my stalker had panicked when the lights came back and had wanted to get rid of me quick. So he'd thrown me down the stairs to a presumed death. At which point one of two things happened. One, he'd gotten the hell out of Dodge. In which case I could spend the next few minutes screaming myself silly until someone else came and retrieved me. The other option, though was the one that scared me. Maybe he hadn't left and was still somewhere close by planning to come back once the coast was clear. So then what if he heard me call out and came back to finish the job?

So, I decided that the safest thing for me to do was to just lie there quietly and wait. Passing time that way was kind of a bitch though. When you're stuck lying face down on a cement floor unable to move, there's just not a whole lot to do.

I wondered if the people at the press conference were helping to look for me or if they were all like reporting that I was missing again. On live TV. I really hoped that my family back home wasn't watching that. Oh man, what if they'd watched the press statement and they'd seen my little breakdown? I hadn't really warned them how messed up I looked. They'd probably be a little mad at me for withholding that detail from them. And how I hadn't let them know that I was just a little messed up in the head at the moment. Panicking at little things.

I think a little panicking is justified though, all things considered. Except that panicking was what got me into this latest mess. If I'd just stayed put when the lights went out I would probably be safe in my room by now. Stupid, stupid, stupid. I sighed and tried to start thinking about something other than the fact that I'd screwed up yet again.

Unfortunately that led to me thinking about my nightmare, and that flashback thing. I didn't want to think about them, but I couldn't make myself stop. The scenes played out over and over again in my head, and each time they played, the harder it was for me to convince myself that they weren't real. I didn't want them to be, but that they were pretty consistent with the photo I'd been given. And with the whispering. It really had happened. It was unsettling remembering how he'd hit me, but at least that was something I could deal with. The nightmare stuff was what was really bothering me. It made my skin crawl to think about him touching me. My body started trembling again and I closed my eyes trying to erase the images from my head. Unfortunately that didn't help; the mental pictures followed me even there.

I needed something else to focus on. Like rolling over. Maybe if I concentrated hard enough on it I could do it now? It'd been a few minutes since I'd tried. I needed a plan of attack.

A plan of attack. Now that's what I should be thinking about! Yeah! All right. I needed to come up with a way to get the guy off my back. What did I know about him? Um. Hm. Damn. So far he was the one who was holding all the cards. He knew a lot about me, I knew very little about him. He was really big, he was remarkably strong, and he seemed to know my every move. He'd gotten into my hotel room; he knew my cell phone number. He could easily overpower me. He knew how to scare the hell out of me. I didn't know what he looked like. Or what his voice actually sounded like. Or even why he was after me.

It was hopeless.

I was hopeless.

Back to trying to roll over. At least that was something I could probably handle. If I could figure out how to move again. Which I couldn't seem to do. Why couldn't I do anything right? This was so stupid and pathetic. I wanted to scream I was so frustrated. If I could just scream I would feel so much better. But I couldn't do that in case Stalker Guy was still around.

"Help me," I murmured softly, pretending that I was screaming. It just didn't have the same effect. In fact, I felt worse. I hated not being able to do anything for myself. And it wasn't just about the stupid drug that had been injected into me. It was everything. I've always had this image of what I wanted to be, what I was supposed to be like, and I gotta say that I didn't seem to have any of those qualities. I'm supposed to be brave and strong. I'm supposed to be self-sufficient. I'm supposed to be able to protect myself and take care of my friends and family. Instead they'd all gotten stuck trying to protect me, and even then I had to mess everything up and get myself into trouble again. Like always. Why did I have to be so fucking useless? Sorry, Mom, know I'm not supposed to swear and all, but damn, that's how I feel. Wouldn't you if you figured out that you were such a pathetic waste?

Okay, I really needed to stop mentally berating myself, it wasn't helping matters. Not the time for the self-pity act. I'd have plenty of time for that later, but for now, I really just needed to focus on moving.

I could do this, I just needed to concentrate. Arm, you listening? I need you to just kinda push against the ground. Okay yeah, that's good. A little harder. And now it's your turn, leg, kinda push off and just kinda flop me over, okay? I know it hurts, damn it, just do it!

And all at once I'm on my back. HA! See, I'm not completely helpless. Just mostly. Okay, I'm on my back. And this was supposed to help me how, exactly? Oh yeah, I can see what's coming, and it's at least a tiny bit more comfortable. Not a whole lot, though.

Maybe if I could scoot back a little and get my legs back on solid ground that'd help. Or maybe I could even sit up and lean against the wall. That'd be way more comfortable than lying on the cold concrete. Okay. Ready for this?

Ugh. No. I'm exhausted. Just that little bit of moving wore me out. Damn but that's pathetic. Okay, I'll just lie here for a few more minutes and try not to think of bad things.

Like how once stalker guy finds out that I'm alive he'll probably come after me again.

Okay, brain? I don't know if you remember or not, but just moments ago I declared those were exactly the sort of thoughts I was supposed to be avoiding. So, quit it, okay? This drug will wear off, and if they haven't already found me and taken me upstairs, I'll get up there on my own. Then we'll hang out for another couple days and stay safe with the bodyguards. No more stupid little press conferences, no more letting anyone out of sight. All of us will stay safe, we'll do our show, and then we'll get the hell out of town. It's not like the psycho would follow us on tour.

Right?

Geez. What if he did? What if he didn't quit following me and attacking me and--

Brain, I'm warning you if you don't quit that I'll...I'll...damn. How do you threaten your own brain with anything? Seems kinda self-defeating doesn't it? Fine then, I'll forgive you this time, but quit it!

All right, so back to moving. Would it bet better to try to sit up first and then move back or move back and then sit up? Um. Hm. Sit up maybe? That shouldn't be too hard, right? Okay one, two, three, gyaaaaah! Okay, stay lying down. Not going to do that again. Ow. I bet that's what your head feels like when it's about to explode for real.

So, who's for scooting back now?

No one?

Didn't think so, but we're gonna do it anyway. Okay. Legs, bend. I said bend, lefty. Hello? Hel-lo? Right leg is bending just fine, so what's your problem? Say, didn't you mention that your left leg felt numb earlier? Maybe that was a bad thing.

Shut up, Brain. When I want your help, I'll ask for it.

...

Humdedumdedumde

...

Okay, damn it, I want your help. Just no more bad thoughts, okay? I'm having a hard enough time without that.

So, my left leg doesn't bend and it's still numb. We can work without it. Just means right leg is going to have to do a lot more work. I know it's not fair, but left leg's being stubborn at the moment.

I really needed to stop talking to my body parts.
Missing in Action by Chaos
I should have just opened the damn door when I got to the top of that first flight of stairs. I don't really know why I didn't except that it had that sign saying "Emergency Exit Only: Alarm Will Sound" on it. Thinking back on it, I imagine that my situation would have been considered an emergency. I could have opened the door and someone would have come to my rescue.

I lied. That's exactly the reason that I didn't open the stupid door when I had the chance. I didn't do the bright thing; I didn't do the obvious thing. What it all boiled down to was that I didn't want to be rescued. I wanted to get to safety on my own, prove to myself I could do it. Not the smoothest move or the best time to decide to prove that point, I admit. Especially considering how long it took me to even get to the point where I could stand up without losing my balance and falling back over.

Even if I hadn't gone out the Emergency Exit and brought help that way, I could have taken the next door and headed out to where the people were. But noooo, I had to be all paranoid about running into you-know-who instead of any one of over a hundred people who could have helped me get back to my room. So, I passed right by that door, too.

One and a half flights of stairs later I was regretting that tremendously. My left leg was still not bending. Surprisingly, it didn't really hurt all that much. It just wouldn't bend. My right leg, on the other hand, hurt. And it was complaining about having to do all the work getting me up the stairs. My arms weren't too happy about the whole situation, either, since I was doing some pretty heavy leaning on the railing. Least happy with my decision to make the climb by myself was my head. It was busy cursing me for being stupid and stubborn enough to even attempt to get upstairs on my own. It was also still throbbing, alternating moments of dull aching with sharp stabbing pains. And just to spite me it was also making the whole world spin every few steps, which made it all that much more fun to climb the stairs.

Throw in a little nausea and we had a whole party thing going on.

I had to move pretty slowly since I was afraid that if I didn't I would end up with a one-way ticket back to the bottom. Admittedly, I was also still moving slowly because it was taking a whole lot more concentration to move than it normally would. Walking usually comes naturally, but it just wasn't at the moment. Remind me never to get drunk ever again. Oh wait, wrong speech, I wasn't drunk. Remind me anyway.

But I was almost to my destination. Just a few more stairs and then the hallway and I'd be back to the room. And then I could lie down and the room could spin all it wanted. I'd sleep off the effect of the drug and things would be okay again.

Until stalker guy figured out that I was alive.

Damn it, still couldn't shake that thought. That's the problem of having a brain that follows you everywhere. Um. Yeah. Probably shouldn't complain too much about that, huh?

Finally I made it to the third floor. Without even once toppling back over and killing myself or anything. Yay me. I'm just glad that we didn't get the penthouse suites or something this trip. Then again I could have just gotten out on second floor and taken the elevator up. Oh geez. NOW I think of that.

As soon as I pushed open the door to our floor I could hear arguing coming from one of the rooms. "How long can they expect us to just sit here? It's been almost an hour!" It took me a moment to realize that it was Brian, the voice sounded so enraged. Almost an hour? It'd seemed so much longer than that.

"They're already doing all they can to find him," I heard Howie trying to reassure him.

"I knew I shouldn't have let him go down there," AJ bemoaned, sounding sick.

"Yeah, AJ, why did you let him? He wasn't ready! Anyone could have seen that!" Brian snapped and I cringed. Anyone could see it? Hey, I'd thought I was hiding it fairly well, thank you. Well, okay so the little scene before the conference would have given me away to everyone, but still, if it hadn't been for that, I thought I was doing pretty good.

"He said he had to go!" AJ bit right back. "I'm not his fucking keeper!" No, AJ, you're not. Sorry I put you in that position. I felt horrible.

"But you're supposed to be his friend!" I grimaced at Brian's insinuation. It wasn't his fault, Brian. I would have gone no matter what AJ'd said to try to stop me.

"I was being his friend. What would you have done, make him hide in a fucking closet for the rest of his life? He said he had to do it!"

"What I would have done was talk him into waiting until he was feeling better!"

Damn, I was really messing everyone up. This wasn't like Brian at all. He was usually so nice to everybody, and he was usually the last to lose his temper. Except maybe for Howie. That was a toss-up. But for him to lose it with AJ over something that wasn't even his fault? And of course AJ wasn't one to sit quietly when someone got in his face. I really didn't want to be the cause of their fighting.

I started limping toward the open door to Kevin's hotel room. The sooner I got there, the sooner they'd stop arguing. It just seemed too awkward to yell out to them from so far away. Besides, I wanted to gauge the situation rather than walk blindly into it.

"Guys, that's not helping anything," Howie tried again to calm them down.

"Yeah well neither is standing around here doing nothing!" Brian retorted angrily.

"Lay off him!" AJ growled.

"I'm going to go help look," Brian announced, sounding determined.

"Sorry, Bri, can't let you off this floor," I heard Ed stopping him.

"I know you want to help," Lon sympathized, "but they're already combing the building and have an APB out in the area. No vehicles have been allowed to leave the lot without being thoroughly checked out by security, so unless he's on foot he hasn't left the building. They're doing the best they can."

"Well it's pretty damn pathetic!" I had to agree with Brian, though I probably wouldn't have said it aloud. I mean I'd been in that damn stairwell for how long and no one had found me? Given, I'm thinking now that it probably wasn't the same stairwell that was right next to the theater thing or whoever turned the power back on probably would have found me, but still. You'd think someone would have checked the stairwells.

"Like you?" Oh, AJ, don't go there...

I really had to stop this before it got any worse.

I made it to the room and took a deep breath before stepping in. I wasn't sure whether to expect them to do the "just glad you're okay" thing (which was what I was hoping for) or if I should be prepared to get yelled at for not following orders and causing them all to worry again. I stepped into the doorway and peered in cautiously, trying to gauge current temperaments so I could do my own personal version of damage control.

I winced as I took in the scene. AJ and Brian were practically nose-to-nose and glaring daggers at each other with Howie looking on, trying to figure out how to get between them without getting killed in the crossfire. Lon and Ed were standing just a few feet away looking like they were trying to decide whether to let Brian and AJ go at it to get it out of their systems or whether to throw them both to the floor and sit on them until they both cooled off. The bodyguards were paid to keep others from harming us, but not really to keep us from harming each other. Maybe we'd have to add that into their contracts. Then again it didn't really come up that often.

Apart from all of that, Kevin was curled up on the bed, knees drawn up to where he was clutching a pillow to his chest. He didn't even seem to notice that the others were fighting. In fact he had the blank look on his face that he gets whenever he's really upset and doesn't want to let anyone in on what he's thinking. His variation of my "if you don't see it" theory, I guess. If he didn't show he was upset, no one would know. Not that I would ever try to do that, of course. [Insert innocent whistling here.] Sometimes I think we're too alike for our own goods. And if I said that aloud, Kevin would either kill me or die of embarrassment at being likened to me. We express things very differently--he hides behind a mask of perfection while I tend to flaunt my imperfections--but really, we aren't all that different. That's probably why we're the most likely to get into fights. Well, not counting AJ and Brian at the moment.

Ed was the first to see me and his eyes widened with surprise. Then he smiled slightly and shook his head with disbelief. "With all the people they got looking for you, you're gonna tell me you got up here on your own?" He pulled out his cellphone and called down to let the other security guys know to call off the search.

Brian immediately forgot about fighting with AJ and swung his attention to me. His expression changed quickly from anger to guilt then to concern. He stayed back, though, as Lon came over to check me out.

"You okay, kid?" he asked. "Had us worried, you know. Taking off and disappearing on us again."

"I'm sorry," I replied guiltily, finding the carpet suddenly interesting. It was kind of a weird greenish shag carpet (which by the way do NOT call it that when visiting Britain or Australia, it leads to quite embarrassing conversations...).

Lon shook his head and smiled. "It's okay, kid. Don't blame you for getting nervous. We just didn't realize you'd gotten out past us until the lights were back on. Just glad you're okay." Yes! Going that route instead of the lecturing! Lon's smile faded as he looked at me appraisingly. He made a face at what I assumed was probably a tell-tale sign of my close encounter with either the wall or the bottom of the stairs. Which reminded me, my head was still really pounding. I wanted to lie down. Unfortunately I didn't think that the others were going to just going to let this go without finding out what happened. "What happened?" See what I mean?

"We...I thought maybe that guy got you again," Brian said quietly as he moved in closer. All the previous anger was gone from his voice, and he sounded very tired. Guess I wasn't the only one that was running on pure adrenaline.

The carpet was really tacky; they really needed to think about updating it to something more...y2k-ish. I glanced up and noticed that both Lon and Brian were starting to look more concerned since I wasn't responding to that. "He did," I finally answered uncomfortably.

"What?!" AJ was immediately at Brian's side and gawking at me. "He did? What happened?"

I shook my head. Which started the spinning again. "Can I...lie down? I'm not feeling so good," I admitted, feeling nauseous again.

"Of course!" AJ immediately stepped out of the way and Brian took my arm and helped me over to the closer bed. My exaggerated limp did not go unnoticed.

"What's wrong with your leg?" Howie asked as he and AJ moved to the other side of the bed.

"Doesn't bend," I answered. Duh. Like they couldn't see that.

I spent a couple moments trying to figure out how to get into bed without killing myself before I finally just kind of flopped down and then resituated myself so that I'd be more comfortable. It really sucked not being able to bend my knee. I closed my eyes. On with my plan of sleeping until the drug fully wore off.

"So...what happened?" AJ asked again as he sat down on the edge of the bed. His voice was back to sounding kind of sickly. I looked over at him and saw that he looked guilty. Probably for "letting" me go to the conference. So much for my plan. I needed to get this straightened out. AJ shouldn't be feeling guilty over that. But man I wanted to sleep.

Sorry, AJ, it wasn't your fault. There, that would do it. Oh wait, I didn't actually say anything did I...? I should do that.

"Harris and Walters are on their way up," I heard Ed informing Lon. Oh boy. They were gonna be really ticked when they figured out that I didn't get any more details for them. I'd blown another chance at getting a description of the guy. Maybe I should tell them about the phone call just to give them something more to work with. Not that it'd be much. I wasn't supposed to tell them about it, but I figured that the guy'd probably only wanted me to keep quiet about it until after the conference anyway. I mean, it had been his way of getting me there, and I'd gone, it was over, so there was no reason not to tell anymore. Yeah, I'd give them that. Besides, it would get AJ off the hook with Brian.

"Good. Why don't you make a few calls and see if we can get a doctor over here to check Nickolas over. They'll need a portable x-ray to get some pictures of that knee." Yep, keep talking about me like I'm not here, Lon. Seriously. It'll save me from having to respond. Now that I was lying down it was getting harder to keep my eyes open.

I really shouldn't forget to call my family.

Maybe I'd just do that after I took a little nap.

I knew they were going to ask that, damn it.

"Um...he was big," I offered my pathetic answer, giving them an apologetic little smile. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the corners of Brian's mouth curve up a little.

Walters, however, wasn't amused and made his exasperated sighing noise again. I'd really missed that. But I had the feeling I'd hear it several more times before the day was out. At least I'd been able to tell them a little bit more about what happened this time than I had when they grilled me at the hospital.

"Can you tell us anything else about him?" Harris asked gently.

I bit back the "really big" line, and glanced over at AJ, who was silently sitting cross-legged next to Howie at the far end of the bed. He raised his eyebrows and nodded his head toward the hotel phone. Very subtle, AJ. Like I'd expect any less. But he was right and I knew it. Besides, I'd decided before my little nap (which lasted all of like two minutes, damn it) that I was going to tell anyway.

So I did. I told them almost everything the guy had said, but left out the threat against the other guys. I didn't want to freak them out unless I really had to. Everyone in the room but AJ was hearing about it for the first time, and I suspected that most if not all of them were pretty upset at me for not telling them before. Fortunately no one seemed to notice that AJ hadn't told them, either. Maybe they hadn't realized that AJ knew. I wouldn't tell on him, no point in us both being in trouble. Lon's expression was pretty guarded but I knew that I'd be getting a lecture from him later. I'd probably get one from Ed, too, since I'd promised him that I would tell him if any more threats were made against me and then less than an hour after that I'd broken that promise. He was trying to imitate Lon's guarded look, but I could tell from the look in his eyes that I'd messed up again.

"I didn't tell you guys about it because he threatened to kill me if I did," I offered, looking at Ed apologetically. He frowned slightly, but gave his little nod to show he understood.

Walters nodded. "Do you have a list of the people who know your cell phone number?"

I frowned. "Not like written out, no." Another irritated sigh from Walters. Right.

"Where is the phone now?" Walters asked.

"It's in my room," I informed him, "but it's kind of broken."

"I'd like to take a look at it," Walters informed me. Whatever whets your whistle, guy. He and Ed went across the hall to retrieve it while Harris stayed with me to try and get an idea of who all would have my cell number.

"Um. Pretty much just the guys, my family, a few other friends. A couple radio stations have it from interviews and stuff, I guess. And management has it..." I tried to think of anyone else who would have it, but came up blank.

"And it is unlisted?" Harris asked.

I nodded. I like to sleep. Having my number made public would probably lead to me getting very little of it, so yeah, unlisted was a good thing.

"We'll want to follow up on this, so if you could get us a list of the people who may have your number it would be very helpful. Are any of them likely to have given out your number to anyone else?"

I considered for a few moments, but got distracted as Ed came rushing back into the room, making a bee-line for Kevin. I tensed and looked over at Kevin. For the first time, I realized that he hadn't really moved since I'd first come into the room. He still had that same blank expression on his face. When I'd come in, I'd assumed it was because he was upset, but then wouldn't he have cheered up a little once he found out I was safe? What was going on?

I looked at Brian to see if he knew, but he looked just as confused and horrified by what was happening as I did. Something had been wrong with Kevin and no one had noticed? I felt horrible. Everyone had been too concerned with me to even notice something was wrong! If he wasn't okay, I was never going to forgive myself.

"What's going on?" Howie asked, springing from the bed and following Ed over to Kevin.

Brian bounded over the top of me and was over at the other bed immediately, his face paling. "Kev?"

"Kevin? Can you hear me?" Ed asked, slapping Kevin's face lightly. Kevin didn't even respond. SHIT!

I started trying to get up so I could go over there, too, but AJ grabbed hold of my good leg. I looked down at him questioningly. He'd paled considerably. "Just stay back, give them room," he said quietly.

"What happened?" I asked, but got no answer. I hadn't really expected one, since everyone seemed to be as clueless as me about the situation, except for Ed.

"What's wrong with him?" I heard Howie him. Ed only shook his head in response.

"I'm calling 911," Brian announced, pulling out his cell phone.

"We've already got a doctor on the way here to check Nickolas over. He should be here any minute. That'll be faster than getting an ambulance and getting him to the hospital," Ed informed him.

Brian scowled as he went ahead and dialed the numbers anyway, heading out to the hallway so that he could make the call where it was a little quieter. Lon moved to stand near the doorway to keep an eye on him. Ed frowned a little at being ignored, but quickly turned his attention back to Kevin.

I looked up as Walters came back in the room. He had a couple plastic bags in his hand and looked rather grim. One of the bags contained my cell phone, and I could see that there was some sort of photo in the other one. It was too far away to see what it was of, though. Somehow I had the feeling that it was the reason that Ed had suddenly come to check on Kevin. I tensed more, my stomach starting to do that 'want to turn inside out' thing again. I tried again to get up, but AJ, who had moved closer to me, pushed me back insistently, giving me a "stay put or else" look. I could tell he wanted to know what was going on, too, though. If they didn't tell us, I'd try again in a minute and he would be sure to give in and let me.

Walters handed the bagged photo to Harris, who looked at it, then looked over at me, frowning. I sat up straighter. What was going on? I glanced over to where Howie was clutching Kevin's hand. Oh God. Please, Kev, be okay. I looked back at Harris and Walters, hoping for answers.

Ignoring me, Walters moved over to check on Kevin. "How long has he been like this?" he questioned as he pushed Howie out of the way. He took hold of the arm that Howie'd been holding and began examining it.

Howie shook his head. "This whole time. We thought...thought he was just upset. He gets like this sometimes when he's upset. We just thought..." he trailed off as Walters gave him an impatient look. "About an hour?"

Apparently not finding what he was looking for, Walters dropped Kevin's arm then reached over and pulled Kev's shirt up a little bit. I heard him make a small hissing noise and he moved in closer for a few moments before backing away and pulling the shirt back down. "Make sure the doctor draws blood right away for a tox screen. We've got a needle mark," he announced.

I closed my eyes. This was all my fault. I hadn't warned anyone that the other guys were in danger. I'd believed the bastard when he said he wouldn't hurt any of the others if I went along with what he said. And now Kevin was hurt because of my gullibility. It was my fault.

"A needle mark? How'd he get it?" AJ asked. And I'm the one who always gets accused of asking dumb questions. I wondered if Kevin'd been given the same drug as me. Probably. Except he was a lot more out of it than I was. Maybe he'd been given a bigger dosage than me? I frowned at that idea. I hated thinking about how horrible feeling it was to not be able to move and wondered if Kevin was having the same helpless feeling I'd had. I hoped not. Then again, if he had been given the same thing as me at least we knew that it would wear off. But still. I didn't want to think about Kevin being attacked like I'd been and feeling so powerless to do anything about it.

"It's my fault." You might assume that was me talking, but seemed that someone else felt just as guilty as I did. Or at least as responsible. And he was now emotionlessly owning up to it. I looked over to where Ed was now backing away from Kevin. "I left to check on why the power was out," he informed Lon and the agents in a detached, toneless voice. Trying not to sound defeated, I supposed, but it just made him sound all that much more beaten. "That's the only time it could have happened. I was gone for a few minutes. Kevin was still asleep when I left, so I didn't think..." he trailed off, frowning. "I shouldn't have left. I'm sorry."

Lon didn't say anything, but he did have a sympathetic look on his face, so that counted for something. At least Ed wasn't in too much trouble. It was an honest mistake. One that could have been prevented if he'd known that Kevin was in danger, which he would have known if I'd told them about the threat. Which I still hadn't done.

I was such a coward. I didn't want to admit to them that this was my fault. I didn't want them to hate me for blowing it again. I sank down a little in the bed, feeling even worse than before. At least Ed was brave enough to admit he'd screwed up. And still I kept quiet.

"What time was it when you left?" Walters was asking Ed.

"Just a minute or so after the power went out. I was watching the conference from the other room, so when the power went out I stopped here to make sure Kevin was still asleep then went to check it out downstairs."

Walters looked at his watch. "And you were gone for how long?"

Ed frowned and took a deep breath, shaking his head. "I'm not sure. Probably about ten minutes or so." I noticed Lon frown and figured Ed was in for a lecture. "Maybe less." Good cover, Ed. I hoped Lon wasn't too hard on the guy for leaving his post. He hadn't known that Kevin was in any danger. Because I hadn't told anyone. I sank another notch lower.

"So that put the attack on Kevin at some time between approximately 4:15 and 4:25." I swore I could actually see the wheels turning in Walters' head. "Could it have been longer than ten minutes?"

"I don't think so." Ed's frown deepened. "But it might have been, I guess." He admitted that in a voice that was much too small for a man his size. I knew how he felt. And then some. And still I wasn't speaking up and taking any of the pressure off of him. What kind of asshole am I?

I looked away, ashamed.

Walters nodded. "Were the lights on or off when you got back to the room?"

"Still off. They came up a minute or so after I got back."

Walters made a small clicking noise with his tongue then nodded again. He looked over at me for a moment, his eyes narrowing. What was up with that? I got a little more nervous. He probably knew that I was keeping something from them. Several somethings, if we're being technical about it. I lowered my eyes, feeling even more guilty. Why couldn't I just make myself tell them? I owed them that much; I owed them more than that. I just didn't want them to hate me. I couldn't deal with that on top of everything else. But they needed to know.

Before I could make myself blurt out the information I'd been withholding, however, there was a knock on the door. The doctor guy. Thank god, he could help Kevin. I immediately forgot about what I was going to say because it was so much more important for them to focus on helping Kev at the moment. I'd tell them everything as soon as they took care of him.

I know it was an excuse, but it was a damn good one. Sue me.

The next several minutes were kind of a blur. The doctor checked Kevin over quickly, checking his heart-rate, his pulse, and all that good stuff. He also drew the blood sample that Walters requested. About the time he finished doing that, the paramedics that Brian had called for arrived on the scene. The doctor filled them in on his initial findings while Kevin was quickly bundled up and taken from the room. The other guys started after him, but then Brian stopped and looked back at me, obviously torn between going with his cousin or staying with me.

AJ and Howie paused in the door realizing Brian's hesitation. After a moment, Howie came back into the room. "You guys go ahead, I'll stay with Nick."

I had a better solution. I wanted to go, too. I even suggested that I share the ambulance with Kevin, but the doctor insisted on checking me over before letting me go anywhere. So the guys left without me. Lon followed after them insisting that they stop downstairs and have Jack and Ryan go with the guys for hospital security. He would bring Geo back up to help Ed in case we wanted to follow them to the hospital once I got the once over. As if we wouldn't go?

I wanted to go right away, to hell with the exam. Obviously I wasn't going to die or I would have done so already. I was far more concerned with Kevin, and it was a waste of time sitting around here. I suddenly understood why Brian had been so ticked off earlier. It's hard doing nothing while someone you care about is in trouble. I really hope that's not what it felt like for them the entire six days I was missing. I would have gone crazy. Patience is not among my virtues. I wanted to go with Kevin and the doctor probably wasn't going to tell me anything I didn't already know. My leg was injured, I had a concussion, and I was drugged. What do you bet that's all he would have to tell me? I'd just save them the time and declare it outright.

Unfortunately they didn't accept my diagnosis.

Ed assured me that as soon as the doctor gave me the "all clear" that he would drive Howie and I over there, so I reluctantly accepted the ruling and submitted to the exam. I was extremely nervous as the doctor approached me with a syringe, even though he was only getting a blood sample from me, not drugging me. I know it sounds weird, but I would have probably screamed bloody murder if he'd tried to inject me with anything. I knew he was a doctor and all, but I would have rather deal with pain than get injected with anything like that again. I never wanted to be out of control of my own body again. Ever. I didn't care how much pain I was in. No drugs. Period.

Ed and the two agents tactfully left the room when the doc instructed me to remove my shirt so he could check previous injuries for further damage, and to drop trou so he could examine my leg. Howie started to go with them, but I reached out and snagged his arm. Even though I wasn't thrilled about the idea of him seeing my battered body, I didn't want to be left alone with someone I didn't know. While the doctor wasn't a large enough man to be my attacker, I was still nervous about it. So I was glad Howie agreed to stay. Especially since it turned out that my coordination was still way out of whack and I needed a bit of help getting undressed. It was really embarrassing, but when he noticed I was having problems, he came to help without me even having to humiliate myself by asking, and without being all teasing about it like AJ or even Brian probably would have been. Once that was done, he sat over on the other bed and turned on the TV to make it less awkward for him to stick around.

I grimaced as I saw footage of Kevin being whisked through the hotel lobby on a gurney. Yep, there were still reporters in the building. Howie had the volume turned all the way down, though, so I couldn't hear what they were telling people about the situation. I bet Kevin would get to have his very own press conference later. Then again I'd probably be stuck going to it and explaining what happened when I disappeared during the blackout. I sighed and shifted so I couldn't see the TV anymore.

You don't want the gory details of the next few minutes, so I'll kindly skip over them. All I'll say is that I didn't freak out at all and was a wonderful completely obedient patient from beginning to end. Uh huh. Didn't freak me out at all to have some strange guy touching my bared skin. Nope. Didn't yell or try to fight my way out of it or anything like that until threatened with sedatives. I was completely calm and rational the entire time.

And if Howie ever tells you anything to the contrary, it's a complete lie.

Well, maybe not a complete one. Or technically one at all, but I don't want to discuss it. I'm just glad that there weren't any other witnesses to the spectacle. I'm kind of surprised that Ed didn't come in to protect the poor doctor from me at some point.

Once he was done with the exam, the doctor retreated to a distance of relative safety (heh) and gave me his verdict. I had a concussion (surprised?) and I'd dislocated my knee, likely in my fall down the steps. The reason it didn't hurt a whole lot, he informed me, was because my knee had done a spontaneous reduction. So I hadn't been too far off with my spontaneous combustion theory! HA! Okay so that had to do with my head, not my knee, but still. I wasn't sure what spontaneous reduction was supposed to mean, since my knee sure didn't look any smaller. It looked pretty swollen and gross actually, but he said it was reduced, so I took his word for it.

He pushed open the door and asked someone out there to go down the hall and grab a bucket of ice from the machine. In the meantime he cautiously approached me again so he could wrap my leg. As he did that, he explained to me that from his assessment I probably had some ligament and cartilage tearing but that there didn't seem to be any vascular damage. That was all pretty much Greek to me, but what it basically boiled down to, it seemed, was that there was a fairly bad injury, but it could have been a lot worse.

There was a possibility that I'd need surgery--he explained in detail about reattaching and tightening ligaments or something but it was kind of hard to pay attention. Especially since I had no idea what he meant by most of it. What I did pick up was that I'd have problems with our choreography for a while because my knee would be weak and prone to giving out, especially if I didn't have the surgery. As if I don't have enough trouble with choreography, anyway. The guys are always quick to laugh at me for missing steps during concerts. Oh well. At least now I'd have a really good excuse. The important part was that I should get full use back eventually.

Despite his diagnosis, the doctor indicated that I would need to get checked out by an orthopedic specialist to make sure that there weren't any complications that he'd missed. Assuming he was correct and there was no nerve damage (eek?), I would be spending the next several weeks with my leg encased in what he called an immobilizer. On the bright side, it sounded like would be able to walk around without crutches or anything as long as I took it easy.

I wondered if "taking it easy" would include running should I have another confrontation with stalker guy. Somehow I didn't think so. That could be a pretty major problem. I was in a lot of trouble. So far I'd learned that I couldn't fight the guy, so running had been my only defense. It hadn't really worked for me during the blackout, but still, it was better than nothing. And maybe it had only failed because I'd tried to hide rather than outrun him. But now I wouldn't even be able to do that. I wouldn't be able to run at all. If he came after me again, I'd be a sitting duck.

Once he made his assessment, the doctor called for another ambulance to come get me to get me in to the hospital. They should have just let me ride along with Kevin. I could have learned the same things there that I had here, plus I would have been able to find out what was going on with Kev. Maybe next time they'd listen to me. Somehow, I doubted it.

Lon returned to the room with a bucket full of ice, which was quickly packed around my knee to help reduce the swelling. The doctor left ahead of us, informing us that he would deliver the blood sample for a tox screen, and would have a specialist waiting for me when we got there.

And that specialist would be able to confirm that I was the most screwed individual on the planet.

Once he was gone, Lon sat down on the edge of the bed. "So. How're you doing, kid?" he asked, looking me over critically.

I raised my eyebrows and looked pointedly down at my leg. "Would you believe me if I said I've never better?" I asked, offering him the best smile I could. I suspected it wasn't a terribly convincing one, but it seemed to pass. He didn't need to know how freaked I really was. He'd think that I had no faith in his ability to protect me. It wasn't his fault that I'd run from his protection before. At least now I wouldn't be able to do that again.

I forgot, was that supposed to be a silver lining?

Lon gave me one of his looks, but I could see a hint of a smile hiding behind it, so he'd obviously bought my not-scared routine. "Cute. I meant in here though," he informed me, reaching up and swatting my head lightly.

He really didn't want the answer to that. Well, all right, he probably did, but I didn't want to give it to him, so I shrugged and looked away. I suppose that probably was an answer in and of itself, but it easier than telling him everything.

"Nick?" Howie's voice was overly concerned and he moved to sit over on the bed next to me. I couldn't look at him, either, so I closed my eyes. I felt him take hold of one of my hands and it took a lot of willpower on my part not to pull away. They didn't understand. No one could.

How did I feel?

I felt like ground zero. The enemy flew in under the radar, there was a bomb dropping, and it was aimed right at me. Missile defense hadn't been prepared for the onslaught, the escape route was blocked, and there was no denying that the final assault was looming on the horizon. There'd already been some ground fire, and casualties were starting to pile up, but the big one was still on its way. And with it would come mass destruction, the obliteration of everything in its path. And I was fucking ground zero.

It's hard to describe what that really felt like to anyone who'd never been there. For one thing, I felt profoundly alone. Sure, I had people all around me. At the moment only Howie and Lon were in the room, but I knew once we got to the hospital there would be the other guys and, of course, the ever present bodyguards. But even though they were physically there, they couldn't understand at all what it was like for me. Maybe Kevin would be able to a little. He must have felt the helplessness that came with the drug induced paralysis, and he'd been caught in the warzone, even if it'd just been for a brief time. That made me feel worse, though. If it hadn't been for me, Kevin wouldn't have been put in that danger.

So on top of the feeling of isolation, there was the guilt to deal with. And not just about Kevin. About anyone who was unlucky enough to be near me. Being near me made them all potential casualties. And I still hadn't even warned them. Why hadn't I warned them? I'll tell you why. Because I'm completely selfish and a coward. As long as they were near me, they'd be in danger of getting caught in the explosion. But if I told them, they'd leave me, and I'd be an even easier target. What kind of friend was I that I would rather them stay in the danger zone than to face the fallout alone? This should be my battle, and mine alone. Instead, I recruited unwitting troops to go into combat blind and unarmed.

"Kid, you don't want to shut us out right now," Lon informed me, his voice overly gentle. Wanna bet? If I had the strength to push them all away from me, I would do it. "I know you've got to be pretty scared right now," he continued.

Scared? I couldn't help it. I started to laugh. There was absolutely nothing funny about the whole situation, so I knew that it was probably the insanity kicking in. Guess he hadn't bought my fearless routine after all. Or maybe it was the fact that my eyes were squeezed shut and I was trying my damnedest not to let my pain show that gave me away. But he was right.

The worst part about being ground zero is the terror and the knowledge that you're powerless to stop it. The enemy has weakened your defenses and moved in for the kill. Everything around you is going to go down with you at the moment of detonation. And there's nothing you can do to stop it.

Unless you remove the target from the equation.
Medical Assessment by Chaos
Howie wanted to ride in the ambulance with me, but the paramedics would only let one person ride with me and Lon insisted that it had to be one of the guards. I thought that was probably a little overboard since the guards would be able to stick with us the entire time we were out in the open here at the hotel, and at the hospital the public wasn't allowed near the ambulance bay. But again, Lon's paid to cover all the security angles, so there wasn't any arguing with him. It was irritating, but he was doing what he does best, and he was doing it to protect me, so I couldn't really complain. Out loud anyway.

So, Lon came with me and Howie went with Geo. Ed and the agents had gone somewhere to talk about the blackout and the attack on Kevin. I hadn't gotten a chance to talk to the agents about the threat, but I swore I was going to do it as soon as they made their next appearance. No, seriously this time.

Getting to the ambulance turned out to be a bit harder than expected due to the number of reporters that had stayed in the lobby. (Well, that and due to my little panic attack as the paramedics strapped me down to the cot, but we're not talking about that, 'k?) Fortunately, Howie decided to play the martyr and he and Geo along with a couple extra hotel security guys agreed to stay and talk to them and answer some questions about Kevin and I. It didn't keep everyone from trying to swarm me as the paramedics whisked me through the lobby, but it did keep a few of them back. I heard several cameras going off, and had it not been for Lon moving along beside me and making me keep eye contact with him, I very well may have freaked out on them all again, but he managed to keep me grounded. And a few well-placed growls from my bodyguard kept the photographers and reporters from slowing us down too much.

"You okay?" Lon asked after we got settled into the ambulance. I nodded, but that made Lon frown. What, did he want me to be upset? "You're being awful quiet, kid. Tell me what's on your mind."

What did he think was on my mind? I rolled my eyes and started to turn my head away, but he didn't let me out of it that easily. He reached forward and cupped my chin lightly and turned my head back toward him. For the first few moments when I felt the hand on my chin I forgot where I was and nearly freaked thinking about another hand, gripping my jaw tight and forcing my head back. But with Lon if I had resisted he would have stopped and let me go. I didn't try to turn away again, though. I'm not sure if it was the guilt of making him worry or the fear that he would get angry if I turned away that kept me there. Probably a little of both, even though I knew that Lon wouldn't ever hurt me. At least I usually knew that, but my shot nerves were making me forget that sort of thing.

"Nickolas," Lon spoke quietly, in an uncharacteristically soothing voice. "I know you're hurting, Kid. You shouldn't try to hold stuff in; that'll just make things worse. You don't have to deal with everything alone, you know."

No, I didn't know that. I didn't say that aloud, but I could tell that Lon knew what I was thinking anyway by the slight frown that appeared on his face as he studied me.

He let out a little sigh. "Nobody expects you to handle this by yourself."

Now that I did know. They all thought I was some helpless kid, incapable of handling anything. I scowled at my bodyguard and tried to turn away again, but he stopped me, his hand gripping my chin a little bit tighter to keep me from turning away. I shivered involuntarily, my body again overreacting at the reminder of the attack. Lon noticed my heightened fear reflex and released me at once, instantly looking apologetic.

"Nick, nobody would be expected to handle this sort of thing alone," Lon informed me. "Nobody thinks any less of you for needing help right now."

Right. Of course they don't think less me. This is just par for the course. 'Nick's the baby of the group. He can't take care of himself. Never has been able to, never will be able to.' Not wanting Lon to see how frustrated I was by that whole thing, I turned away again, and this time he let me. He reached out and stroked my hair in a fatherly sort of way. "It's gonna be okay, Kid."

I clenched my jaw for a moment and tried not to let myself get angry. He still didn't understand why I was so upset. Not that I was making it any easier for them to understand, I supposed. It's not like they had any idea how I was feeling. I didn't want to tell them, but I just kind of assumed that they should somehow innately know anyway.

I know I don't make any sense, but that's the fun of being me.

I rolled my head back to face him, feeling guilty for running so hot and cold on him. "I hate feeling helpless," I finally admitted out loud, offering an explanation for my weird behavior. I felt my face starting to burn with the embarrassment that goes with such a confession. "He got to me again and I couldn't do anything to stop it from happening."

Lon's hand froze and he gazed down at me with a serious expression on his face. He considered for a moment before speaking. "It's okay, Nick. You got away."

"Only because the lights came back on and he panicked," I owned up, my voice wavering a little bit from the fear that was gripping me again. "He had me, Lon. And I couldn't do a damn thing." I felt my eyes starting to water and quickly started blinking to stop the tears before they could start. Seemed I was doing that a lot the past few days, and it was annoying. Then again all of my emotions were really out of whack. I swear one moment I'd be fine and the next I'd be scared out of my mind or ready to start bawling or something equally as humiliating. "I was so stupid. I almost got away but then I cornered myself in one of the conference rooms."

I spilled out the story again, even though he'd heard me tell the agents earlier. I silently berated myself as I recounted each and every mistake I made. Lon kept stroking my hair and watched me, concerned. "He's still out there. I feel like he's watching me. Just waiting to get at me again. And now I won't be able to even run from him...I don't know what I'm supposed to do," I concluded. "I can't fight him."

Lon smiled a tired smile down at me. "No one expects you to fight him."

"That's the problem," I muttered, closing my eyes and turning away from him again.

He still didn't understand, and I was tired of trying to make him get it. Nobody expected me to fight the guy. Including the guy himself. And that made me a liability, a disaster waiting to happen. It also meant that they all would have to watch out for me because I obviously couldn't take care of myself. That was probably why the guy had chosen me as the target in the first place. He hadn't chosen AJ. AJ probably would have eaten him alive. And Brian was way too quick on his feet. And Howie's too smart to have gotten himself into such a situation in the first place. And Kevin...well, there was an attack on Kevin, but that was probably only because Kevin had been sick and asleep and totally unprotected at the time. That was all my fault, too. I just screwed everything up.

We rode the rest of the way to the hospital in silence. The orthopedic doctor guy was waiting for us in the ER so as soon as we got there, I was whisked into a curtained area and to my profound joy (note the sarcasm) the whole exam process started over again. The specialist guy pretty much had nothing new to add to the original diagnosis, which I guess I should be glad about, but really it was just irritating to have to go through the whole thing all over again for nothing.

When the doctor back at the hotel had informed me that I'd have to wear an immobilizer, I didn't think it sounded like such a horrible thing. From what I'd understood, it wasn't a cast, and I'd be able to walk wearing it. That's what he'd told me, and gullible me actually believed him. What he failed to mention was that the immobilizer was actually this horrible metal, nylon and Velcro brace-type thing that went clear from my ankle to my thigh. Really not a nice contraption. I think it's supposed to be kind of like the leg equivalent of one of those Chinese finger trap things, but that's probably just me.

I was supposed to be able to walk in it, and to be fair, I guess I could; it was just really awkward and uncomfortable. I was now led to believe by the specialist guy that I'd get used to it after a few days, but really how used to something like that could you get? Like you can really say, "Ooooh yeah, I've got several metal rods strapped to my leg! But isn't the shiny nylon looking spiffy today?" Not.

I was actually glad when they finally got me strapped into the thing, though, because it made my exam officially over and I was free to go find the others. I was given some instructions about finding an orthopedic specialist to follow up with in a couple weeks to start discussing physical therapy and rehabilitation. I was also told to stay off my feet and keep my leg elevated as much as possible for the next 24 hours, and was given instructions for dealing with my concussion. And also given the number of a crisis center...in case I needed to talk to someone. Great. On top of everything else, they thought I was nuts. Okay, so that was probably a valid assessment.

Then, at last, I was set loose to find out what happened to Kevin.

I got up and headed out to the hall, but I only got a few steps before Lon stepped in front of me and gave me an exasperated look.

"What?"

"Chair, Nick," he nodded toward a waiting wheelchair.

Oh hell, no. "But he said I could walk," I protested motioning in the direction that the doctor had taken off in.

Lon's eyes narrowed and he nodded again at the chair. "He also said to stay off it as much as possible for the next 24 hours." Damn. He would have to remember that part.

I glowered at him, but sat anyway. No way was I going to stay in the chair any longer than necessary, but I'd humor him for now. It wasn't worth fighting over. Lon smiled victoriously, which only made me want to just get right back up, but I stayed down reminding myself that Lon was only looking out for me. To prove that, he helped me get the leg rest situated so that my leg would be propped up, then got behind the chair and started steering me out of the exam room. I thought about asking if I could at least wheel myself, but in all honesty I was pretty exhausted. I didn't like that I was basically handing control over my body to someone else again, but I decided that I trusted Lon with my life on a regular basis and I knew he'd take care of me.

Besides, if I were going to go through with the plan I'd been considering, I'd need to save my strength and energy. Not that it was much of a plan at all yet, but still, it was something. And the sooner I managed to sneak away from the others, the sooner they'd all be out of danger. Stalker Guy wouldn't bother going after them if I weren't around them anymore...right? Or would he go after them because he couldn't come after me? I frowned. Maybe it wasn't such a good plan. But would he really go after them if I weren't around to at least witness the harm he was inflicting? He had gone after Kevin even when I'd held up my end of the deal by going to the press conference, though. The guy I was dealing with didn't exactly seem like he was the type to play fair. But it did still seem that I was the main target. So, what good would it do him to go after my friends if I weren't around to taunt with it?

"I assume you want to go find out about Kevin?" Lon asked, as if he really needed to. But I was glad he asked anyway. It gave me at least a small feeling of control back. I nodded and he obliged by taking me to the information desk to find out where we could locate the others.

"I'm sorry, that information is not available at this time," the woman at the desk said in a harried voice, glancing up from her phone call long enough to give us a little nod. "No, I'm sorry, I cannot help you," she repeated to whoever was questioning her on the other end of the line. "Thank you for calling. Goodbye now," she quickly said as she hung up the phone only to have it start ringing immediately. She gave us an apologetic look and answered it. The conversation was pretty much an exact repeat of the first call, but she'd sounded even more annoyed. When she hung up the phone that time, she quickly pressed a button to hold all calls so she could speak to us. "May I help you?"

"We're looking for our friend that was brought in a little while ago," Lon informed her.

Her expression immediately became suspicious. "And what is your friend's name?"

"Richardson, Kevin."

She glared at us like we were pond scum. "I'm sorry, but I cannot release any information about that patient," she informed us. "Under no circumstances," she added pointedly. One of her eyebrows arched as she got a good look at me for the first time. She blinked a couple times then started blushing as recognition set in. Seemed there was one circumstance that would get her to divulge the information. Heh. Take that unhelpful infodesk lady. She was just doing her job, though, so I didn't give her a hard time about it...much. It was actually a little reassuring knowing that the hospital was taking security precautions about the whole thing. They'd seemed to manage to keep the reporters and fans outside. So far, at any rate. She jotted down a room number and handed it to me.

He'd been admitted. I handed the slip of paper up to Lon and gave the infodesk lady a quick smile before we headed off to find out what exactly had happened.

When we got upstairs we found that a special waiting room had been set up for us and we were only allowed to go in to see Kevin one at a time. There were hospital guards posted at each end of the hallway, and Jack was stationed outside the room to make sure that no unauthorized people managed to slip past. He motioned to the hospital staff that we were okay to let through.

We weren't even all the way into the waiting room when AJ bounded over to me. Howie and Brian weren't there, so he'd been stuck waiting alone and was obviously glad to have someone to blow his nervous energy with. Lon parked my chair then headed back out of the room again. Probably to talk to Jack. I figured that Brian was probably in with his cousin, but since Geo was also conspicuously missing that Howie had gotten stuck at the hotel or was battling the crowd that had likely gathered outside the hospital.

"Hey, Kaos." AJ's face scrunched up distastefully as he looked questioningly down at the brace thing on my leg. "That's pretty..." he left that hanging, obviously not sure what to say about the contraption.

"Ooooh yeah. I've got several metal rods strapped to my leg. But isn't the shiny nylon looking spiffy today?" Okay maybe that line did work after all. It got a small grin out of AJ anyway.

"Quite snazzy," he agreed, stroking his goatee and nodding slightly, humoring me. "Gonna have to get me one of those."

"You can have mine," I offered. "It'd be a little weird if we were both wearing one anyway."

He looked at it doubtfully. "Nah, that one's a bit too tall and just not my color. Think they make those in leopard print? That'd be cool. Get a photo of that in the teen mags and it'll be the hottest accessory in no time." Somehow I didn't think so, but who was I to argue? I've been told by several sources that I have no fashion sense and that it's a damn good thing that I have someone else choosing what I wear for photo shoots and stuff. I'm fairly sure he was kidding anyway, but with AJ sometimes it's hard to tell. "Think it'd score me some sympathy points with the ladies?" he asked as if he were seriously considering. In fact I'm fairly sure that he really was. But I wasn't about to encourage him, so I smirked and shook my head. "Ah well. Suppose you're gonna use it to get out of Fatima's rehearsals, too, aren't you," he accused mockingly.

Not that AJ wasn't a welcome and amusing distraction from everything else that was going on, but I still hadn't found out what was going on with Kevin. "Have you heard anything yet?"

AJ's smile immediately disappeared and he nodded seriously. "Yeah. He's gonna be okay," he assured me quickly. Almost too quickly. And then he didn't offer up any more information.

I rolled my eyes, exasperated. Why did they all make me have to drag the information out of them? "So...what'd they find out?" I prodded.

"It was um...an overdose of Ketamine."

Overdose. Never a good thing. I wasn't sure what Ketamine was, but the word overdose alone was enough to make me feel sick. AJ explained that from what he he'd picked up, Ketamine was another of those wonderful sedatives, this one with the property of causing temporary paralysis when used in large doses. Talk about creepy stuff. It was supposed to have a euphoric feeling so was pretty popular in the club scene. There was nothing euphoric about it to me. I figured from that description of it, that more than likely, that was what I'd been given, both when I'd gotten abducted and then a partial dose during the blackout. What's euphoric about being paralyzed?

"But he's okay?" I asked, worried.

"Yeah. Should be. There wasn't really anything they could do other than hook him up to monitors to make sure he doesn't stop breathing or anything. But they say it's already wearing off and that he should be okay in a few hours. They said he could probably go home either later tonight or first thing in the morning if he wants to. Good news is that it shouldn't have any permanent side effects or anything."

I hesitated to ask the next question because I hated thinking about what it'd been like when I'd been paralyzed, and didn't want to know that Kevin was still in that state. "So is he awake...and like...moving?"

AJ nodded. "Yeah, Brian's in with him now. He's really out of it, but he's responding now, at least."

"Does he...um...remember what happened?" I held my breath waiting for that answer.

AJ shrugged, though. "I didn't ask. I was only in there for a couple minutes. Figured Brian would want to stay in there, you know."

I nodded and glanced out toward the hall. I wanted to talk to Kevin. For one, I really wanted to know for sure that he really was going to be okay. But for another, entirely selfish reason, I wanted to talk to him because he was the only one who might possibly understand what it was like for me. If anyone would understand how scary it was to feel so helpless, it would be him. He wouldn't just tell me that everything was okay and that everyone would take care of me. He'd understand.

I let out my breath in a big sigh and leaned back in my chair.

"What'd you do with Howie?" AJ asked suddenly, realizing he wasn't with me.

"Fed him to the reporters," I replied, hiding a small smile as I closed my eyes.

A few moments later I felt him poking me in the side. "Hey, Kaos, you want anything?"

I opened one eye to glance over at him questioningly. He held up a can of Mountain Dew and waved it at me. "Want something?" He gestured over to a cart containing all kinds of soda and some sandwiches.

I closed my eyes, shaking my head to answer AJ's question. I wasn't hungry. Just sleepy. AJ poked me again, and I clenched my teeth to keep from wincing as he hit a rather sore spot.

"When's the last time you ate anything?" I opened my eye again and glared. Couldn't he just let me take a little nap? At least until Brian came back and I could go in and talk to Kevin. But AJ had other ideas. He raised his eyebrow and looked at me pointedly. "You didn't eat this afternoon, I know that. And Brian said you yarped after breakfast. You gotta eat something, dude." If you knew when I ate last, AJ, why did you ask? I closed my eye again and heard him grumble something unintelligible under his breath. He got up and moved away.

Mission accomplished.

Then again maybe not: I felt something cold pressed against my cheek. Just leave me alone! I tried to turn my head away from it.

I shivered as I felt the thing sliding across my cheek until it was shoved against my lips. I couldn't move to push it away! No! I heard an angered voice whispering harshly in my ear as fingers roughly tried to force my jaw open. Come on, Nicky. Drink it! I gasped as my eyes flew open.

AJ pulled a soda bottle back away from my cheek and looked at me with wide eyes. "Damn, Nick, I'm sorry. Didn't mean to spook you. Are you okay?"

I blinked a couple times and tried to decide what the right answer to that was. My heart was suddenly racing again and all my muscles were tensed. But as I glanced around I realized that there was nobody that had actually whispered. It was only AJ near me and he was standing in front of me, not close enough to have been the whisperer. Besides, that wasn't AJ's voice. And he wouldn't have tried to force my mouth open like that, either. I must have imagined it. What the hell was that about?

I blinked a couple more times then realized that AJ was looking even more worried. "I'm okay I just..." I trailed off not knowing how to explain what had just happened without sounding crazy. Then again why did I care if I sounded it, since I really was crazy? I was hearing things, after all. And it had seemed so real. Just like that thing at the press conference...damn I hated this.

Since I didn't know what to say I reached out and took the Mountain Dew that AJ was offering me instead. Maybe that would appease him and he'd stop worrying. He held out a sandwich, too, but I didn't take that. I really wasn't hungry. Just the thought of food at the moment was making my stomach churn. I shook my head and leaned back again.

AJ plopped down in the chair beside me again. "So...what was that about just then?"

I should be so lucky that he would push that. "I'm not hungry," I responded innocently, pretending I thought he meant about not taking the sandwich.

AJ raised his eyebrow and gave me a look to let me know that he knew that I knew what he meant. Didn't he realize that I was having enough trouble getting my heart to calm back down without telling him about it? I just needed to forget about it again. Because nothing happened. It was all in my head.

I leaned forward in the chair and opened the soda. Maybe the caffeine would at least help keep me awake. I could feel AJ's eyes boring into the back of my head, but he didn't pry for an answer, so I didn't provide one.

I was still tired but I didn't want to close my eyes again. Seemed that every time I closed my eyes lately something bad happened. Or at least I'd feel like something bad happened. Then again bad things kept happening while my eyes were wide open, too.

Not that anything happened.

That just doesn't even sound convincing, does it?

It wasn't that big a deal. It wasn't even that scary. 'Come on, Nicky. Drink it.' It's not like there's anything particularly scary about that phrase. It's just that it was in that same damned whisper. And of course the question of just what it was that he made me drink was kind of nerve-wracking. I somehow doubted that it was Mountain Dew.

I shivered, suddenly feeling very cold. Dr. Lincoln mentioned how alcohol greatly intensifies the effects of that Rohypnol stuff. That's probably what he was making me drink. So that I would be even more at his mercy. Easier to control. Easier to ra--

Stop thinking about it. That didn't happen. I'd know, remember? I'd know. And it didn't happen.

I quickly drank some of the soda to get rid of the bitter taste that suddenly filled my mouth. But the soda tasted just as bitter and as a bonus, it burned the back of my throat. Bitter. Like the alcohol had probably tasted.

I really didn't want to think about that stuff. I wanted to get out of there. I wanted to go home. I felt my body starting to tremble. This was so dumb! There was no reason for me to be getting so upset. So I had a weird little...flashback or whatever. It wasn't that scary. It wasn't. It was just some creepy guy making me drink...something. That's not that scary. Nothing even remotely as scary ad the other flashback I'd had, or the nightmare for that matter. And obviously whatever it was he made me drink didn't kill me. It could even have just been water or something. So...it's not that scary. I was just making myself worse by imagining the worst case scenario. It was probably water. I'd just refused it to be stubborn. Sure.

Damn it, it was probably alcohol and laced with drugs.

I needed to stop thinking. I was just restless. I needed to get up and move. That was the problem. I'd be fine if I could get up and walk off this nervous energy. I pushed myself up out of the chair and started pacing. I didn't even make it halfway across the room before AJ was on his feet and headed after me. He was going to make me get back in the damn chair. I knew it. Why couldn't everyone just back off?

My heartrate was getting faster again and for some reason I couldn't seem to breathe quite right. I was breathing too fast and I couldn't seem to get a good breath in. I just needed to calm a little and slow my breathing down. But I couldn't seem to. Damn it! I don't need this!

"Nick. Sit down. You're supposed to stay off your leg," AJ started telling me. How'd he know that? He wasn't even in the room! Okay the wheelchair was probably a tip off, but still, like he was one to follow rules? Where did he get off telling me to? I felt his hand fall lightly on my shoulder and jerked away quickly, nearly tripping when my knee didn't bend like I expected it to. Expected it to bend despite the fact that there were metal rods strapped to it. Okay I wasn't thinking too swiftly, I admit it. But I didn't care. I needed to get out of there. I regained my balance and turned back toward the door. I had to get out.

"Nick? Are you okay?" I heard Jack's voice from across the room. Somewhere near the door. My vision was blurry and I couldn't see him clearly, but I knew he was over there. I could see his large form blocking the door.

His large form. Blocking. The. Door.

He'd never let me out of here. I was trapped! I couldn't get out! My heart was going even faster. It was probably going to explode and then I was going to die.

I backed away, knowing he was going to come after me. I didn't want him touching me. Not again. Never again. I was backed into the corner. There was nowhere left to go. I was trapped!

"Kaos!" AJ called again, drawing my attention back to him and reminding me that I wasn't in any immediate danger. This was so stupid! There was no reason for me to be so freaked out. I just wasn't thinking straight; I needed to calm down, just needed to calm down. Needed to keep remembering that I was here because I wanted to see Kevin. Not because they were keeping me here against my will. I could leave whenever I wanted. This was so dumb! I had absolutely no reason to panic. No reason whatsoever.

Because there wasn't still some psycho lunatic out there who wanted to get me again.

Oh, that really helped, dumbass.

I felt a sharp pain in my chest. Great. Now I was probably having a heart attack. I'm only 21, I'm not supposed to have heart attacks. Then again the heart had been getting quite a workout lately with the panicking and all. Great. I was going to die of a heart attack. I'm way too young to be having a heart attack. This just keeps getting less and less fair. I pressed myself farther back into the corner.

"It's okay, Nick, just sit down, okay?" I heard AJ's worried voice.

"Calm down, Nicky, you're having a panic attack," I heard Jack's voice and looked up.

And saw a large blurry figure coming straight at me.
Prisoner of War by Chaos
I pressed myself farther back in the corner as he came at me again. Why couldn't he just leave me alone? What had I done to deserve this? I didn't understand! I clutched the blanket tighter around myself as if it were somehow holding me together. I blinked up at my tormenter, wishing he'd tell me why he was doing this to me. If he'd just tell me what it was that I did so wrong, I'd do whatever the hell it took to fix it so that he'd let me go. This had gone on for far too long. Whatever this was. As far as I could figure out, it was supposed to be a lesson in humility. Well, if that's what it was, lesson was learned. Days ago. Or what seemed like days. I really wasn't sure anymore how much time had passed. I could swear that I vaguely remember it getting gradually darker in the room a number of times, but it just didn't seem like I had enough memories in my head to fill days worth of time. Maybe it only got dark once and I'm just remembering the same time over and over again.

Whether it'd been one day or several, I'd given up hope of being rescued. I'd been held captive far too long for me to have any faith left in that. He'd left me alone a number of times and that would have been the prime time for someone to come in and get me, but still no one had come. If I were going to get out of this, it was going to be up to me to save myself. Problem was, I was too weak to fight him, and during the times he'd left me alone, I'd been unable to free myself from the bindings that secured my wrists tightly together and then to a pipe that ran along the wall. I hadn't even been able to pull the gag from my mouth. It was tied too tightly to loosen by tugging on it, and my hands couldn't reach where it was knotted. I'd tried numerous times to free myself only to wind up even more frustrated and deepening my sense of hopelessness. I was never going to get free.

For the most part, I'd been left alone. My captor would come back every so often. I wasn't sure how many times he had, because my mind was far from focused. It seemed like he'd been there at least nine or ten times, but my mind was foggy enough that some of those times may actually have just been my imagination. Sometimes I'd be half asleep and I'd swear that I felt his hands fumbling against my skin only to wake in a panic and find myself quite alone. Every time he left, I was plagued with the fear that my captor would just leave me there bound, gagged, and helpless so that I'd eventually die from starvation. More than that, though, I was terrified that he would come back and do what he'd threatened. While dying wasn't high on my list of favorite things to do, at least I could deal with that idea. If the alternative was to stay his captive and have my body used in the ways he was threatening to use it...I would far rather die.

I hated the way he'd touch me. My skin still crawled just thinking about it. I guess I should just be thankful that that's all he did...touch.

And threaten to do more.

And prove to me that he had the power to do anything he wanted to me and I couldn't stop him. We'd gone through the same routine a number of times already. Either that or it's just happened the once and I'm imagining that it happened again. At this point, I wasn't sure what to believe. But it always happened the same way, whether it was real or imagined. He'd unchain me from the pipe and let me go long enough for me to start thinking that just maybe I could get away from him. He'd step back and watch me, practically daring me to make a break for it. And of course, I would. He'd let me get out into this really long hallway. I didn't know where I was or which way to go, but I'd run for it anyway. I'd get maybe halfway down the dark corridor and then he'd make his move. He'd grab me and force me to the ground, pinning me and beating me until I submitted and allowed myself to be dragged back into the room where he'd string me up by my wrists again. He'd pull the wire taught so that I was forced to stand only on the balls of my feet. If I tried to lower my heels, it would put too much pressure on my wrists. And then he'd begin his assault. Systematically ripping me apart from the inside, violating the outside as I was powerless to stop his repulsive hands from roaming my unprotected skin.

I didn't want to think about the things he'd hissed into my ear as he'd continued his disgusting attack on my body, but it was impossible to block it out. The things he said would probably stay with me for the rest of my life. Assuming I had much of one left anyway. He attacked just about everything about me, and aimed to cut deep.

At first it was just bullshit, and I knew it. He started with the easiest thing to target. My career. He said nothing I hadn't already had thrown in my face since even before the Backstreet Boys even existed. Schoolyard bullies had come up with the same things. Singer. Dancer. Let's just see how many cliches we can come up with to fit that, shall we? Like they had when I was bullied about it back then, he told me what my choice of career supposedly meant about my masculinity (or lack thereof), sexual orientation, and other stupid "boy band" cliches. I let all that roll off me. I'd heard it all before and it was just plain absurd.

So then he'd started in on my appearance. Some of the stuff he said kind of hurt, I admit that. But after the rather humiliating experience of having my fluctuating weight attacked in the media and by so-called fans, I'd learned to accept that I wasn't ever going to live up to everyone's physical ideal. It had taken a while, but eventually I'd decided that I wasn't going to beat myself up over it anymore. I could only be myself and people could take it or leave it. And I was okay with that. My real fans would accept me as is.

Seeing that that wasn't getting to me, he started in on stuff like that I thought I was so much better than everyone else. Or that I thought I was so perfect and everything. Obviously he didn't spend much time listening to my thoughts. I'm not like that. Really, I'm not. So I still didn't really take it personally. Or at least I tried really hard not to. I couldn't help but start to wonder though. I'd heard those things said about me before, too. What if I really did give off the impression that I thought like that? Did people really think that I thought I was too good for them?

The longer he'd talked, the closer to home he'd started getting. Worse, he started actually making sense.

"Stupid little brat," he'd called me. Breaking that down; Stupid. Not the first time I'd heard that. And even I had to admit that I tend to make an awful lot of dumb mistakes. I was always messing up words and stuff during interviews. And I didn't seem to know a lot of the stuff that other people seemed to consider "common knowledge" things. I don't know why I never learned that sort of stuff, but it never was that important to me to know the price of tacos in Switzerland or whatever. Okay maybe that wasn't common knowledge, but stuff like geography and math didn't interest me that much. Little. Well, there was one I could argue with I guess. I'm hardly little. Then again I somehow suspect that wasn't the key word in the insult. Brat. Guilty. Kevin called me that all the time. So did a lot of other people for that matter. But when they'd said it, they hadn't made it sound so...ugly. I wasn't malicious about it or anything, I just liked to goof around and have fun. But I did take it too far sometimes, I admit that. I'm sorry.

"Spoiled, selfish, brat," he'd added. "Think everyone should cater to you?" Spoiled ? I'd never really considered myself to be, but...I did tend to get my way a lot of the time. And I kind of get pissed off and sulk when I don't. So...I hated to admit it, but he was quite possibly right. Damn. I didn't want to be spoiled. How did I let that happen? I didn't mean to be that bad. Selfish. If I was spoiled, it fell right into place that selfishness was probably right there with it. God, he was right. Brat. Already covered this one, moving right along to the next insult. I didn't think everyone should cater to me...it just sort of seemed to happen that way. Damn it he was right again. I was horrible. It was a wonder I had any friends at all. I never really had many back home. And the guys probably only were because they had to be. Like default or something because of the band.

"Pathetic coward," he'd called me as I sobbed at his verbal attack. Couldn't really deny that I was pathetic. After all, I was standing there crying like a baby because I was letting him get to me. For that matter, the fact that I was even there in the first place was testament of that accusation. Add to that the fact that I'd been rendered so helpless that I'd actually pissed myself--and not just once--during my captivity. Given that was because I was bound and there really wasn't any alternative, but it sure added to the whole pathetic vibe I had going on. As for the cowardliness? Do I even need to qualify that? Just thinking about him being in the room with me was enough to make me feel all petrified. Sure couldn't prove him wrong on that one.

Worthless. He was right about everything else he called me, so it only followed that he was probably right about that as well...

You'd think that it was enough to tear me down and reduce me to tears that once. I hadn't ever recovered from that first assault. But he didn't stop there. He just kept drilling it into me just how horrible and pathetic I really was. And every time I'd start feeling like just maybe I wasn't that bad, he'd start in again.

And now he was back to play another round of that game. I cringed as he towered over me. Even though he'd started wearing a mask, he still didn't like me looking at his face, so I turned my head away as he knelt down to release my bindings. I closed my eyes and held my breath as he pulled the blanket away from me enough so that he could untie my wrists. When he moved away again I quickly pulled the blanket back into place.

At first, I tried not to get tempted to fall into his little game. If I didn't try to make a run for it, he'd have no reason to torture me. Not that he really needed a reason, I guess. He was insane and that was probably reason enough for him. But maybe if I just stayed still he wouldn't anyway.

Except if I didn't at least try to get away, I probably wouldn't ever get away. Kind of like the lottery--you can't win if you don't play. I had the suspicion that the odds were greatly stacked against me and I wasn't going to win anyway. But, if no one was going to come rescue me, and the only chance I had at escaping was when he released me...I had to take every opportunity to try that I could take. Right?

I looked up at him nervously and found that he was watching me intently, waiting for me to make my move. For a split second I saw his pale gray eyes through the holes of his mask and shivered at the cruelty that was reflected in them. I looked away quickly before he could get angry with me for looking at him again. As long as he was watching me that closely, I didn't stand a chance of escaping. So maybe if I waited for just a couple minutes he'd think that maybe I had given up and would let his guard down a little.

I shifted a little bit, stretching my legs out. I wasn't really able to move a whole lot while I was chained up, so it was likely that the muscles were getting lazy from lack of use. That was another reason he was able to catch me so easily. So maybe if I stretched a little bit it would help. The other thing that I couldn't really do anything to compensate for was that I hadn't been allowed anything to eat during my captivity. I could feel my body getting weaker the longer I was kept, and that surely slowed me down, too. But there was no point in dwelling on that. I just had to bide my time and do the best that I could.

After a few minutes, my captor started getting a little restless. I hid a tiny smile from him, knowing that if he saw my satisfaction at his expense he'd probably use that as his excuse to torture me. I watched as he began pacing a little seeming not to know what to do now that I'd seemingly learned my lesson about trying not to escape. I could feel his eyes boring into me and it made my stomach churn just a little bit. I pulled the blanket tighter around me again, pretending that it was a shield that would protect me from his evil gaze.

A few minutes later, he turned his back on me and dug into the bag he always brought with him. Probably to retrieve the dreaded thermos. While he didn't feed me, he did make me drink from that thing each time he visited. I thought I had it identified as being tequila mixed with 7-Up. At least it kinda reminded me of a slammer, except that...well, he didn't slam it down on the counter first or anything. I figured there was probably something else in the drink too since tequila alone didn't usually have that much of an affect on me. At least not in the amount that I was being given. My tolerance for alcohol was fairly decent, probably due more to my size than for built up tolerance. I drank socially, yes, but I usually didn't have that much. I'd been drunk before, but generally I didn't like to drink that much. I usually could tell when it was time to stop before I started making an idiot out of myself. But with the stuff he was making me drink...all it took was a little bit and all my senses went completely out of whack. It made time speed up and me slow down. Everything would become like a big muddled mess of sounds and shadows stumbling around in a thick haze.

I hated that feeling, and I really didn't want to experience it again.

Wait. He was distracted, getting the thermos from his bag. Wouldn't that make a good time to make the great escape?

I sprang into action. Or at least I tried to. My springing wasn't really up to par. I knew I was fairly sluggish, but it was the best I could do. I made a break for the door while his back was to me.

As usual, I made it to the hallway and turned right. I'd gone left the first time and had made it the short distance to the elevator, which was the only thing in that direction other than a couple locked doors. But of course the elevator hadn't been there waiting and the rooms had been locked, so that had been the end of that escape. I figured my best bet would be something in the other direction. Besides, I could hear activity in the large room near the end of the corridor, so maybe there were people there. And maybe they could help me. That was the room I always tried to get to, but I had yet to make it there.

There was a slight breeze in the hallway that got stronger the closer I got to that noisy room. Maybe it wasn't a room at all but an exit? I dashed for it, hoping against hope that this time I would make it somehow. I could hear him moving behind me, though.

I did make it a little farther than I had previous attempts, but I still didn't get far enough. He tackled me from behind and sent me crashing to the floor. A moment later, he was on top of me, turning me onto my back and pinning me down. I didn't even attempt to struggle. When I did that, it only made the beating that much worse. He backhanded me across the face once, but then just held me down for a few moments, letting me know exactly who had the power in our situation. And it wasn't me. I did my best to relax myself into a guise of submission. He won another round. Time for my punishment.

Satisfied that I wasn't going to give him any more trouble for the time being, my captor got to his feet, keeping hold of my wrists. He began dragging me back down the hallway by my arms, not giving me the chance to get up and walk.

Once back to the room, he strung me back up much like he had when he'd first brought me to my prison. He looped the wire around my wrists then forced me to stand with my arms raised over my head while the wire was secured to the overhead pipe.

The blanket fell away as my arms were otherwise restrained and I was unable to keep holding it up. I lowered my head in humiliation and waited for him to start his latest assault. I steeled myself against it, determined not to give him the satisfaction of responding this time.

He moved up behind me and I clenched my teeth around the gag that was still in my mouth. I didn't want to cry this time, but damn it, my eyes were already starting to water just thinking about what was coming. I hated it when he touched me. It made me feel so dirty and degraded.

He chuckled as he saw the tears that were forming. "Crying already?" he mocked me. "I haven't even touched you...yet." My body began to quake as I felt his breath against the back of my neck. "You're terrified aren't you?" he asked in that horrible throaty whisper he always used. I felt his hands run slowly down my sides, resting momentarily on my hips. I squeezed my eyes shut but otherwise did my best not to react. "You afraid? Hmm?" Hell yes I was afraid. I still didn't answer--couldn't have even if I'd wanted to, really--and his movements got rougher, his hands scraping against my skin as they moved back up my sides.

"I could fuck you if I wanted to," he hissed into my ear as one of his hands moved slowly down my chest. I shuddered violently at his words and began fighting with every last bit of my strength to pull away from him. So much for my resolve not to respond, but God, I couldn't let him...do that. That was the first time he'd actually spoken the threat aloud. He'd implied it a few times, but he hadn't ever spelled it out before. And the fact that he'd gotten bold enough to say it made me think that he was probably getting closer to actually doing it. I tried desperately to dislodge the wire that bound my wrists up over my head, but all that did was make my wrists and arms flare with pain. But still I fought, thrashing my body and trying frantically to get free. My captor only laughed and let me continue my futile struggles until I exhausted myself and had no choice but to stop. By then the tears I'd tried to hold back were rolling free. "What makes you think I'd want you?" he chided after I'd finally worn myself out and unwillingly collapsed back against him. "You're a disgusting, pathetic mess." Which was very true. He would be, too, if he'd been chained up for hours--possibly days--without the opportunity to shower or even go to the bathroom. Yeah, I was disgustingly filthy, and yeah I was humiliated beyond all belief about it, but hell, if it kept him from wanting to go through with *that*, I'd gladly never take a shower again.

Unfortunately, even as disgusting as I was, it didn't seem to make him want to stop touching me, or stop his verbal assault. When at last he tired of it, I was back to feeling about as low as whatever is about six steps lower than pond scum.

He reached up with one hand grabbed onto the gag and tugged on the cloth a few times until it loosened enough for him to pull it from my aching jaws and let it fall down around my neck. I expected to be forced to drink from the thermos, but instead, he moved around to face me and he put his hand under my chin, forcing me to lift my head. He moved closer, his face only inches from mine. God, he was going to kiss me. How gross was that? Bad enough thinking about another guy wanting to kiss me, but even grosser when factoring in my current state of hygiene. Or lack thereof. I squeezed my eyes shut and clenched my teeth as hard as I could. It hurt my already sore jaw, but no way was I going to let him do that.

I felt his breath against my lips and tried to turn my head away from him. "What's the matter, fag boy?" he hissed angrily as he (thankfully) stepped away. I found it somehow ironic that he was calling me a fag when he was the one trying to kiss me. I guess that it was a power/control sort of thing, but still. "Think you're too good for me?" No...well, yes actually, considering you're a psychotic bastard, but even if you weren't I just don't swing that way. Of course I didn't answer. I was too freaked out to even think clearly, let alone form words. I cried out as he struck me hard across the face.

As I was recovering from that, I felt my arms jerked upward, the muscles aching from the strain. He fiddled with the wire around my wrists and a moment later I was falling, completely unsupported again. My body was too exhausted to remain standing, so I collapsed to the floor in a heap.

"Get up," he demanded harshly.

I tried. I really did. But my body was just too exhausted from the strain that had been put on it and the lack of food. I managed to get to my hands and knees, but that took me a while. Apparently it took me too long because as soon as I managed that, I felt something strike my back hard and found myself flat on the floor again. With a nice new intense pain racing up and down my spine.

"I said get up."

I tried again; more desperate to obey him this time so that I could avoid getting hit like that again. Oh no, not pathetic and cowardly at all. I was faster that time, but still not fast enough, I guess. I was struck again and sent back to the floor, writhing in pain. He wasn't going to let me get up. This was an exercise in futility. I'm not sure how I suddenly knew that, but it struck me almost as hard as whatever it was that he was using to hit me.

He ordered me to get up a third time, but that time I just stayed down. I knew he was going to beat me no matter what I did, and I was just too tired to keep trying.

As predicted, this time when I failed to start moving, he began kicking me, berating me for not obeying. Again and again he drove his foot into my side. I tried to crawl away, but whenever I moved he would stomp down on my back and drive me to the floor in agony. So I just lay there and took it. Too tired to try to get up, too afraid to move.

Pathetic.

Finally the assault ended and I felt myself being dragged along the floor by my legs. I wondered dimly where I was being taken, but by then consciousness was coming and going. My whole body hurt worse than I ever imagined possible. I was dimly aware of a light breeze in the hallway that grew stronger the farther down the hall we went. We were almost to the noisy room. Which was in a way kind of exciting, since that had been my goal before, but on the other hand, if he was willing to take me there, it probably meant that it wasn't going to be the great escape route I'd hoped for.

When we reached the room, he deposited me on the floor next to a large drain. A few moments later, there was a squeaking noise followed by a hard stream of cold water blasting at me.

A shower. God, he was letting me take a shower. Well, a hosing down anyway, since from the angle of the spray I figured it had to have been coming from a hose. Glancing around at my surroundings, I noticed that there were several large laundry machines, which were what was making all that noise. Beyond those, there was a row of large fans, which I suppose kept the room from getting too hot. And above and beyond the fans was nirvana. A row of open windows.

Now if only I could actually get to them.

Of course with my captor right there and my body in such horrible shape, odds weren't that good of me actually reaching them. And I couldn't take another beating. Freedom was so close, but still unattainable. I forced myself to look away from the windows.

"Clean yourself up," he ordered me.

I tensed, waiting for his retaliation as I refused to obey.

Of course I wanted to be clean. I felt dirty to the point of being disgusting. I knew that I had to absolutely reek. And more than anything I wanted to scrape away every bit of skin that his hands had touched. But thinking about his earlier words, "What makes you think I'd want you? You're a disgusting, pathetic mess," was a pretty good argument for me staying that way.

Unfortunately, my captor disagreed. He stepped closer to me, the force of the water hitting me harder as the distance closed. He grabbed me by my arm and pulled me up a little bit, spraying the water at close range. I noticed that the water that ran off me and went spiraling down the drain was tinged red and wondered what part of me was bleeding. It didn't really matter, though, I guess. Every part of me hurt, so what did it matter if it was a bruise or a cut? More than slightly dazed, I watched the water spiraling as I was subjected to this new humiliation. I felt his hand running through my hair and over my body as he continued to rinse the grime off me. Though personally I thought it was another exercise in futility since his hands were making me dirtier as the water tried to wash it away. It wasn't like he was even using soap. So I probably would smell a little better, but my hygiene would still be pretty gruesome.

At last he seemed satisfied with the shower and he moved away again. I heard the squeaking noise again and the water stopped. I looked up as he stepped over to a large cart and pulled a large towel from it. Since it wasn't folded and was being pulled from what was likely a laundry bin, it kind of followed that it was a used towel. Which he promptly threw at me and ordered me to dry myself off with. Oh yeah, that was even more hygienic. Using someone else's dirty towel. Ick.

Did that make me sound spoiled?

I did as I was told though. Then he took the towel back from me and tossed it back into the bin.

"Need to use the bathroom?" he asked.

I snorted. He couldn't have asked me that hours ago? Or days? Or however long it'd been? I didn't have to go anymore, thanks. I shook my head.

"You're not getting another chance."

Ever?

I nodded, trying not to think too much about that.

Grabbing hold of my wrist, he began dragging me from the room. I tried to get up on my feet, but I couldn't quite get my balance enough to do so and ended up just letting him drag me across the hallway into a dingy little room. Nothing but a sink, a toilet, and a bigass garbage can.

"Go," he ordered, hauling me to my feet.

I scowled. I'd told him I didn't have to. And he hadn't exactly been feeding me or even letting me get much to drink. I just plain didn't have to go. Besides, you try going on demand with a creepy psychotic watching you. It just doesn't work.

So I stood there and stared dumbly at the toilet until he finally grumbled something about having warned me. He half-carried me half-walked me back through the dark hallway and into the storage room where I'd been held for who-knew how long. He shoved me roughly back to the floor. My blanket lay abandoned on the floor a few feet away. I carefully slunk toward it, expecting him to stop me, relieved when he didn't.

I wrapped the blanket around myself and moved back to my corner again, hoping he was done with me for the day and would leave me alone. Or better yet he was done with me forever and would let me leave. I wasn't holding my breath on that, though.

I drew my knees up to my chest and let my head rest against my upraised knees. I was trying not to let the despair get to me, but it was hard not to. I just wanted to go home. I didn't want to be trapped like this anymore. Okay, that was dumb. I never wanted it. Nobody would want it. Unless they were really warped.

I cringed as he returned, holding the dreaded thermos. I turned my head away from him. I didn't want any more of whatever that was. I wasn't going to drink it anymore. I had to get myself out of this, and the only way that was going to happen was if I could keep my head on straight and get my strength up. Neither of those things would happen if I drank.

I felt his hand grip my jaw and force my head back toward him. He pressed the thermos to my lips and started tipping it up, trying to get me to drink. I stubbornly clenched my teeth and refused to drink, letting it spill down my chin until he pulled the thermos back again. His fingers dug into my jaw trying to force my mouth open. "Come on, Nicky, drink it!" he growled in my ear, chilling me. But I shook my head, still resisting.

My captor shifted, standing over me. He grabbed me by the throat and shoved my head back against the wall. I cried out involuntarily and reached up, trying to claw his hands away from my throat. He took the opportunity to start trying to force me to drink. My mouth filled, but I refused to swallow. Instead I stared defiantly into his steely eyes. His expression darkened and he increased the pressure on my throat. If he was trying to make me down it, that was the wrong way to do it--I couldn't really breathe, let alone swallow. So I let it dribble out of my mouth, still trying to look bold, though I was losing my nerve again.

He slammed my head against the wall again, released my throat, then backhanded me hard across the face. He hit me again before I got over the shock of the first blow. I could feel my mouth fill with the coppery taste of blood. A moment later, I felt the thermos back at my lips.

I looked up at my captor again and knew that once again I was fighting a losing battle. He was going to win this battle of wills. He wins, I lose. How much did I really want to get another beating out of the deal? My heart sank with defeat. "Drink it!" he spat at me.

I lowered my eyes and opened my mouth, submitting yet again. He forced me to drink down several gulps, which is really not easy to do with tequila, even if it is in slammer form. Especially if it's stopped fizzing. But I managed to get enough down to make him back off again.

I leaned back against the wall and tried to keep my thoughts focused. Maybe if I concentrated on something it would keep me from losing my senses again. I just needed something to focus on. Nothing was coming to mind other than how much I wanted to go home. And how uncomfortable I was about the fact that my captor was now just standing a few feet away watching me.

I had to get out of this somehow. I had to find a way to get back to that room with the windows with enough of a head-start to get outside before he could grab me. If only I weren't so exhausted and weak. Maybe I could find something to hit him with. Or maybe I'd find a way to get myself free when he wasn't around to stop me. Yeah, that'd be better. Then I could just walk out. Oh wait, I'd tried that. Duh. I couldn't ever get myself free. That was the whole problem. That's why I was still here. What was I, stupid?

Don't answer that.

I dropped my head back down against my knees as the room started to spin slightly. I wasn't focusing hard enough. Oh yeah, hadn't really come up with anything to focus on.

I felt a hand on my shoulder and realized that my captor had come back over and was crouching next to me. I shivered, not wanting him to be that close. Especially not when I was feeling so out of whack. Everything was starting to get really foggy.

I tightened the blanket around myself again and tried to shy away from him, pressing farther back into the corner. I felt his hand run lightly down my cheek and my stomach clenched. *I could fuck you if I wanted to...* NO!

I tried to pull away, but he took hold of my shoulders and pulled me closer, and away from the safety of the corner. I tried to shove him away, but I didn't have enough strength to be even slightly effective against him. Within a few moments, I found myself pressed to the floor, his body straddling mine.

I felt his breath against my cheek. Don'tdon'tdon't. I felt him tugging at the blanket, trying to pull it away from me. I immediately forgot about trying to push him away and instead focused on keeping a tight grasp on the material. No. Please, just leave me alone, I begged him silently as I clutched the blanket and stared up at him fearfully. I flinched as I saw absolutely nothing but cruelty in his gray eyes.

"Don't touch me," I protested, my voice sounding as weak as I felt. "Don't..."

"It's okay, Nick," a familiar voice told me, soothingly. "You're safe now."

Safe? Hardly! I was about as far away from safe as you could get! I threw my head back and screamed, hoping against hope that someone was out there and would be able to hear me. And that they would help me.

"Shhh, Frack, it's okay, focus on me," the voice soothed again and I felt his hand running gently through my hair. "It's just me."

Nonononononono. That's the problem, damn it.

"You're safe. It's okay, it's okay, it's okay," the voice repeated over and over in time to the hand stroking my hair. For a moment, the voice stopped repeating that to ask, "What do I do? He's just not waking up," in a very frightened sounding voice. Frightened?

My eyes opened cautiously and I stared up into wide blue eyes. Bright blue, no longer pale. No longer threatening. Familiar. Safe. Brian. I blinked. Brian? I closed my eyes again, hoping that when they opened again it would still be Brian.

"That's right, Frack, wake up. It's okay, it's just me. You're safe."

It was still Brian. Oh, God, it was still Brian. All at once I was both immensely relieved and horribly confused. Relieved that I wasn't being...*attacked*, but...what the hell was happening to me? Was this real? Or was that real? Was I safe? Would I ever be safe again? What if this was the dream? What if I was still stuck in that storage room and I was only dreaming that I had somehow gotten out? Nothing made sense anymore.

"I've got a sedative," I heard an unfamiliar voice saying and looked over toward where someone was coming toward me. With a needle. NO!

I scrambled to get away from that damn needle. No. NO. NO! I felt Brian trying to grab me, but before he could I fell from the bed and landed on a heap on the floor. I tried to get up and realized that my leg wouldn't bend. It took a few moments for me to remember that it wouldn't bend because it had several metal rods strapped to it.

So, that much was real.

I flipped myself over and scooted back, trying to get to the corner. If I were in the corner, I could at least be protected from two sides at once. Now if only the chair were closer and I could use that to create a third wall...

"Get away from him with that," I heard Kevin's voice saying, in a quiet yet firm tone. "He...doesn't like needles." You think?

Kevin. Kevin was here. I had been waiting to see Kevin. Right? Except it was different then. I wasn't in a bed when I was waiting for Kevin. I tried to make sense of where I was. I didn't remember being in a bed. Then again, I couldn't remember what the last thing I remembered was. I was so damn confused. I couldn't think straight at all.

Last thing I remembered was being forced to the ground and...no, that part was a nightmare. What happened before that? Or was this a dream and I was really still stuck in the storage room? I started crying harder and buried my head in my hands, horrified by how screwed up I was.

"Nick?" I heard Brian's voice again and realized that he was standing just a few feet away. Assuming he was real.

I peeked up through my fingers at him, trying to decide for sure if he was genuine or wishful thinking on my part. "Brian?" I asked, pleading with him to be real.

"Yeah. It's okay. You're safe. You just fainted." I fainted? I lowered my hands a little and looked up at him questioningly. He smiled a little and nodded. "Yeah. I guess you had some sort of...um...panic attack?"

I closed my eyes. A panic attack. I vaguely remembered Jack telling me that. Right before he had come at me. Except that hadn't really happened. That was the nightmare. Damn it, why couldn't I make sense out of anything?

"You okay, Nick?" Kevin's voice called over to me. I looked toward his voice but couldn't see him beyond the bed that was blocking my view.

"Yeah..." Well, define 'Okay'. If 'Okay' meant confused as all hell, crying pathetically, scared half out of my head, but relatively safe, then I was okay. Somehow I didn't think all of that really fit the criteria for okayness though. "No? I don't know," I answered him honestly. "Nothing's making much sense."

"You should stay in bed," I heard Brian say. I wasn't sure whether Brian was talking to me or Kevin at first, but I decided that he'd meant Kevin when I saw that he was shuffling around the side of the bed and coming toward me. He stopped next to Brian and said something that I couldn't quite catch before continuing cautiously toward me. Brian stood there for a few moments, a worried look on his face. Kevin glanced back at him, and he nodded. "I'll be back in just a couple minutes, okay?" he told me, then turned to go, leaving Kevin and I alone.

Kevin approached me slowly, whether it was to be sure I wasn't going to freak out again or because he was still affected by the drug he'd been given, I wasn't sure. He slowly lowered himself to the floor a couple feet away and leaned back against the wall, looking over at me with sad green eyes.

"Tell me about the nightmare you just had?" he asked.

I shook my head. I didn't want to tell him what had happened to me. What maybe happened to me. I didn't want anyone to know. *I* didn't even want to know. I didn't want to think about it. I wrapped my arms around myself, suddenly feeling cold again. I looked over at him, feeling guilty that I didn't want to talk about it. He just nodded, understandingly.

For a few minutes we just sat quietly. I heard someone come into the room once, but Kevin waved whoever it was away, and we continued to just sit there. Every couple minutes I noticed that Kevin would inch a little bit closer to me. I almost smiled when I realized he was doing it that slowly thinking that I wouldn't notice and wouldn't get all freaked out by someone getting close to me. It was almost tempting to suddenly leap out at him and yell 'boo' or something at him. But of course I didn't. I wasn't feeling that secure about leaving the corner. Besides, that would be the bratty thing to do. And he was probably not feeling too safe either. When I had that thought, I was glad I hadn't acted on impulse and done it.

"I was scared, you know," he said suddenly, looking at me with a sideways glance.

I sat up a little. "When you couldn't move?"

He nodded. "Yeah. I-it was like I was there and not there at the same time."

I nodded. "Could see everything but couldn't react," I added to that assessment.

"Yeah. I felt so..." he stopped, trying to find the right words to describe it.

"Helpless?" I supplied.

He frowned a little but nodded. "Totally. And when the others came in the room and were talking about how you were missing and I *knew* that you were in trouble and I couldn't say anything. I kept trying to move, but it was like I was paralyzed. I couldn't tell them that anything was wrong." And nobody even noticed the hell he was going through.

"I was scared, too," I admitted.

Kevin smiled a wintery little smile and nodded.

"Do you...remember what happened?" I asked.

"Only sort of," he said. "I was sleeping and I woke up while I was being pinned down with a pillow over my face. I thought someone was trying to smother me at first. And then I felt the needle." He stopped and looked over at me as if trying to decide if he should be talking about it. "I feel stupid now, but I didn't even think about yelling out," he admitted, turning slightly red at that admission. "I thought I could just throw him off me. Except I got really weak really fast. By the time I even thought about yelling, I couldn't think clearly enough to do it. And then I couldn't even move at all."

He continued, telling me about all the things that had gone through his head during the time that he wasn't sure what was going on, whether the paralysis would stop, whether anyone would notice that he wasn't okay. Feeling helpless about knowing that my captor was in the building but unable to tell anyone about it or help me in any way.

The longer he talked, the more I became clear about three things. One, I felt better knowing that I wasn't completely alone anymore; Kevin understood. Two, Kevin shouldn't have had to go through that. And three, I was going to make damn sure that he and the others wouldn't have to go through anything like that because of me ever again.

"So..." Kevin said, after we'd drifted silent for a couple minutes. "Sure you don't want to talk about what happened to you?" he offered again. "It does help."

I smiled, but shook my head. "Not now. Later though?" I knew I wasn't going to be around to tell later, but didn't really want to tip him off to that.

Kevin nodded, but looked a little disappointed. "Okay. Just promise me you won't bottle it up like you usually do when you've got a problem?" he insisted.

I rolled my eyes but nodded.

"Okay, good then. Now, I'm really zonked, so I'm going to take a nap before they kick me out. Want me to go get Brian or anyone?"

I shook my head. "I just want to be alone for a bit," I replied.

"You got it," he stood up.

"Wait...isn't this your room?"

He grinned slightly. "So it is. Guess you're stuck with me."

I grinned back but shook my head. "No offense, but I need to think about some stuff...I'm going to see if they have a room where I could hide out for a little bit." I scowled as I realized that it was really not very easy standing up with the brace on my leg. Kevin watched me struggle with it for a few moments before he made an amused little chuckle then reached down to help me up.

Once I was on my feet I impulsively gave Kevin a little hug then headed for the hallway.

And ran straight into Lon, who was standing just outside the door. "How you feeling, kid?"

"I'm okay," I told him, sheepishly.

"Of course you are," he chuckled a little, shaking his head. "Got something for you," he informed me, reaching into his pocket and pulling out a weird little keychain/clip thing. It looked like a green blob. Almost like a cigarette lighter, but larger. And considering that I didn't smoke I doubted that it was just an oversized one. I looked at Lon questioningly.

He handed it to me and I noticed that it had a little spray thing like mouth spray. He was giving me mouth spray on a chain? How...nice?

"Be careful with that," he informed me, reaching out to stop me from spraying it. "It's strong stuff."

Huh? "My breath is that bad?"

Lon laughed. Really hard. I didn't get it. "It's pepper spray, kid. In case you get in trouble again." OH! I felt my face getting red. "Whatever you do, don't let it get in your own eyes when you use it. If you have to spray it, aim, turn your head, close your eyes if you can, and spray. Even if you don't hit the target right in the eyes, it will still hurt him like hell if he looks in that direction. You too, so you be careful," he warned.

I nodded, looking at the spray. I wondered what it was like. I almost sprayed just a little to find out, but decided that was probably not a great idea.

I lifted my shirt a little, intending to clip the spray to one of my beltloops, but Lon reached out again and stopped me. He took it back from me for a moment then reached out and tucked it into the top of my leg immobilizer with just the end of the chain sticking out. It was slightly uncomfortable, but would be easy to grab fast in an emergency. "Thanks."

He nodded seriously. "Tomorrow after you guys are all rested up, I thought it would be a good idea for us to go over some self defense tactics."

I blinked. And looked down at my leg, then back up Lon skeptically. Self defense? But I was injured. That wouldn't really make things easy. Not that I didn't appreciate the offer, I'd always wanted to learn some sort of martial arts type stuff, but it hardly seemed the right time to...Wait. That was what I wanted. I wanted to be able to fight back. And now that he was offering it I was going to turn it down? I frowned.

"Actually that might be to your advantage," he informed me, giving me an encouraging smile. It would be? That didn't seem right, somehow. "Seriously, kid, I think you'll feel a lot better if we do a little training." I nodded. Yeah, I probably would feel better.

Except that I wasn't planning on sticking around that long.
Boot Camp by Chaos
I didn't want to be there. I had to get out.

My heart was pounding. There was someone coming up behind me; I could feel it without even looking back over my shoulder. I felt the panic welling up and trying to take control again. My eyes closed and my body tensed as I tried to fight the fear enough to keep functioning. I was okay; I was safe; I was fine. No problems here. I just needed to keep breathing. Inhale. Exhale. Don't pass out. Concentrate.

I felt one hand clamp over my mouth as another grabbed me around the waist pulling me backward against a larger body. Instinct made me try to scream out, but it was easily muffled by the large hand that was clamped over my mouth. I felt my body starting to tremble uncontrollably again and tried to force myself to concentrate on keeping a level head. I could get out of this.

I stepped backward into to my attacker, digging my heel hard into the top of his foot. At the same time I turned slightly so that I could drive my elbow back into his solar plexus.

Bullseye.

He let out a grunt and his grip loosened enough that I was able to twist my body out of his hold entirely. I felt him grabbing for me again and turned into the attack rather than trying to pull away. I lashed out, hitting my attacker at the base of the neck. He stumbled backward, gasping for air. YES! I was free!

"Go Nicky, go Nicky," my cheering squad of AJ and Brian called from the far side of the mat. I glared at them, barely containing my grin of satisfaction. Victory turned out to be short-lived, however, as suddenly I found myself on my back again as my assailant dove forward, tackling me and driving me to the ground. I winced as my arm struck the mat at a weird angle. I didn't break it did I? That'd be just what I needed. An arm to match the leg. Nah, not enough pain for that...oops shouldn't be thinking about that yet, need to get out of this first. Except during that moment of inattention, I got myself pinned again, unable to move at all. Damn.

This wasn't over. I wasn't going to go down this easy again. I could do this. I struggled for a few moments, trying not to go into full-scale panic at the sensation of being held down. My stomach twisted with fear of what was coming. I'd lost and been rendered helpless to protect myself from further attack. With that realization my body went slack, instinctively going into submissive mode. That seemed to make the inevitable beating less severe.

Not that there was going to be a beating this time, I reminded myself. I wasn't supposed to think like that anymore. I'm safe now. And this training was going to keep me from getting into a situation like that one again. No more getting all submissive when being attacked.

"Come on, Nicky, don't give up!" I heard AJ coaching from a few feet away and I grit my teeth. Damn it why couldn't I get this? I struggled futilely against my bodyguard-assailant. I stared up at his steel gray eyes for a moment and nearly screamed as I recognized them. Oh GOD! I closed my eyes for a moment then opened them again and found that the eyes were brown. Not gray.

I kept struggling, but my initial surrender had already taken its toll, and I was unable to get Geo off of me. I sighed and called out, "Stop," to signal that I was ready to admit defeat. At the sound of me calling out the safety word (creative weren't we?), Geo instantly relaxed his grip on me.

"Okay, let him up," I heard Lon saying quietly, obviously disappointed by my performance.

Geo complied and immediately he was off me, reaching down to give me a hand up. He wasn't even breathing hard, damn it. Way to make me look completely wimpy, Geo. "You okay?" he asked worriedly. "I didn't mean to take you down that hard." I nodded, but didn't answer. I was still trying to get my heart-rate to slow back down.

"So, what happened that time?" Lon asked encouraging me to dissect my performance again as Geo stepped back, still looking rather guilty. This was the eighth time we'd gone through this, and the eighth time I'd fouled things up. He had to be getting tired of getting socked in the gut.

"I got distracted," I answered, looking pointedly at Brian and AJ, who were suddenly quite occupied with *silently* watching Howie and Ryan going through some of the defense techniques we'd gone over in the past hour.

"You can't let yourself get distracted, Nick," Kevin informed me as he sauntered over from where he and Ed had been practicing. Thank you, Mr. Obvious. He was right, of course. He's almost always right it seems.

"I know. It's just hard with the cheerleaders over there."

"Go, Howie! Go Howie!" the two were currently cheering as if to emphasize my point. Unfortunately, Howie wasn't as easily distracted and he easily got out of Ryan's chokehold. That kind of undermined my excuse. Kevin, of course, noticed that too.

"You have to concentrate, Nick. Focus on the moves." Seemed to me I'd heard that about a zillion times in the past several years. Dance rehearsals and now this. And funny how it almost always came from Kevin. Of course the rest of them all seemed to pick this up really quickly. But not me. Damn it. And this wasn't like dance moves that were easy to practice alone somewhere without everyone watching.

"Okay, let's try again," Lon suggested. "Or do you need to stop for a while?"

What I needed was to start planning my escape again. This just wasn't working.

My escape attempt at the hospital had been quite pitiful. It was going to take a lot more planning than I'd expected. Especially now that Brian was on to me. Hell, he was on to me before I even managed to get off the damn floor. He knew what I was going to do before I even knew!

Okay not that I'd done anything particularly clever, I admit. I convinced the nurses to secure me a room to myself and had managed to convince Lon to let me be alone in there for a little while. So then I'd convinced Ryan (who'd been stationed outside my door) to run down the hall and get me a 'Dew and a sandwich. As soon as the hallway was clear, I'd made my move--only to find Brian waiting just around the corner. He'd scared the bejesus out of me when he'd grabbed my arm as I'd tried to breeze past him to get to the elevator.

"You're not leaving, Nick," Brian had informed me with not a trace of humor in his face. "It's not safe for you to go off on your own and you know it."

Problem was it wasn't safe for me to stay there with them, either, and I knew that, too. But of course he didn't mention that part.

"How'd you...?" I'd started to ask, bewildered how he'd known to be waiting for me around the corner.

He'd only grinned and answered, "Because I know you."

I hate being predictable.

So my escape was pathetic as ever, and now they were probably all on alert waiting for me to try again. Once again I was being kept against my will. Though I'm much rather be their prisoner than stalker guy's so, guess I can't complain that much. At least they weren't attacking me every time I turned around...well, not counting the defense-training thing we were doing now.

"I'm ready," I answered Lon. As ready as I was going to be, anyway. I wanted to get this down. Then maybe they'd let me go back to my room and leave me alone for a little while so I could plot my escape. Maybe I'd try again tomorrow night during the concert. Nobody would expect me to disappear during the concert.

"Are you sure you're okay doing this, Nick?" Ed asked. His hand dropped onto my shoulder and I did my best not to flinch away. He noticed it, though, and gave me a little reassuring smile.

"I'm fine," I answered for what seemed like the billionth time in the past couple days. I could tell that I sounded irritated, and felt a little guilty about that, but I was really getting tired of being asked that. Especially since I had to lie every time I answered.

Ed frowned a little and continued staring at me appraisingly. What did he want me to say? The truth? That even though I knew that they'd never purposely hurt me and that despite the fact that this was supposed to help me feel safer it was really just freaking me out to have them touching me? It's not like they were doing this for fun or something. This was to help me. So, I repeated myself with my complete lie. "It's all good. I'm ready to go." I forced a grin. "I can take you down," I declared with false confidence.

For a moment Ed just looked at me skeptically, but then he grinned back and nodded, accepting the challenge. He replaced Geo on the mat facing me.

I rolled my eyes as the others all gathered around the mat to watch. Had to be with an audience. I turned around so my back was to Ed and tried to make myself relax as I waited for him to strike.

"Okay, concentrate, Kid," Lon instructed. "I know you got it in you."

Yeah yeah.

I couldn't contain the yelp as Ed grabbed me suddenly. I'd known to expect it, but even that didn't help the panic much. I stepped back onto his foot as practiced and turned my body slightly so I could strike back with my elbow.

It didn't work, he didn't even let up slightly. Damn, Geo must've been going easy on me or something. I tried again, stomping down harder and driving my elbow back as hard as I could.

Ed let up slightly and I managed to squirm out of his grip a little bit. Then I turned into the attack with a punch toward his throat, like they'd shown me to do. He stumbled back, finally letting go. It was working.

"Yeah, Nick!" my cheering squad was yelling, but this time I paid them no attention. Not going to blow it that way again.

I turned to flee but felt myself being grabbed again. Damn. Again I turned into the attack so I could use his momentum against him. I grabbed his hair and using my braced leg to try and trip him up, I pulled him forward and he fell to the mat. It was actually working. HA!

I stepped over him and tried to go that direction so that he couldn't easily grab my legs. I did it! I actually did it. I got to the edge of the mat without him touching me. I won! I turned around to gloat (okay childish, I know, but hey, it was about damn time I won a round) and was surprised as Ed's hands closed on my shirt and dragged me back toward him. I hadn't realized he'd gotten up. Besides, I thought the "game" was supposed to be over once I made it off the mat! Apparently not.

I tried to step into the attack again, but this time Ed moved with me and I lost my balance and started falling face forward onto the mat. I reached out my hands to stop my fall, but Ed grabbed me again and lifted me before I hit the ground.

I thought that maybe he was doing that just so I didn't hurt myself but a moment later I realized that he was still "attacking" me. He flipped me onto my back. The moment I hit the mat I started scrambling to get up only to have Ed's suddenly barrel into me, driving me back to the ground. I gasped for breath as he landed his shoulder into my diaphragm, shoving me over onto my back. That hurt. Oh man. Right where that damn huge bruise was, he had to hit right there again. God. And now I couldn't breathe. Worse, I could feel the involuntary tears springing to my eyes. How embarrassing. I blinked them away quickly hoping nobody noticed.

I struggled the best I could but he definitely had the upper hand. Looks like I lost another round. I was *never* going to get this. Damn it, damn it, damn it! I couldn't breathe right. God, what if he like broke a rib or something and it was puncturing my lung and I was going to suffocate--

No, I'd just had the wind knocked out of me. I couldn't even call out for him to stop. I had to calm down. I let my body relax, surrendering the round. I couldn't fight while I couldn't breathe. Ed's full weight dropped onto me and I felt him grabbing my arms and pinning them to the mat. He'd already won; he didn't have to do that to prove his point. But he didn't seem to have realized that he'd won yet because he wasn't letting up at all. Couldn't he tell I wasn't fighting anymore? I know I hadn't said "stop", but I couldn't! Couldn't he tell?

I tried to call out, but still hadn't managed to get enough air in. Silently imploring him to stop, I stared straight up into his eyes.

His steel gray eyes. Staring down at me with pure malice. He had managed to get both my wrists pinned down with one of his hands, and his other hand was ripping at my blanket. No! I struggled with all my might, screaming as he tore the blanket away. A moment later his weight was dropping down on me, grinding my bare back against the cold concrete floor. Nogodplease. Stopthispleasegod.

I felt my legs roughly being forced apart so he could kneel between them. I squeezed my eyes shut, unable to stand the smug grin that showed through my attacker's mask. I couldn't breathe as I heard the sound of a snap and then a zipper being undone. The world stopped for a moment as the fear stopped my heart from beating entirely. This wasn't going to happen to me. Not to me. No. No. I'm not here, I'm not here, I'm not here. "No...stop...don't...don'ttouchme..." I gasped out.

My wrists were released and a moment later I felt his hands grip my hips, trying to force my body into an accessible position. No, damn it! I began beating at my attacker, but was aware that I barely had any strength to put behind my fists. It was useless. He was going to rape me and I couldn't stop it from happening.

My arms felt like lead weights and quickly grew too heavy for me to keep holding up and they dropped uselessly to the ground.

Nonononopleasejustletmediedontletthishappen.

I opened my eyes and stared at my attacker praying that he would stop, that this was just another of his stupid games to make me more scared of him. I hated not being able to fight better, but I was so weakened by the drugs in my system. My fist started to close again, ready for one more pitiful attempt to strike back. My fingers bumped against something. Cold metal. A pipe. With some sticky substance on it. Blood. My blood. It must have been the pipe he'd used to hit me with before, I imagined, wanting to fling that pipe far away so it couldn't be used against me again. Wait. No. Better idea! Oh god, please let this work!

I struggled to get my fingers closed around the pipe as I felt his body shifting into place.

"NO!" I screamed as I managed to close my hand around the pipe and swung it as hard as I could, striking him across his back. He yelled out as I struck again. I swung yet again but this time he shifted his body so that he could grab my wrist to stop the blow. I'm not sure where the inspiration came from, but my body seemed to be moving on its own at that point. The moment his body shifted, I rolled over and scrambled to get up. I felt him grabbing at my leg and kicked out as hard as I could. Though I was still dizzy and overly weak, adrenaline had kicked in and I managed to knock him back a little bit. I turned on him, kicking violently at him, not caring where I hit as long as I hit. Maybe, just maybe, I'd get out of this yet.

I heard him scream as one of the blows apparently struck somewhere effective and he curled in on himself, obviously in extreme pain. I had a fairly good idea where that must've struck and barely controlled the insane impulse to laugh as I snatched up my discarded blanket and shuffled as fast as I could to the hallway. My body was in so much pain but I couldn't stop. This would probably be my last chance at escape.

I glanced toward the elevator but decided that it was too dangerous to wait for it. So I wrapped the blanket tight around me as I made my way to the noisy room as fast as my weak body allowed. My legs didn't want to hold me up, and I felt so lightheaded that I was afraid that I was going to pass out at any moment, but I forced myself to keep going.

I made it to the room. Now all I had to do was get to the windows. I felt tears streaking down my face but ignored them as I climbed toward the window. Freedom. So close. So close. I pushed the window out. It wasn't big enough! I'd never fit through that! I was too damn big. No. Please. I had to get out. I was well aware that I wouldn't get another chance. This was it.

I heard something behind me and turned to see my assailant in the doorway. NO! I didn't care if I wasn't going to fit. I'd *make* myself fit! I started trying to squeeze through the window. It worked a lot better than I expected it to. It was a tight fit, but not nearly as tight as I expected. I probably should have ditched the blanket before trying to go through, it was slowing me down.

I was halfway through the window, and if I reached out, I could probably actually touch the grass outside. I was so close!

I felt a hand closing around my ankle, trying to pull me back inside. I started thrashing my body, and threw my arms out wide so that I wouldn't be able to be pulled back through the window. Nononono. "Don't touch me! Let me go!" I kicked at my attacker and tried my best to not let myself get dragged back inside, but I could feel myself losing ground. For every inch I managed to haul myself forward, I was pulled two inches back. "NOOOO!" I screamed as loud as I could. It sounded weak to me, but I kept screaming anyway. I was almost outside. Maybe there someone could hear me out there? "Help me!"

I sucked in my breath and gave one more scream with everything I had. And then suddenly he let me go. I pulled myself the rest of the way through the window and grabbed the blanket tight around me as I scrambled to my feet. I could feel the grass between my toes! I was free! I limped across the lawn, never looking back. I was so dizzy and knew I was probably going to pass out shortly, but I was going to get as far away from there as I possibly could first.

I felt a hand on my shoulder and screamed. No! I was free! I was free, damn it!

I screamed and tried to pull away from whoever it was. I could feel someone shaking me and trying to turn me around. I continued to shriek wildly and flailed my arms trying to strike my attacker. Hands gripped my wrists, trying to still my arms, while another hand was rubbing my back and one was stroking my hair. Too many hands. Way too many hands!

"Shhhh. It's okay, you're safe," Brian's voice broke through my screams.

I stopped lashing out and turned to look at him. What was he doing here outside? Except we weren't outside. We were still in the gym.

It had happened again.

I stared at Brian for a few moments then let my eyes drift toward the others. Ed was standing just a few feet away, watching me intently with an odd expression on his face. "I'm sorry, Kid," he was saying, backing farther away from me. "I didn't realize..."

I hadn't meant to flip out on him. I didn't mean to do this. It just kept happening! I felt my eyes tearing up yet again and quickly turned away from them so they wouldn't be able to see it. Except Kevin was standing behind me. My eyes met his for a moment before I lowered mine, hoping he couldn't see how close I was to losing it.

He gave me an encouraging little smile and stepped closer, reaching out toward me. I could see his lips moving, but couldn't seem to hear him. Which was actually okay because I knew he was probably asking me if I was okay. Or if I wanted to talk to him, or tell them all what happened. Tell them all how the guy had nearly raped me.

God, he'd almost raped me. I felt my legs giving out and suddenly Kevin was holding me up. "You're okay," he told me as he wrapped his arms around my trembling body.

No. Don't touch me. Don't touch me! I nearly toppled over backward as I tried desperately to get away from him. He let go immediately, staring at me with wide apologetic eyes. Kev, I'm sorry; I'm sorry! I can't do this.

"Okay, I won't touch you," he whispered sadly. Oh god I'd said that aloud? I glanced around at the others. Did they know? They knew. It was obvious they knew. What they probably thought of me. Pathetic! I pushed past them without a word and fled toward the hall. I just needed out of there. Away from everybody. I don't want to be like this! I don't want them to see me shaking and crying and being so pitiful.

"Nick!" I heard Brian's voice sounding muffled as if he were speaking through water.

"Let him go," AJ's voice boomed. "He's freaked. Just give 'm a minute." That's right, I'm a freak. No, he didn't call me a freak, he said I was freaked. I'm a freak anyway.

"He shouldn't be alone." Cuz I can't protect myself.

"--ust need to make sure he's okay!" I'm not okay I'm not okay I'm not okay can't you see I'm not okay? Do I have to spell it out? Don't make me say it! If I don't say it, it didn't happen. It didn't happen.


I could barely see through the tears as I rushed down the hall as fast as I could, cursing my leg brace with every step. As if I could really outrun anyone with that stupid thing! I hurried toward the elevator, anyway.

I could hear footsteps pounding behind me, sounding like they were amplified about 20000 times. I wanted to scream with frustration and tell whoever it was to let me be. Just let me go up to my room, guys. Leave me alone! I slammed my fist against the elevator button as I reached it. Damn, have to learn not to give in to my temper like that. Or maybe I should give in to it more often? Then nobody would mess with me.

I clutched my hand and waited for the elevator to get there. Please get there before whoever's following me catches up.

The elevator door opened and I stepped on.

I looked up and saw Brian headed toward the elevator and just reached out to press one of the buttons--I didn't even care which one--hoping that the door would close before he caught up.

No such luck. He wasn't that far behind and he moved a lot faster than I did. He stepped onto the elevator, staring at me intently, but not saying a word. I closed my eyes and leaned back against the wall of the elevator pretending I was alone. I could hear Brian breathing, though, so it kinda ruined the illusion.

The elevator door closed and it started moving downward. Oh great, I'd managed to hit the basement button. Fitting. Sinking to all new lows in every respect. I sank to the floor of the elevator, burying my face in my hands. I heard Brian moving and the elevator stopped a few moments later. He sat down next to me, but thankfully was careful not to touch me. I could feel him staring at me, though, and turned my face away from his. Like he couldn't tell I was crying anyway? I tried not to feel guilty as I heard him sigh.

To Brian's credit, he stayed quiet long enough that I nearly forgot he was actually there. And he'd obviously pulled the stop button so I could have a few minutes without anyone else bothering me. As soon as I had the tears under control I turned my face back toward him. He was still watching me intently, obviously worried.

I offered a small smile, surprising myself as I realized that I actually was glad he was there watching over me.

"I know you don't want to talk about it," Brian finally broke the silence. "But you know, no matter what happened, we're all here for you, bro. And if you want to talk..." he looked at me pointedly.

So I could tell them all the horrifying details. And see the look of disgust on their faces when I told them what had happened. I started turning away.

Brian's hand fell lightly on my shoulder, pulling back quickly as I flinched. "No matter what happened, Nick," he stressed again. Did he really mean that? I could tell him *anything*? He probably already knew anyway. He'd been there when the doc told me about the drug. But the way he'd tensed up when she'd discussed the possibility. What if he--

"He tried to rape me," I blurted out. "I remember it." I actually said it. Out loud. That meant it really happened. I stared at Brian, waiting for him to tell me how gross I was or to ask me why I'd let it happen, what I'd done to make the guy do it. I didn't know how I was going to answer. I didn't know the answer.

Brian's eyes closed for a moment and he took a deep breath. I started moving farther away from him. I shouldn't have told him. I knew he wouldn't understand. I knew he wouldn't--

"--That bastard," Brian blurted out. I looked over at him and his face paled as he realized that he'd said that aloud. Welcome to my world, Bri. "Sorry. God, Nick...Are you okay?" I nodded out of habit. "Really?" No. I really wasn't. I shook my head, the tears spilling forth yet again. He wrapped his arms around me before I even realized he had started to move. My instinct was to pull away, but as Brian began apologizing and pulling back again, I changed my mind, sinking into his embrace. "Do you...want to talk about it?" Brian asked carefully after I'd calmed down again.

I shook my head. "Can't," I whispered my admission.

"It's okay," he said softly. "No matter what, Nick, you can talk to me. To any of us. You know that right?"

I stared at him for a few moments and could see the complete sincerity in his eyes. Even after what I'd already told him. And for the first time since I'd gotten back...I believed him. "I know. I will, Bri. Thanks...Just not yet, okay?"

He nodded. "You got it." He looked up at the elevator buttons. "Now...you ready to give the elevator back?" he grinned as he ruffled my hair a little. I grinned back and nodded, picturing a crowd of people standing around impatiently waiting for the elevator. Among them was Kev. And his eyebrows were growing scarier by the moment. Brian reached up and pushed the stop button back in. The elevator finished its decent. "We'll get out here and let people use it a couple minutes, huh?" Brian suggested as he stood up and reached down to pull me to my feet. "That way we won't have a lot of people getting in with us back on main floor," he explained.

I nodded and accepted his hand up as the door slid open.

Fuck.

No way.

I didn't even realize I was moving out of the elevator until I heard the door sliding shut behind me. I whirled around to try and catch it. No! Don't leave me here, don't leave me here! I fumbled as I tried to press the button. It was too late, the elevator was gone. No, don't leave me here!

"Nick?" Brian was a thousand miles away again. "Nick, what is it?"

But I couldn't answer.

I was too busy sprawling on my hands and knees and yarping on the floor. Sorry, housekeeping.

"Nick?!"

I looked up helplessly as he dropped down beside me, peering at me worriedly. He couldn't figure out what had set me off this time.

But why would he figure it out? He couldn't know. It never would have occurred to me, either.

After all, why would anyone guess that I'd been held prisoner right there in the damn hotel? Right under all of their noses? Who would have guessed that I'd been locked down here in the damn basement and tortured for six days? That they'd been so close, but unable to hear my screams.

That my attacker could still be hiding out somewhere here in the fucking hotel.
Underground Information by Chaos
"Want to tell me what happened?" Brian asked as he sat next to me. He handed me a towel he'd grabbed from the noisy room with all the fans and windows. The laundry room. My memory of the room made sense now. I'd seen the laundry bins, but hadn't even questioned why they were there. It would also explain where my captor had found the towel he'd given me after he'd made me "shower". I wondered if what I'd assumed was a car trunk I'd been lifted out of in the beginning there had actually been one of those laundry bins. And what I'd thought was a breeze was probably the fans. I'd never been outside at all. I'd probably just been brought downstairs in a damn laundry cart. That's why nobody had noticed me being taken. It kind of made sense now that I thought about it.

I wiped my mouth and moved away from the mess on the floor, throwing the towel over it. I leaned back against the wall, not trusting myself to get up just yet.

"This is where I was," I explained to Brian in a shaky voice. That didn't seem to lessen his confusion. He only continued to stare at me as though he thought I was about to explode. Which was actually a preferable fate than telling him what I was talking about.

"You were here? When? During the blackout?" he asked, trying to clarify. He was really going to freak when I told him that the entire time I'd been missing--the entire time they'd worried themselves sick over what had happened to me--I had been just a few floors away.

I could only imagine what Kevin was going to do when he found *that* out. I mean...all that time, I'd been right there in the same building with them. And nobody had found me.

It really bothered me, actually. If I were there in the building the whole time, it meant that the FBI had obviously not done a thorough search of the entire place.

That didn't exactly make me feel any better about having them in charge of my case. They couldn't find me--who desperately wanted to be found--in one small (okay large, but still) building for six days? How, then, would they find my kidnapper--who obviously wouldn't want to be found--in a whole freaking world?

That didn't make me feel very confident of them ever finding the guy. There was little doubt that he'd find me first. I shuddered and Brian moved closer, looking even more worried.

I suppose that it makes sense that nobody seriously considered that I was still there in the hotel. I wouldn't think it that common that somebody be held prisoner in the same building they'd been abducted from--and the room had left no question that it was a kidnapping.

Even if they'd thought to search the building it would have been more likely to look in guestrooms or something, because nobody other than hotel staff would likely go down in the basement. It was also obvious that not even the hotel staff was really using the storage room. After all, there was a layer of dust over everything in there...except where my captor or me had disturbed it. So why would anyone think to look in there?

Still, these people were the FBI. They were supposed to think of things like that. That's what they were being paid for. Right?

I shook my head in answer to Brian's question. I looked over toward the storage room door for a few moments. "I was here," I repeated carefully, before turning back to look at him. "The entire time."

Brian's eyes widened. "When you were..."

I nodded and motioned toward the storage room door. "In there. That's where he...kept me."

Brian's face paled and he looked over at the door as if it were the doorway to Hell itself. I had to agree with the assessment.

"Here?" he asked incredulously.

I could only nod in response.

Brian got up and started moving toward the door. He was going to open it. I struggled to get up so I could stop him. "Don't, Bri...I don't want to see in there."

He stopped and looked back at me and nodded, looking somewhat relieved. Guess he didn't really want to look in there either. "Okay. We should get you back upstairs and call those agent guys to come look anyway. So we don't like disturb any evidence."

Yeah. Get me away from there. Far away. Like how about another state or two away from here? I turned back to the elevator and pressed the button.

And then I pressed it again to make the elevator come faster.

I heard Brian pulling something from his pocket and glanced over. His cell phone. He quickly punched in a number. One he had memorized. Probably security. Or maybe he was calling Kev to warn him that we were on our way up and I was about to flip out again.

Brian hit send and he leaned against the wall, waiting for someone to answer. I pressed the elevator button yet again. It had been a couple minutes. Surely everyone waiting in the lobby had finished using it and it should be returning. Why wasn't the elevator back yet? Something was wrong. Little alarm bells were going off in my mind. I swore I could actually hear them ringing. I closed my eyes and concentrated on my breathing. Just had to stay calm.

"Do you hear that?" Brian's tense voice broke my concentration.

I opened one eye and glanced at him. The blood was draining from his face. Great. If he was going to panic, where did that leave me? I was the one freaking out here! And what was it he was hearing? My little internal alarms? The way my heart was starting to pound?

Brian looked toward the storage room again. He hung up his phone.

The alarms stopped going off.

He hit redial.

A few moments later, they started again.

And I realized they weren't in my head after all. The ringing was coming from the storage room. From the phone Brian was trying to call.

The elevator doors slid open, but neither Brian or I made any movement to step on. We were both frozen in place.

My eyes widened and I stared at Brian's phone. Who was he trying to call? God, had he called the kidnapper? Was the guy just sitting down here waiting to come get me again? For one insane moment I felt my stomach clench as my mind asked the worst question yet: was Brian somehow in on it?

No. Anything but that! I heard a muffled whimper coming from somewhere and when Brian's gaze turned fully on me, I realized I'd made it. My eyes locked with his. He looked as freaked as I felt. Which was actually quite a relief. If he was freaked, that meant he wasn't in on it. I felt really guilty for even letting myself consider that! But then...who was he trying to call? Please don't let it be Kevin...No, Kevin wouldn't be involved in this any more than Brian would be. Stop thinking like that!

Brian hung up the phone again and the ringing stopped. We needed to get out of there. I pressed the elevator button again, cursing myself for not having gotten on the elevator when we'd had the chance.

I pressed the button several more times.

Then I realized that Brian was moving away from me. And heading toward the storage room door.

"No, Brian...don't go in there. He's in there..."

Brian glanced back at me, giving me a sympathetic look, but he kept moving toward the storage room door. He tried the knob. I flinched away, expecting someone to leap out and grab him.

Except that the door didn't open.

It was locked.

I frowned. If the door was locked, then how come the guy who'd grabbed me had been able to get in there? And how had someone's phone gotten in there? Was it one of the hotel staff who'd done it? Some whacked out housekeeper? Why would they pick me though? Had I left the room a mess once too often or something?

Maybe I was wrong. Maybe all those "memories" I'd been having weren't real after all. This was just all one huge mistake. I hadn't been here before at all.

That was just...stupid. Of course I'd been here. Otherwise how would I have "remembered" the place. And I bet I could describe the inside of that room pretty good without even opening the door.

But that's about the last thing I wanted to do. I didn't want to remember the room. Didn't want to remember the pipe I'd been chained to when he'd beaten me, didn't want to remember the corner where I'd huddled, trying unsuccessfully to protect myself.

Brian was dialing his phone again. I closed my eyes and leaned my head against the wall. I really just wanted to bang my head against the wall a few times, but past experience has taught me that doesn't really help anything and ends up giving me a nasty headache. So instead I just leaned against it.

"It's Brian. You might want to call the police and come down here..." Brian was telling whoever he'd called without any sort of introduction. I opened my eyes and looked over at him again. "Yeah the police...no, it's nothing like...yeah he's here. We're okay but..." He paused, listening to the person on the other side. "Just come down here, Lon. We're in the basement. There's something you should see..."

After a few more moments, Brian hung up his phone and came back over to me. "You doing okay?" he asked. Why wouldn't I be doing okay? Just because I was standing at the mouth of my own personal hell? What was he crazy? Of course I wasn't okay!

I shivered involuntarily. "I want to go back upstairs..." I informed him, unable to make myself speak much louder than a whisper. I wrapped my arms around myself, suddenly feeling cold. Of course that's why I was shaking. Couldn't be because I was freaked out beyond belief.

"We'll go in a minute. Lon's on his way down here, though, so we should wait for him. I don't want you wanderin' off by yourself."

I had to reluctantly agree with his logic. I didn't want to be alone either. God, I was constantly going back and forth on that! Why couldn't I make up my mind? It's like one moment I was upset and wanting to be far away from everyone, the next I'd be upset and wanting to cling to everyone. Well...at least I was consistent about the upset thing? I swear if it was this hard for me to figure out my mood swings, it must've been damn near impossible for everyone around me to figure them out.

As if to prove that, Brian was seemingly studying me looking as though he were trying to decide whether he should try to physically comfort me or not. He started to reach toward me only to let his hand hover there, not dropping down to touch my shoulder. He looked almost as frustrated as I felt. "Are you cold?" he asked finally, choosing the tactful way to ask about my shaking.

I nodded slightly, not quite able to look into his eyes, afraid to see the pity that would be there. He hesitated a moment then hurried down the hall back toward the laundry room. A few moments later he returned and placed a blanket around my shoulders.

My blanket.

No. That was being held for evidence, this was a different one. I pulled it tight around me anyway, never wanting to let go. God, I was like a little kid, like a blanket could protect me from anything? I knew better. But still, it's not like having a blanket would hurt any...

I let myself slide down the wall into a sitting position, my good leg drawn up with my knee against my chest. I leaned my head against my knee and closed my eyes, just focusing on breathing.

It seemed like an eternity of listening to Brian pacing before the elevator dinged and the door slid open again. I heard several people moving past me, but didn't look up. I was too afraid I would see my captor. My head was telling me that it was Lon with the other security guys, but that didn't help calm my nerves.

I could hear Brian talking with Lon and Jack, but wasn't really even paying attention to what was being said. I did, however, become aware of the fact that there were suddenly people on each side of me, kneeling down next to me. I glanced one direction and saw Howie. In the other, Kevin. I offered each a small smile to let them know I wasn't freaking out. Right.

"Are you sure you should go in there? The police will be here in a few minutes. Maybe you should wait for them?" Kevin suddenly spoke up. Unlike me, he'd obviously been paying attention to Brian and security.

I looked up and saw that one of the hotel security men was standing at the doorway of my former prison with an access card poised and ready to insert into the card entry thing. Don't open that. I don't want to see in there.

Yet I couldn't look away again. I held my breath and all noise faded away except the small click the lock made as the card was inserted.

"You want to go upstairs?" Howie's voice floated toward me from miles away.

I nodded, but made no move to get up. I did want to go but I was frozen. Like the after-effect of an explosion. You don't want to see the carnage but you just can't tear your eyes away.

The security guard was turning the knob.

I saw my body strung up with hands tied to a pipe overhead. Someone else's disgusting hands were violating it.

NO! That wasn't happening. I couldn't really see that. The door wasn't even open yet!

Howie had his hand on my arm and was pulling me to my feet.

Now the door was opening.

I saw my body sprawled on the storage room floor writhing to escape from the vile human maggot on top of it. My body's mouth was open as if trying to scream, but a hand was clenched around its throat, preventing so much as even a little noise. My attacker's masked face started turning toward me, a malevolent smirk spreading across his face as he saw me watching what he was doing to my body.

Kevin was calling my name from the vast distance between us. I couldn't turn my head to look for him.

A light was being turned on.

Blood.

So much blood.

Everywhere.

And the smell...

I was going to vomit again. Except my stomach was already empty. "Oh fuck!" AJ yelled. And then he was getting sick for me. Good. Now I didn't have to. The hotel security guy quickly whisked him away down the hall to the little bathroom, Howie following them. I'm not sure if he was going to make sure that AJ was okay or whether he was about to blow his lunch too.

Brian was swearing. Wait that couldn't be right; Brian doesn't cuss. But he was, and a fine old string of profanity it was, at that. His face had gone completely white, but like me he couldn't stop staring into the room. I wondered if he could see the atrocities being done to my body. Except, I realized that my body wasn't there anymore.

Someone else's was.

I couldn't see a face, only a hand. A few inches--just out of reach--from the hand was a cellphone. I stepped slightly to the right so I could see the arm attached to the hand. From there, I could see a puddle of blood...with a person's body lying crumpled within it. Even without seeing the face I recognized him. Agent Walters. God. I hadn't liked him much, I admit, but...he was dead.

"No." I shook my head. He couldn't be dead. He was a highly trained federal agent. "No." He was working on my case, and now he was dead. "No."

Lon was suddenly standing in front of me, blocking my view of the body.

"Get him out of here," Lon was saying to Kevin, his voice sounding higher than I've ever heard it. He didn't sound like his usual professional nothing-gets-to-him self. He sounded like he was fighting hard to stay in control of the situation, but was losing the battle.

"Come on, Nick. Let's go upstairs. You don't want to see this..." Kevin was saying softly.

I told them I didn't want to see it. I told them I told them I told them...

I pushed past Kevin and peered farther into the room. There was Harris, his lifeless eyes staring up at me unblinking. He almost looked as though he were made of wax. He couldn't be dead. I shook my head again. "No..."

"Nick, come on, little bro," Kevin put his arm around me, leading me away from the door. He pushed the elevator button. He shouldn't have bothered. The elevator never comes when I want it to. "It's okay. We're getting you out of here."

The door slid open.

How come it works for Kevin but not for me? He gently pulled me into the elevator then stood with his hand on the door to keep it open. "Brian, you should come, too, you don't want to stay here and look at that..."

Agreeing, Jack pushed Brian away from the doorway and guided him to the elevator as well. As soon as they were on the elevator, Kevin let the door shut and turned his attention on me.

He stepped closer...into my personal space. But I didn't make him back off. I was too numb to react.

People were dead.

Because of me.

His arms were around me, but I didn't have the strength to either push him off or return the hug. I wasn't sure which I wanted to do even if I did have the strength.

"God...Nick. You...we could have lost you..." he was saying.

That would have been better. Than nobody else would be dead. Walters and Harris would be alive. Maybe they'd be looking for me still, but they'd be alive. God, what if they had wives or kids...? Widows and orphans.

Because of ME.

Jack turned the security key so that it would bypass all the floors in between the basement and our floor.

The entire ride up, Kevin just kept blubbering about how sorry he was for what I must have gone through. It wasn't often that we got to see tough big brother Kevin blubbering, so I really wish I could enjoy it, but all I could think about was that those two men had been killed.

The elevator door slid open and Brian and Jack stepped off. A few moments later, Kevin seemed to realize that he was keeping me trapped there and he stepped off.

But I was still frozen in place. I didn't want to move. I stared at the key that Jack had left in the elevator to keep it from leaving. He was probably going back downstairs once we were "safe" in our rooms. I watched the others, who were still walking down the hall toward the rooms, not having noticed that I wasn't following.

Those men were dead. Caught in the crossfire. Casualties of my war.

I looked at the key again, a smile crossing my face. I knew what to do now. I pressed the button for the top floor and the door started to slide shut.

Just before it finished I saw Kevin turn. Our eyes connected for just a moment, but in that moment he saw everything. He knew what I was going to do.

"Nick, NO!" I heard him yelling and saw him turning to catch the elevator. But it was too late for him. The door was shut and I was on my way.

Nobody else was ever going to get killed because they were too close to ground zero. I wasn't going to let my friends die, like those men had. I wasn't worth it.

I closed my eyes and leaned back against the elevator wall, honestly relaxing for what seemed to be the first time in days. It was almost over. The elevator reached the top floor and I stepped out. Immediately I began walking down the hall, looking for the stairwell entrance. There it was, straight ahead. With just the sign I was looking for on it.

Roof Access.

Perfect.

I pushed open the door and started climbing. I could hear voices far below me.

"Nick. Stop!"

"Jesus, Frack, don't!"

"Damn it, Carter, get your ass back down here!"

Kevin. Brian. Even Jack. They didn't understand that I was doing this for them. For everyone, really. I had nothing left to lose other than them. But they could be saved. My pain would end and they would be free.

I practically flew to the top of that last set of steps and pushed the door open. Just a few more strides and I was standing on top of the world.

Well on top of a ledge, but that was as close as I was going to get.

The blanket I had wrapped around me was caught in the wind and was billowing around me as if it were a cape. The wind felt good against my cheeks and blowing through my hair. I tilted my head so I could look up at the sun and bathe in its glow one final time.

I closed my eyes, wishing I could feel the sun's warmth, but there was only cold left for me. This was the right thing to do.

Still clutching the blanket in my fists, I raised my arms. I imagined myself as a bird, the blanket my wings.

*I wonder if I'll really fly.*
Double Agent by Chaos
I heard the door from the stairs bang open. It was now or never. One little step and I'd be free. In all honesty, this really wasn't the way I wanted to go. If I had my choice, I'd rather be out on my boat and just drift endlessly into oblivion. But my boat is hundreds or maybe even thousands of miles away. I'm bad at geography; sue me. Maybe I should go home after all. Then I *could* go out on my boat. And nobody could get to me there. Of course that would mean facing my family. I didn't want them to see me like this but, if they've turned on a television in the past couple days they already have seen me like this. So, fuck it. What's the point?

Someone was coming up behind me; I could feel it.

Time to go.

I took a deep breath and inched my body forward, still not quite able to convince myself to actually jump. I wanted to, but I just couldn't seem to convince my feet of that. I just needed to move a couple more inches and everything would be fine. But I couldn't do it. Damn it, why couldn't I do this? It would make everything better if only I could end it! I wouldn't be in pain; my friends wouldn't be in danger and wouldn't have to worry about taking care of me and everything. There wouldn't be any more pain and humiliation. No more nightmares or visions of my body being violated. My soul would be free.

I closed my eyes, forcing myself forward another half inch. Maybe if I didn't look, it would be easier. I wanted to die. Didn't I? Wasn't that what I wanted? It was! I was sure of it!

So why couldn't I get my feet to move? I could do this. Raise one foot. Good, see, knew I could do it. Now just step forward. Damn it, step forward.

"NICKY, DON'T!!!!" I heard Brian's voice screaming.

My eyes flew open and I started to turn as I felt someone grabbing frantically at me from behind. Unfortunately, whoever it was set me off balance, sending my body twisting around to face them. I tried to compensate but in my haste, I stepped backward and toppled off the ledge.

For one insane moment I felt just like that coyote guy must have in those old Road Runner cartoons. You know that moment where he steps off the edge of the cliff and just hangs there for a few moments before he starts falling. That moment where suddenly he whips out that sign that says "Oops" or "Uh-oh". Talk about an understatement! I think my sign would be a lot more...colorful than that.

I know in reality I couldn't have actually been suspended there for even a second or two, but it sure seemed like it. It was like slow motion, or someone hit the pause button for a moment or something. There was nothing but air below me, but I wasn't falling. I just had that sick feeling in my stomach as I realized that I was about to go plummeting down a dozen stories to splat on the sidewalk below. And unlike Wile E., I probably wasn't gonna get up looking like an accordion--but otherwise okay--and get to start over.

FUCK!!!!!

In that moment I was frozen in the air, I saw Kevin's eyes wide with panic and his mouth rounded in a shocked little "o". His hands were still clinging to my blanket. He'd been the one grabbing me. And he would probably never forgive himself for this. I wished there were time for me to tell him that I didn't blame him, but of course there wasn't.

I heard Brian's voice screaming something, but didn't have time to decipher what it was. I was too busy falling. Someone had pressed the pause button again and things were starting to play out. There was nothing but air below me, and gravity was doing its job.

I didn't mean it! Well I did, but I was wrong! I didn't want to die! No! Please, God!

In an odd answer to my plea, I slammed hard into the side of the building. But suddenly I wasn't falling anymore. Why wasn't I falling? My feet were definitely not on solid ground. I was too afraid to move even a little in case whatever was holding me there decided to stop.

Whatever was holding me there, turned out to be Kevin. "Ohgodhelpme. NICK! Hold on! Don't let go! HELP ME!" How was I supposed to help him? I was way too busy clinging to my lifeline for dear life. My fingers were completely immobile; I couldn't have let go of the rope if I'd wanted to. Rope? Where'd that come from? No, not a rope; the blanket. See, I told you security blankets worked. Sorta.

I felt myself being dragged upward, scraping against the bricks. After being hauled up several feet I felt hands grabbing my wrists frantically. Hard enough I could feel the bones grating together, which hurt tremendously, but under the circumstances, it also was rather reassuring. Whoever it was wouldn't let me fall.

I looked up and saw that it was Brian and Jack hauling me back up. Each one had one of my wrists. My arms felt like they were being pulled out of their sockets, but still I couldn't let go of the blanket. I was completely frozen. But it didn't matter because a few moments later, I was on the right side of the ledge and my feet were back on solid ground. I was alive.

And for the moment anyway, relieved to be so. I never thought I'd feel that way again. I actually wanted to be alive. I turned to thank Kevin...and maybe make fun of him for knocking me off the ledge in the first place. Maybe not appropriate, but I hoped it would keep me from getting the inevitable guilt-inducing speech. I forgot about the teasing, though, the moment our eyes connected. He was still clinging to the blanket the same way I was. Like if either of us let go, I would instantly be plummeting to my death again.

"You stupid kid," Jack was swearing. "What the fuck do you think you were doing?"

Wasn't it obvious enough for you, Jack?

Of course I didn't say anything. I didn't need to. Everyone knew exactly what I'd been doing. It didn't need to be said aloud. I felt stupid enough, thanks.

"Nick..." Kevin was reaching toward me, but he didn't quite manage to touch me because something suddenly knocked me out of the way.

It took a moment to realize that Brian had pounced on me, knocking me over. And right as I realized that, I felt a harsh blow to my face. What the HELL? I tried to ask him, but he didn't give me a chance. His fist pulled back and was swinging toward my face again. Damn it wasn't one black eye enough?

And then he was being dragged off of me. I blinked, trying to get my bearings. Then immediately looked around for him. Jack was holding him back as he struggled wildly to get at me again. It took me a few moments to register that he was screaming at me. "You ever do anything like that again and I swear to GOD I will kill you myself." That's not a threat Brian would make lightly either. His words were angry, but when our eyes met, I saw that it wasn't rage that was driving him to attack me. I turned away quickly, unable to deal with the look of total devastation I had caused.

I wanted to apologize but I couldn't even find the words. That look alone was worse than any number of Kevin's speeches. Sorry, Brian! I didn't mean it! I wanted to tell him that, but I couldn't. I had meant it. At least until I'd actually started falling, I'd meant it.

Kevin was right there, immediately. "It's okay, Nicky. You just scared the hell out of him. He didn't mean to hit you." I could actually feel Kevin glaring at Brian as he said that. Brian did mean it, though; I could tell. He'd meant every punch. Not that I hold it against him; I'd probably do the same thing if our positions were reversed and I'd seen him nearly get himself killed. If he'd made me feel the way I'd made him feel. I knew the feeling of total helplessness and desolation all too well. And I'd caused it. As Kevin talked, I stared at Brian, who stared back at me with equal intensity, but neither of us said a word.

"Let's get you inside, okay?" Kevin continued, leading me away from the ledge quickly. He wrapped the end of the blanket he was still holding around me as we walked, but I still couldn't seem to bring myself to let go of my end. My fingers were still frozen, seemingly forever melded to the fabric. I felt like my body was turning to stone. Or considering how cold I felt, maybe one of those ice sculpture things. Could you imagine posing for one of those?

I was walking, but only because Kevin was prodding me along. Otherwise I don't know if I would ever have moved again. I was too busy realizing the enormity of what I had almost done.

I had almost killed myself. I'd nearly succeeded where my assailant had failed. And that scared me as much--if not more--than the flashes of memory that kept bombarding me. I didn't want to die like that. Going down without a fight wasn't my style. And especially I didn't ever want to cause Brian or anyone else to ever have that haunted look on their face again.

I don't remember going down the stairs. Or being led into one of the hotel rooms. Or even lying down in the bed. I was aware of Kevin gently trying to pry my fingers open to release the blanket but he gave up when I didn't relent. I couldn't. I wasn't ready to let go yet. He settled for pulling the blanket off the other bed and tucking it around me before gently tousling my hair and moving away from the bed. I was also aware of Brian sitting on the edge of the bed just staring at me, his expression a mixture of hurt and concern. At least he didn't have that same stricken look anymore.

I stared back at him, silently apologizing, wanting to promise him that I'd never do that again. I couldn't say the words, but I think he knew anyway because after a few moments he smiled a little, the worry fading as I smiled back.

I closed my eyes; too exhausted to keep them open any longer. But I didn't sleep. Instead I listened as everyone slowly gathered. I heard AJ asking what was going on and Kevin telling him, Howie, and who knew who all else all about it. I stopped listening to the words and focused instead on the sound of my heartbeat still pounding in my ears. Maybe if I listened to the steady rhythm long enough it would relax me. Because the indistinct whispering sounds were just making me feel sick. I knew it wasn't my attacker whispering, but it had the same effect. I shivered involuntarily.

"Shh. It's okay," Brian spoke in a low voice as he stroked my hair gently. He must've seen the minor quaking under the covers. I nodded, but didn't open my eyes. For several minutes I just lay there, trying to relax. Brian did his best to help, but the whispering was still getting into me. So why didn't I just ask them to go away or at least speak up or something? Come on, like I really would? It's embarrassing!

Finally I gave up on the idea of relaxing enough to sleep a little and started listening to what they were saying again. Maybe if I listened to the words instead of the hushed tones it wouldn't bother me so much.

"We have to cancel," I heard Kevin saying. Cancel? "He's not up to it. He needs some time off." Oh.

"Maybe it'd be better for him to get back into a routine, though," I heard a voice I couldn't place argue. Probably another of the management team.

"Damn it, he nearly killed himself today," Kevin sounded like he was barely containing his anger. Thanks for telling everyone, Kev. "He needs time to get himself back together. Last thing he needs is to worry about the tour and disappointing fans." Well actually I hadn't been worrying about that yet really, but now that he mentioned it... "We've rescheduled before. People will understand; they know what he's been through." No they don't. Not even I know what I've been through, and I sure as hell don't understand. "At least enough of it that they'll--"

"We think it will send the wrong message if we postpone more concerts. It will make things harder for him when he returns. I'm not asking that he performs tomorrow, but we shouldn't postpone any more shows. There's already a lot of speculation--"

Great. Speculation. Wonder what they're *speculating* about me now. You'd think I would be used to being *speculated* about by now. But it still makes me feel really weird. And in this case really humiliated since I bet I could guess a few of the rumors that were probably making the rounds. And many of them were probably at least close to being true. How was I supposed to face the fans after something like this? How was I supposed to deal with them wanting to touch me and hug me? I should just go home. My family has seen the damage by now anyway, what with every newspaper and television station plastering my rather pathetic new look all over the place. So there's really no point in not going home now. And it's not like the psycho would be able to follow me there. Right?

"I don't care about the *speculation*," Kevin shot back. I think everyone feels the need to emphasize that word for some reason. It's just one of those words, ya know? "I care about Nick getting through this. He should go home until they catch this guy." See, Kevin thinks I should go home too. So it's not just like me being all wimpy and running away. "And I don't think he'll leave the tour if we continue it. We should take a few weeks so he can rest. And he'll be safer at home. And he can maybe talk to somebody about this before he does anything drastic again. I think it'd be best for him--"

"Maybe what would be best for him is to get back into a normal routine. We can hire a therapist to travel with him if you would like."

Great, they were deciding what was best for me. And talking like I was crazy or something. Hiring someone for me to talk to--if I would like or if Kevin would like? Maybe they should ask me before they go making all these plans.

"Maybe you should ask him what he wants," Howie stepped in. Thanks, Howie. I'd been about to step in and mention that myself, but since he did, I just stayed quiet. I guess I was kind of curious where this was going to go.

"Kevin, I know you're all worried, and I don't blame you, but you're moving out first thing in the morning. We think it best that you guys continue the tour. The longer you stay off stage, the worse the fans are going to assume he is." Great. "Even if he's not there, the fans will be comforted by the fact that you guys are, which will mean that you're confident that he's going to be fine. So, no more discussion about it. You'll be in Phoenix by noon and they're expecting you guys--you, Howie, Brian, and AJ at any rate, Nick only if he's feeling up to it--at the arena by 3pm for light and sound checks." After a moment he added, "We all agree it will be good for him to get away from *here*, right?" That's what I've been saying (well, thinking anyway) all along. I never wanted to come back to the hotel. And once we were out of here, I wouldn't ever look back. I'd have to make sure we never scheduled any more concerts here. Sorry, local fans. "He can decide if he wants to come with us or if he wants to go home. Whichever way he chooses, we're behind him," Management Guy X said supportively. "We'll send Lon and Ed with him if he wants." There was a switch. Usually you could yarp up a kidney in the morning and they'd still expect you to perform that night. But of course I'm not bitter. "But we are continuing the tour." Now that's the Management Guy I don't know and love.

"What about the investigation? Shouldn't he stay here for that?" AJ asked. But I don't want to stay here, AJ!

"They've assigned the case to new agents," Management Guy informed us. I shifted a little so I could hear a little better. "They already have the information from Nick and are processing the crime scene downstairs. They do want to interview him one more time, but that can wait until he's rested a little." Great. Another interview. I sighed.

"I can go with you," Brian assured me quietly. "If you want."

"After that, they agree there's really nothing more he can do here until they have a solid suspect," Management Guy X continued. Damn, they still don't even have a good suspect? That's just wrong. Wasn't there that forensic stuff like on CSI that they were able to do to find the bad guy in an hour or so? Yeah, yeah I know that's TV time, not real, but still! "They'll want to interview all of us again as well."

"What?" AJ cut in. "Why do they need to interview us again?"

"Well, as you know, they ruled all of us out as suspects before because none of us left the hotel the entire time Nick was gone."

"So..." AJ prompted.

"Aje," Howie said quietly, "neither did Nick. That means it *could* have been one of us."

"That's bullshit."

"All they're going to do is interview us. I doubt we're really suspects," Howie assured him. "Are we?" he asked a moment later as if it were an afterthought.

"They're just covering all their bases. There's nothing to worry about. They don't really suspect you four," Mr. X. answered.

"So who do they suspect?"

"At this point, it's wide open again. They still think that it probably was a 'fan'. Especially considering the 'gifts'. But they want to talk to everyone on the crew to find out if anyone noticed anything out of the ordinary."

"Like what?"

"Well, since he was never removed from the hotel, they're looking into a few possibilities. They're cross referencing registered guests here at this hotel to the registered guests from our past several stops."

"That's messed up," AJ spoke the obvious. "They think this guy like was following us?"

"Not necessarily, but it is a possibility. The agents want to know about any interactions you guys had with any of the other guests here at the hotel before or after Nick's disappearance as well. There's a possibility that this man may have tried to initiate a conversation with you. He may have risked an interaction with Nick before taking him."

I thought back to that day. I hadn't really interacted with anyone. Well, no, that wasn't really true. I remembered the guy I'd literally run into in the lobby. I shuddered. What if it was that guy. He'd been creepy the way he'd glared at me. And, though I hadn't been watching where I'd been going, he might have been. What if he'd staged that? I tried to remember more clearly what he looked like. He was big, I do remember that. And he'd glared at me. I shuddered, imagining those steel grey eyes on me.

God it was him. That guy! It had to be. I bit my lip to keep from yelling that out. Cuz what if it wasn't him? They'd all laugh. Plus he wasn't the only possibility. There'd also been the guy in the elevator. What if it was one of those guys. They were big too. What if it was the guy I got milkshake on? Sort of like road rage, maybe he was the type to blow that sort of thing out of proportion. He got up to his meeting and noticed the milkshake and then come back for me to get revenge.

Okay, now who's the insane one? I'm getting paranoid. I know, I know, I was already paranoid, but I'm getting more so, okay? But I'd still mention both those possibilities to the agents when I had another interview.

I realized that Mr. X. was still talking. "Since he didn't take Nick out of the hotel, they think he may have wanted to be here to watch your reactions. He likely *enjoyed* being right under everyone's nose without getting caught."

"Do they think the guy is still here now?"

I held my breath and waited for the answer. Please say no, please say no.

"Yes." Damn. "And considering what happened earlier, they agree that it may be in Nick's best interest not to stay here any longer. They left this card to give to Nick in case he remembers anything more." Or decides to tell them what he has remembered. "And they can contact us if they need to ask any more questions or need to have him try to identify a suspect." If I could identify him, he'd be in jail already. Duh.

"They could call him at home, too," Kevin spoke up again. Even though I couldn't see him, I knew that Kevin was glaring daggers at the guy. I could picture the way his jaw was set, his eyes were almost bulging out, and his fists were clenching and unclenching. I could also picture the little funnel cloud thing forming above his head and the steam coming out of his ears.

"If that's where he wants to go, we'll get him there. Now, if you guys come with me, we'll go see if the agents are ready to talk to you. We can let Nick rest a little longer."

"I'm not leaving him here alone," Kevin admonished.

"Of course not," Management Guy X humored him. "There are guards right outside the door, but if you want, stay here and I'll come let you know when they're ready to talk to you. The rest of you, let's go."

The bed shifted as Brian got up. He gave my head one last pat before he obediently followed the others.

I heard the door closing and a few moments later Kevin sat down on the other bed, letting out a frazzled sigh. I finally opened my eyes and looked over at him.

"Hey, Little Brother," he greeted as he saw that he had my attention. His voice void of the anger he'd been letting out on Management Guy. Now he just looked tired. And old. Like he'd aged about 20 years in one day. "I thought you were asleep."

"No."

"Did you hear what we were talking about?"

I nodded.

"So...what do you think?"

I shrugged. I really didn't know. Going home sounded tempting. Very tempting. I could hide away for a while. My mom would totally pamper me. Hell, my sisters would probably totally pamper me. I would be getting my way forever. Well at least for a few weeks, but in my household that'd still be a record.

"I want to go home, Kev," I told him, embarrassed by the way my voice quivered a little.

Kevin smiled understandingly and patted my shoulder, tactfully ignoring the trembling. He nodded. "Okay. I'll see that they get you a flight out in the morning. Or do you want to go tonight? I'm sure they could get you a flight tonight if you want to."

"No," I replied quickly, even though that was tempting. I didn't want to seem like I was running away. Even if I was. "I'll stay with you guys tonight, if it's okay?"

Kevin reached forward and tousled my hair, grinning as I rolled my eyes at him. "Of course it's okay. We'll hang out in here or something and watch movies if you want."

I nodded. Movies. Can't go wrong with those. Unless they're like scary movies. Or they star Charlton Heston or something. (No offense to those of you who like the guy, but I just can't take the guy seriously after seeing Soylent Green. Okay after seeing the Saturday Night Live skit making fun of Soylent Green, but it's almost the same thing.)

Which fortunately the movie chosen was neither. And it had Sandra Bullock in it, so bonus even. Don't ask me how it ended though because I was asleep before it was even half way through. I'll have to rent it again some time, I guess. But it did take my mind off the interview that I'd had to give the agents. I told them everything. Well, almost everything. I didn't tell them that I remembered the attempted rape. I told them about the beatings and about the guy in the lobby and the guy in the elevator. They didn't seem all that impressed by it all, but then I think it's in the job description to not be easily impressed.

When I woke up I knew I'd been having another nightmare. I was soaking wet and freezing. Fortunately I couldn't remember anything of this nightmare. Though I could probably guess pretty easy what it was about. I glanced around and discovered that everyone else was still in the room and were asleep. Go figure. I sighed, realizing that I was fully awake and since it was only 3 in the morning, odds were that none of the others would really appreciate me waking them.

I carefully extracted myself from the bed, trying not to wake Brian who'd crashed next to me, or Kevin, who was on the floor. Somehow AJ and Howie had managed to snag the other bed instead of him. Kev could have gone back to his room and been comfortable, but then again that would have left him alone. Somehow I don't think it was entirely because of worry for me that they'd all stayed. Not after what happened earlier. As I stepped over Kevin, I noticed a piece of paper on the floor next to him. I reached down and picked it up. So I'm curious, okay?

From the offices of K. Richardson, MD, I read the top of the little paper. I smirked. Kevin a doctor? Riiiight. The smile faded as I read the rest of the page though. It was a prescription. For Ketamine. Signed by Kevin. I blinked. There was no mistaking the signature. I'd seen it thousands of times and knew it almost as well as I knew my own.

I looked down at Kevin, confused.

Ketamine.

That's what AJ said that Kevin overdosed on. What the hell was going on?

I glanced at the prescription with Kevin's signature on it, then stared down at Kevin, chewing my lip nervously. Kevin had prescribed the Ketamine for himself? But why would he *do* that? It didn't make any sense.

Unless he did it so that he'd have an alib--no. Kevin wasn't the one who'd attacked me. I know he wasn't. That guy was bigger than Kevin. And had steel grey eyes. Plus Kevin wouldn't do that!

Would he?

I looked at the prescription in my hand again, noticing the way it was shaking. Of course that was only because my hand was shaking big time. "No," I insisted to myself. "He wouldn't." The guy was bigger than him, I reminded myself again. Or were my memories just that screwed up? "No!"

"Nick...?" I heard Howie mumble groggily.

"Sorry," I apologized quickly. I stepped over Kevin, feeling decidedly sick. I needed to get out of there. I needed to clear my head and get the crazy suspicions about Kevin out of my system. It wasn't Kevin. I know it wasn't. I crumpled the prescription into my fist. It wasn't going to get to me. It wasn't!

Okay, fine, I was.

I rushed for the door, needing out fast because I was going to completely lose it. I slipped out in the hall, unsure of where to go, but just needing to get out. Maybe the roof would be a--

"Nick?"

I whirled around, surprised to be caught. I should have known that there would be someone guarding the room, but I guess I wasn't thinking straight.

"Where do you think you're going?" Ed asked with a slightly amused tone. The amusement left his face, though as he seemed to notice my trembling. "Are you okay, Nick?"

I started to nod, but then realized it was totally obvious I wasn't, so I shook my head instead.

"What's wrong?"

I couldn't say it. I couldn't tell him that I was suddenly very afraid of my "big brother". Over some stupid note that was probably just a prank. I mean, it's not like Kevin is a doctor and could write prescriptions. It was a sick joke.

I'd believe that a lot easier if it were from a Dr. McLean.

Kevin's just not the type to pull pranks like that. Especially not when he *knows* how freaked out I am.

"Nick?"

I couldn't tell him. What if he told Lon? What if they called the police or the FBI? Would the arrest Kevin? I clutched the prescription tighter. I didn't want Kevin to go to jail. He wasn't the one; he wasn't involved at all. I felt my eyes starting to sting.

I hated doubting him.

I shook my head again, clutching the crumpled paper tighter in my fist. Which of course, drew Ed's attention, damn it.

"What've you got there?"

My heart sank. I didn't want to tell. "Please...Ed, don't."

He looked confused. "Don't what? Nick, what's going on?"

I sighed. "I don't..." I shook my head again.

"Will you show me?"

I bit my lip. "Ed, I...can't."

He immediately got even more serious. "Is it another threat? Let me see it," he reached out for it.

"No, it's not a threat," I protested, clutching it tighter.

Ed frowned. "Kid, if someone's threatening you, even if they've told you not to tell anyone, we need to know."

"It's not a threat!" I insisted.

Ed nodded. "Okay. I'm sorry. I just want to help, Nick," he said in a quiet voice.

He sounded so hurt. I felt terrible. Of course he wanted to help. I lowered my head, feeling ashamed. Besides, maybe if I told him about it he'd just reassure me that it was just some sort of prank or something. Maybe he could make me feel better about this. But what if he took it seriously and told Lon or something? I took a deep breath, not sure what my decision was going to be until I started to speak. "It's not a threat, but...Promise me that you won't tell *anyone* about this?" He nodded, so I dropped the prescription into his outstretched hand.

He quickly uncrumpled it and read it. For a moment he just stared at it, then looked up at me with an appraising look. "This is a joke, right?" I smiled. Thank god. He thought it was a joke, too. Okay. I'm glad I showed it to him. "Kevin wouldn't..." he trailed off, looking thoughtful.

Why didn't he complete that?

And why was he looking so worried all of a sudden?

"What?" I asked, afraid of the answer.

Ed shook his head. "It's probably nothing."

"Probably?" Ed looked like he was debating whether to tell me something or not.
"What don't you want to tell me?"

Ed frowned. "It's just that the day you disappeared..." He shook his head. "It's nothing."

"What? What about the day I disappeared?!" I snapped. I was getting a little pissed off at the way he wouldn't just tell me whatever it was. Okay so I'm a little hypocritical, who isn't?

Ed looked at me critically and I felt a little guilty for snapping at him. "It's just that Kevin...he was pretty mad at you. He...said some stuff."

I almost started to laugh. That was what Ed was so worried about telling me? I smiled. "Yeah, he told me about that. It didn't mean anything. He was pissed off and blowing off some steam, I know that."

But Ed shook his head, still obviously distressed. "You don't understand...I thought that too. In fact if you hadn't given me this, I would still be thinking that. But, Nick, he said that he was going to--"

The door to the room opened and Ed immediately shut up, giving me a look that he'd tell me whatever it was later. I nodded reluctantly and turned to see Howie coming out into the hall.

"Nick are you okay?" Howie peered at me with concern. He glanced at Ed, looking slightly suspicious. Probably because of the way he'd shut up so quick when Howie had opened the door.

I nodded. "Yeah. I'm okay...I just had a nightmare, that's all," I said quickly. I could tell Howie knew I wasn't telling him everything, but he didn't push it. "Sorry I woke you and all."

"It's okay, Kaos," Howie assured me. "I fell asleep early anyway. I swear one minute I was really into the movie and the next I couldn't keep my eyes open to save my life..."

It was like he'd been drugged or something. I closed my eyes, feeling sick. What if he had been? What if Kevin had--

"Anyway, we can both sleep on the bus if we want...why don't we watch the rest of the movie? Get your mind off the nightmare for a bit. I can grab it from here and we'll go in and watch it in the other room or something."

I glanced at Ed, still wanting to know what he was going to tell me. But the look on his face pretty much told me that it wasn't going to happen. At least not right now. Not with Howie around. Damn it. I nodded. "Yeah, that sounds good, D..."

Howie ducked back into the room to go grab the tape.

"Nick...promise me you'll be careful. And...don't be alone with Kevin," Ed warned me in a very quiet voice. Before I could respond to that at all, Howie was back and pulling me into Kevin's vacant room so we could watch the movie.

I tried to watch. I really did. But my mind was all over the place. Mainly on what Ed had started to tell me. And on the prescription. And on Kevin. He couldn't be involved in this. He just couldn't.

I didn't realize that Howie had stopped the movie until I felt his hand drop lightly onto my shoulder. He had knelt down next to me and was looking at me intently. And speaking to me. Oops, suppose I ought to pay attention. "Sorry, Howie. Guess I was kind of spacing there."

Howie grinned slightly. "Yeah, I could see that." He sat down next to me. "Now why don't you tell me what you were thinking about so hard you haven't heard a word I've said in the last five minutes?"

I felt my face turning red. He'd been trying to talk to me for five minutes? "I'm so--"

Howie raised his hand to stop me from apologizing and smiled. "It's okay. I'm just worried about you. Want to talk about...it?"

"About what?" I asked dumbly. I knew, of course, but...stalling was good.

Howie rolled his eyes. "If you don't want to, it's okay, but I want to help...we all do." I felt guilty again. It must have shown on my face because Howie started talking again. "It's okay, Nick. You've been so strong through all this. I don't know what I would do if I were you..." He paused a moment before continuing. "It's been hard enough...God, when you were missing..." he stopped abruptly. I looked over at him, my curiosity peaked. He looked over at me apologetically. "Sorry, it's not as bad as what *you* went through."

I felt myself blushing again. "No, it's okay. Tell me about it...?"

Howie sighed. "When you didn't show up at the arena for checks and everything we all were mad. At Kevin for not bringing you back with him. At Geo and Ed when they didn't bring you with them when they came over. At you..." He didn't elaborate, but he didn't need to. They were pissed that I was being my 'usual irresponsible self' as Kevin has put it so many times. I really don't think I'm that irresponsible, but...I admit I do have the tendency to be late now and then. But not when it's really important. "But then you didn't show up at all. And when we found out what had happened at the hotel we were all freaking. And then we couldn't do anything but wait. That was...I can't even tell you how scared we all were. Brian barely said anything to anyone. He spent most of the time over at St. Mary's. And AJ...he flipped. He practically destroyed everything in our room...And Kevin..."

I stiffened at the mention of Kevin's name. I didn't mean to, it just happened. And it didn't go unnoticed.

"Kevin was the worst of all of us, Nick. He felt so awful that he'd gotten mad and left you alone. He just locked himself in his room and wouldn't see or even talk to anyone. We had to have security check in on him now and then just to make sure that he was there and that he was alive."

So...he could have gone out at some point and nobody would have noticed. I felt my stomach clenching. What if my memory had substituted the unknown guy with Kevin...cuz it knew I couldn't deal with the thought that Kevin had been the one who hurt me? I'd heard of that sort of thing happening. I squeezed my eyes shut. It couldn't be.

"Nick?" I opened my eyes to find that Howie was staring at me with that concerned look again. "Kevin was mad, but he loves you, you know." Howie had obviously mistaken my reaction to his mentioning Kevin as being that I was afraid he hated me or something. Which maybe he really did. I was always messing up.

"I know," I replied, even though I wasn't so sure anymore. I hated that doubt, but I couldn't deny that it was there and getting stronger. I needed to know what Ed was going to tell me.

"Nick, he does. You should have seen him." Perhaps I did, Howie. "You're not...scared of him, are you?"

I guess I wasn't as good at hiding my thoughts as I hoped. I shook my head. "No, it's just that..." I took a deep breath. "I don't know what to think anymore. I don't know. Everything's just really messed up. I think Kevin..." I stopped. I couldn't say that. I looked away from Howie, not wanting him to see the fear in my eyes.

"You think Kevin what, Nick?"

I shook my head. "It's dumb. I mean my memories tell me that it was this big guy--bigger than Kevin and everything. And he had these like horrible grey eyes. Not green, grey. It couldn't have been Kevin...but..."

"Nick? You don't really think that Kevin...do you?" Howie sounded shocked.

"Of course not," I said too quickly.

"Oh...geez. Nick...Kevin wouldn't do anything like that. Why do you think he might?"

I said I didn't think that! So I'd been lying, but still! I shook my head. "I don't know. I hate this! Nothing makes sense! I know Kevin wouldn't...do that, but I can't help it. I found this prescription thing...for Ketamine."

Howie looked confused. "Isn't that what they said they found in Kevin's system?"

I nodded miserably. "Yeah...but...the prescription was like in Kevin's name. He like signed it and everything. And I thought maybe it was a prank or something but Ed..." I stopped, looking helplessly at Howie. "What if Kevin did have something to do with it?"

Howie smiled sympathetically. "He didn't. I'm sure of it...Why don't you tell me *everything* and we'll figure it out together, huh?"

Everything. I swallowed hard. How was I supposed to tell him everything? I didn't want anyone to know! I didn't want him to see how pathetic I really was. I didn't want to--

"Come on, Nick. It's okay...I know you don't want to talk about it, but I think it will really help. Would you rather talk to me, or to Brian?" He started getting up as if he were going to go get Brian right then.

I shook my head quickly, reaching up and grabbing his hand. "No, I'll talk to you...if it's okay."

Howie nodded. "Of course it is." He sat back down. "Tell me everything."

And I did.

Absolutely everything that I could remember. The shower. The beatings. My escape attempts. Every detail I could remember about the guy. My flashbacks. My near suicide on the roof. Everything. Right up to and including that damned prescription thingie.

Howie listened intently, interrupting me only a couple times to ask really dumb questions. Like was it dark out when he beat me and stuff like that. Like it really mattered? He also asked me some stuff about the guy, but at least those questions made sense.

When I was finally done talking, I was exhausted. I looked at Howie, trying to figure out what he was thinking about me by then. He smiled reassuringly. "So...do you think I could just be remembering the guy wrong? I mean...the prescription and everything. Maybe I just don't want to remember that it was...Kevin?"

Howie shook his head. "I'm sure it wasn't Kevin, Nick. Positive of it." He sounded *very* positive. I looked at him questioningly. He looked every bit as positive as he sounded. That made me feel a lot better. "And...I think they're going to find this guy. Soon."

"You really think so?"

Howie nodded. "Yeah, in fact--" He was interrupted by a knock on the door. Damn it, someone always interrupts right when someone's gonna tell me something really important. "Who's there?"

"It's me," I heard AJ on the other side of the door.

"Come on in," I called.

"We're loading the bus now," AJ announced as he bounded into the room. "You all are having a party and didn't invite me? What's up with that?" He continued without waiting for an answer. "Kevin thought you guys should get up. We've already packed your stuff, but figured you might want to get dressed and everything. And we'll do breakfast before Nick's flight."

Howie looked at me. "You're going home?"

I shrugged. "Yeah...I don't know. I think it might be safer there, you know?"

Howie nodded. "Yeah...I know that's what Kevin thought, too." I could just feel the 'but' hanging there.

"You don't think so?"

Howie smiled. "It doesn't matter what I think. You do what you think is right."

I hate it when he does that. "No, really. Do you think I should stay?"

"Well...I just think it'd be worse being at home. I'd be at home and afraid to go out anywhere. You'd have guards and everything but you'd be alone."

"I wouldn't be alone. My family would be there..."

"And you could deal with them all 24/7 for how long?" AJ broke in. On a good day, about half an hour.

Howie swatted him playfully. "Let him make up his own mind, Bone."

"Seriously. If you think Kevin's bad, just wait until your family gets to fawn all over you. They won't leave you alone for an instant. Hell, I bet your mama follows you into the bathroom."

God he was probably right. Okay maybe not about mom following me, but still. They'd pamper me like crazy, but that would get awful annoying real fast when they wouldn't just let me be alone. AJ had a point. I grinned back. "Yeah I know. I love my family, but they are a bit much..."

AJ nodded. "I know. It's a nice place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there." Howie swatted him again and gave him a 'be nice' sort of look. I would miss this if I went home.

"Maybe..." They both looked at me expectantly. "I'll just go with you guys to Phoenix."
Countdown by Chaos
"Spoiled little brat..." the devastatingly familiar voice whispered in my ear, sending shivers down my spine. I couldn't turn my head; his hand was gripping my chin and forcing me to look up. But I could see him out of the corner of my eye.

I wanted to scream at him, ask him why he hated me so much. Why he was doing this to me. And why he'd pretended to by my friend. My brother.

Kevin.

I pulled at the wire that was binding me to the pipe, but that only made him laugh. A horrifically scornful chuckle. I kept pulling, getting more frantic. The wire bit into my wrists and blood began gushing from the wounds, flowing down my arms. It only made him laugh that much harder, crueler.

"Poor baby," he mocked, reaching his hand up to wipe the tears from my cheek. "Want to go now?" As he asked, he reached up, releasing the wire so that my arms dropped limply to my sides. The blood began rolling down my legs, pooling on the floor. Bleeding way too much. I couldn't live long if I didn't stop the bleeding. I tried to hold the wound of my right wrist closed, but that only made the wound on my left wrist bleed that much more.

Kevin stepped around to face me, his face contorted in a malicious sneer. "What's the matter. Aren't you going to...run?" He stepped back, giving me a full view of the open door. His eyes darkened, as I stood frozen in place. "Run," he ordered in a low voice.

I tried. I was so weak and growing weaker by the second. My bare feet slipped in the blood and I fell, sprawling on the cold cement floor. I tried to get up, but I kept slipping. So I crawled, trying to get to the open door. I heard Kevin's evil laughter follow me out into the hallway.

Finally I managed to get up on my feet and stumbled a few steps, leaning on the wall for support until I could stand on my own. I felt sick as I saw the bloody handprints I was leaving.

I began staggering down the hallway toward the laundry room. The hallway seemed so long. I could hear Kevin *walking* behind me. Mocking my slow escape.

"Go, Nicky! Go, Nicky!" Brian and AJ were standing farther up the hallway cheering me on. Damn it, fellas, I don't need cheering, I need *HELP*!

I began forcing myself to move faster even though I knew it was a lost cause. We'd been here before. Kevin'd catch me and drag me back into hell.

I made it to the laundry room and climbed to the windows. Almost free. Why hadn't Kevin stopped me? I looked back and saw him leering at me from the doorway. AJ and Brian were still farther back in the hallway cheering. Except they weren't yelling my name anymore but Kevin's. Figures.

Knowing I'd never make it, but determined to try anyway, I began trying to squeeze through the window. I couldn't fit. And the window seemed to be getting smaller, squeezing me. There was so much blood! I could see the grass turning a rusty color as my blood soaked it.

"Nick!" I looked up and saw Howie watching my struggle. "Come on, Nick!"

He was rushing toward me, grabbing my wrists, trying to stem the flow of blood. At the same time, he began to pull me through the window. Hands gripped my ankles and started trying to pull me back.

I tried to scream but I couldn't even voice the pain. I was being torn apart.

At last, Kevin let go of my ankles and I was pulled through the window.

Howie continued to pull me by my arms, not giving me a chance to stand on my own. I couldn't call to him to make him stop.

"Come on, Nick. You need to run," he told me. Like I didn't know that?

We made it to the street, where there was a man selling falafel. My stomach rumbled. Hearing it, Howie stopped dragging me and turned to the vendor, pulling out his wallet to make a purchase. Food. Not big on falafel myself but it would do. My mouth was watering.

Wait. This was a dumb move. Kevin was probably still after us.

"Kevin..." I panted, trying to get Howie's attention. Howie only smiled and nodded at me. I shook my head. "No...he's...chasing...us."

Howie began to laugh as he handed me the plate from the vendor. "Kevin's not after you."

He wasn't?

I turned to look and saw Kevin racing toward us at full speed.

I dropped my plate and started flee when I saw Howie grinning at me from the corner of my eyes. In the next moment I felt a sharp pain slice through my back. I fell to the ground, writhing in pain. What the fuck...? I couldn't breathe right. Something had ripped through my lungs. I looked over my shoulder and saw the knife buried to the hilt in my back.

I looked up at Howie towering over me. Why...? I could only mouth the word at him. He kept smiling and knelt down beside me. "It was never Kevin...you spoiled little brat--" And he reached his hand out, grabbing the knife.

And twisting.

I thwacked my head on the upper bunk as I woke, bolting upright with my mouth gaping in a silent scream. It took me a few moments to realize that I was on the bus. And there was no knife in my back. I lay back slowly, taking inventory. My entire body was drenched in sweat, and tears were streaking down my face. Damn it!

Another damn nightmare. I should have known by the falafel vendor.

"Fuck," I growled, punching the bottom of the upper bunk hard. I clenched my teeth and swallowed the yelp of pain. Punching solid objects is probably not the best way to let out frustration.

"Jesus, Nick. Are you okay?" Brian suddenly appeared in the entrance to the sleeping quarters. I scowled at him before pulling the cover up over my head. Yeah, like he couldn't see that I wasn't fine, he was going to make me actually say it?

He sat down at on the edge of my bunk. I couldn't help but flinch when I felt his hand on my leg. He pulled away quickly and I felt somewhat guilty. I knew he hadn't meant to be anything more than brotherly, but my body still wasn't so keen on being touched.

"Another nightmare?" he asked quietly.

"What makes you think that?" I asked sarcastically. Brian sighed and I felt even more guilty. I flipped the sheet back and sat up. "Sorry," I apologized. "I should have just gone home..." I grumbled.

Brian smiled sympathetically at me. "Yeah but would they feed you Double Cheeseburgers?" he asked, tossing a Burger Palace bag in my lap.

Great. I think I've eaten there one too many times. Like the day that this whole mess started. Ugh. "The real question is would I want them to?" I shot back, with a slight grin. On the other hand, I was pretty damn hungry. I reached into the bag and pulled out the top burger. "Thanks."

Brian folded his legs under him and sat there watching me eat. The boy needs a hobby, I swear. I raised my eyebrows and stared back at him over my burger.

Getting the point, he smirked a little and reached out to thwack me on the back of the head. Meanie.
Detonation by Chaos
There was something very wrong with this. I should have gone home. Damn Howie for not telling me that he thought I should go home. Damn Kevin for not insisting I get on that plane. Damn Brian for being all supportive...well okay just damn Brian on general principles.

And especially damn AJ for this really bad idea.

Just because I came along to Phoenix didn't mean I necessarily had to perform. Management Guy even said that. It was up to me. And stupidly, I'd decided to go on. Why, you ask? (You're supposed to ask why here, okay?) Why?! Um...well...actually it just seemed like a good idea at the time. I mean, it'd be a pretty good distraction from everything that's going on. And it'd give me a chance to feel like things were normal again. Plus it'd be an assured safe two and a half hours. No one would be insane enough to try to get to me in front of thousands of witnesses. Right? Right. So I not only agreed but insisted that I be part of the show.

Which unfortunately led to the realization that we'd have to do some major reblocking of the show since I couldn't move around as well as usual, which made it so that I couldn't cross the stage quickly and frequently as I usually do during the show. And if I couldn't move, that would mean that the other guys wouldn't be able to as much either because they'd keep running into me and stuff. So...we had to reblock. Or so we thought until AJ came up with his "brilliant" idea.

Why is it that his ideas usually end up with me nearly getting myself killed?

"Are you sure about this?" I asked, looking at Howie. If anyone was going to be sensible enough to put an end to this, it was Howie. Usually I'd say it was Kevin, but considering that I wasn't sure how much I should trust him, I wasn't counting on that. Then again, Howie was the one who stuck a knife in my back. Sure it was a dream, but they say something about how dreams are supposed to be unconscious--or subconscious (whatever)--thoughts. So what if that subconsciousness thing was trying to tell me something? Maybe I shouldn't trust Howie either? But surely *Howie* couldn't have had anything to do with my being kidnapped. I mean...come on, that was even more ridiculous than Kevin! He's like half my size! (Okay exaggeration, but the point is, even on my worst day and his best day...Howie can't overpower me--at least not that easily.) Still...the way he'd been so confident when he told me Kevin wasn't involved...it was like he knew something. I found myself eyeing Howie nervously. It had seemed reassuring at the time he'd said it, but now I wasn't so sure. Maybe he knew too much about what happened to me.

When Howie looked up, I quickly turned away and looked at Brian. I could trust Brian for sure. Couldn't I?

"If you don't want to do it, we could just have you sing from backstage or something," Brian suggested. "We could set up a mic back there..."

No way. I shook my head. I really didn't want to hide backstage. That would probably only make the fans think I'd been horribly disfigured or something. Okay, so I wasn't looking that great, and it was going to take a lot of time in the dreaded makeup chair to make me look reasonable, but at least the fans would be able to tell I wasn't like horribly scared and broken.

Besides, this might not be so bad. Sure, I hadn't really been on a skateboard since I was like eleven (okay seventeen, but don't tell management) but it's probably like riding a bike.

I pushed off and went sailing swiftly across the stage. Oops. Probably a little too swiftly, I realized as I caught Kevin's slightly frazzled expression as I glided past. Okay, fine. I shifted my balance and slowed, spinning to a stop on my mark. Oh yeah, I could still do this.

As we continued through the run-through, I got more confident and started having some fun at Kevin's expense. It was fun to see his eyes bulge out when I grinded off the platform and when I aired over a gap in the platforms. It really wasn't easy when I wasn't able to bend my knee but it was worth it to bug the hell out of Kev. I even forgot all about being scared of him for a while there. Like everything was normal and he wasn't possibly out to get me.

We only got a short break between the checks and the concert. I caught Ed watching me as we all hung out in the greenroom. I still hadn't gotten a chance to talk to him and find out what he was going to tell me about Kevin. Ed nodded at me once, and then tipped his head toward the hallway. I glanced around at the others. They were all busy doing their own things, so I figured I may as well go out and see what Ed had to tell me.

I got up and headed out after Ed.

"So..." I prompted as we headed out into the otherwise empty hallway.

"Walk with me," Ed said, heading farther from the greenroom. "I don't want Ke-anyone to overhear us." He glanced nervously toward the closed greenroom door. Kevin was asleep anyway, but still, I guess it would be really bad if he did overhear Ed talking about him. So after hesitating only a moment I nodded and followed after him. He was walking a little fast for me to keep up real well. It was obvious he was really nervous about what he wanted to tell me. Which made sense, since I was really nervous about hearing it.

We rounded the corner at the end of the greenroom's hallway. We were far enough away, I figured. Any farther and we'd be outside. So I stopped walking. Ed kept going...it seemed he fully intended to go outside. Except when he realized I wasn't following him, he turned to come back for me. "We should go out..." he informed me as he took hold of my arm. Instinctively, I jerked away. He looked at me with an expression of annoyance. I did it again. I didn't mean to keep pulling away. His expression changed quickly to an apologetic one. "Sorry. I didn't think..." he looked away as though ashamed.

"Nah," I forced myself to sound playful. "You know me, I'm just jumpy."

"Nick?!" I heard Howie's voice echo through the hall. Ed gripped my arm again, raising his other hand to his face and pressing his finger to his lips, signaling me to stay quiet. He looked very worried. His hold tightened as Howie called my name again. He sounded closer this time, and slightly panicky. "Nick!?"

Ed scowled. "Let's get outside. We need to talk."

I hesitated. "I should at least tell him where we're going to be. I don't want them thinking I got grabbed again or something." I shuddered at the idea. Of course if they were behind it, they would know if I was grabbed. But Kevin and Howie weren't the ones behind it, I reassured myself again. I had to get that completely out of my head. If they'd done it, why would they be all worried about me? Unless they were worried I figured it out. Damn it. I had to stop thinking that way. Even if the evidence was pointing in their direction.

"But you have to know what Kevin said...and I think that maybe How--"

I cut him off as Howie called out again, sounding even more freaked.

"I have to tell him where we're gonna be."

Ed looked fairly frazzled, and at first I thought he was going to tell me no, but then he nodded reluctantly. Of course that probably had something to do with the fact that Howie had just come skidding around the corner.

"Nick!" Howie stopped running, and looked at me with what appeared to be relief. "There you are. You had me worried," he admitted softly. "I was about to go get security to call the police..."

"That'd be overreacting a bit don't you think? I was gone for less than two minutes." I couldn't help but laugh. But I cut that short when I saw how serious he looked. Oh. Then again a lot could happen in just two minutes. Like I could pick pepperoni off two pizzas.

Howie glanced at Ed with a strange look on his face. Ed gave him an equally strange look in exchange. What was up with that? Howie looked away quickly and focused on me again. "We need to go back to the greenroom," he informed me.

"Okay. I'll be just a minute," I informed him. "I just have to talk to Ed a minute okay?"

Howie glanced at Ed again then back to me. "Can't it wait? We're on in just a few minutes and we need to discuss some last minute things...and last minute costume and mic checks and everything..." Ed's hold tightened on my arm again and I got annoyed. It kind of hurt he was gripping so hard. I pulled away from him again.

"Okay...I better go see what they want. We'll talk after the concert okay?" I suggested to Ed.

He looked very annoyed but he nodded. "Okay...but be careful out there tonight," he warned.

I grinned. "Yeah like anything is going to happen to me in front of thousands of fans?" I shook my head. "I don't think so."

Ed hesitated again, then nodded back. "Just...be on alert," he repeated, giving Howie another strange look. What was that about? He thought that Howie might be in on it too? He'd started to say something about Howie before we were interrupted, I realized. But I didn't have time to dwell on that. I had to go and make sure everything was in place for quick changes and everything, so whatever Ed had to say would just have to wait until after the concert. Until then, I had to be in performance mode, let my stage persona take over again. Nothing was wrong. Nothing scared me. I trusted my brothers completely. I'm in control. Everything would go smoothly.

And the concert did go smoothly through the first half. I got a few laughs and cheers for some of my skateboard stunts (I use that term loosely, others might use the term 'antics')--and Kevin got lots of laughs for yelling at me to be careful. Right in the middle of a song once even. Whoever says that we lip sync at concerts is now completely proved wrong.

It was good to be back in the spotlight in a good way. I forgot all about being frightened and hurt. The cheers pulled me right out of the depression I'd been fighting ever since my kidnapping. I love my life. I love the fans. Really I do.

I carefully positioned my skateboard over my lift as the song ended. Bye folks, see you at the back of the arena. The lift dropped quickly. As always my stomach stayed up top for a few moments, but I'm used to it and recovered quickly.

AJ clapped me on the back as he passed, ushered along by Ryan as Ed trailed along behind us, making sure the hallway stayed clear of arena employees and anyone else who might wander backstage. Kevin just shook his head as he passed by me. I could hear him muttering something that sounded suspiciously like "show-off".

I grinned at him, trying to act as if everything was normal between us. I pushed off and sailed past him. "It's why you love me," I teased.

Would you believe that Kevin actually gave me the finger?

Okay fine, he didn't, but he did shake his head disapprovingly and yelled at me to be careful again. He really is that predictable at times. I just wish he were completely predictable.

We ducked into our dressing room to make the costume change. There was a couple minute break while they showed that film clip thingie and then we'd pop up at the back of the arena.

I grabbed my costume from the rack and plopped down on the bench. It was a good thing we had a couple minutes for this because trust me, it is not fun to try and change quickly while wearing a leg brace. I ripped the velcro fasteners open and groaned as I heard the pepper spray container hit the floor and start rolling away. Damn, I forgot about that thing.

I quickly changed my pants and fastened the brace again, then threw on the new shirt. Everyone else was done getting changed, but they were waiting for me. How embarrassing. I got up and went back to the rack for my duster...it wasn't there. Shit! It had been there when we'd done the pre-show check. Hadn't it? I know I looked to make sure everything was there and I hadn't noticed it missing. But then I guess I couldn't specifically remember it being there. I would have noticed though. Wouldn't I? Damn it!

I looked around frantically. I needed that. It had my silly string in it. I couldn't go out there unarmed!

"Missing something?" Kevin asked, sounding slightly annoyed. We didn't have much time before we had to be in place.

"Yo! Nicky!" AJ called as he shoved something at me. "I think this is yours," he said with a grin. My duster.

I grinned and grabbed it from him. "Thanks, J." I put it on quickly and checked the inside pocket to make sure my silly string was in place. Perfect. Except...there was something else there, too.

I pulled whatever it was out.

A dead carnation. A very dead carnation. I think it might have been red at some point because I could see just a touch of that behind the blackened petals that started to crumble at my touch. How...nice? How long had that been rotting in there? I don't remember ever getting a flower while wearing the coat, but I guess I must have. There was a tag tied to it. "Tonight" it read on the side facing me. Tonight what?

I suddenly had a really really bad feeling about this. But I flipped the card over anyway. My feeling was right. More lyrics. "I've been watching you; You've been watching me; Let's stop playing games..." I dropped the flower and stumbled back away from it like it were poison.

No.

This wasn't happening.

My stage persona was suddenly nowhere to be found. I was not in control. I probably never really was. That had all been an illusion. *He* was the one in charge. He was watching me.

He was here.

In Phoenix.

In the fucking concert venue.

My blood suddenly ran cold as I made the last realization: He’d been in our dressing room!

"Nick, let's go!" AJ called from the doorway.

They hadn't noticed there was anything wrong. Or they were choosing to ignore it. Or they already knew.

I could feel my body starting to shake as I stared at the dead flower on the floor. My eyes filled with tears. Damn it not now! I can't do this. I can't. I can't cry and then go out there. I blinked rapidly, trying to get myself under control. No. This wasn't happening.

Maybe the guy had put the flower in there before. Maybe it was referring to my kidnapping. What if he'd put it there before our last concert but then he'd seen his opportunity to grab me at the hotel so I'd never gotten it?

Please please let that be the case. That would explain why the flower was dead. Maybe it'd been there for a week and a half.

But...someone had to have moved my coat. I would have noticed if it were missing from the rack before the show. I know I would have. It’s not like we have *that* many costume changes, and the duster is pretty big, I would have noticed it missing.


I couldn't stop the shaking, and I knew that stopping the tears was a lost cause. I couldn't help it. I swiped at the tears quickly, trying to at least stop them from screwing with makeup.

"Nick?" Brian was suddenly right next to me. "Nick are you okay?" His eyes were wide. "Jesus...what's wrong?! You’re...shaking. What happened?"

"Sixty seconds to places!" called from down the hall. "Get your asses down here *now*!"


"Shit!" Brian actually swore. "We need to delay!" he yelled back.

"NO!" I protested quickly. "I'm okay. We have to go."

Brian looked at me as if I were crazy. "You can't go out there like--"

"I can't stay here!" I retorted quickly, pushing past him. I'd go onstage. That was the only damn place I would be safe. I swiped another round of tears. Damn it! I was going to look like an idiot out there. But at least I'd be a safe idiot.

The guy was in the dressing room. He'd put that in my pocket. He was there! Nobody could get to our dressing room. Except...the guys. Kevin. Howie. Either of the could have. Or...AJ was the one who had my duster. I could hear myself whimpering and felt like I was going to pass out. What if they were all in on it? Why were they doing this to me?

"Nick...you should sit down. Lie down maybe?" Brian was saying. "We can do the rest of the show without--"

"NO!" I protested again, practically shouting. He didn't understand. The stage was the only place I was safe. They couldn't hurt me there. They couldn't...not until the show was over. Then...I was so screwed. They were all in on it. And they were going to kill me. Tonight.

"Thirty seconds!" the crewman called again.

I hurried out of the dressing room, navigated the steps as best I could to get down under the back stage area, and used my board to get me to my spot with just a couple seconds or so to go before the platform started to rise. Going to the only place I was safe. The show must go on.

I noticed that the other guys were all watching me worriedly. Probably worried about me getting away somehow. I shivered as I closed my eyes and tried to talk myself into calming down. Where was my stage persona when I needed him?

"You don't have to do this," Brian whispered even as the platform was rising. What did he expect me to do, leap off now? It would save them the trouble of killing me later, I guess. But I shook my head and took one last swipe at the tears streaking my face. I probably had that mascara crap running down my cheeks. Great.

If I did, though, the audience didn't seem to care. They cheered hysterically as we rose into their view. I did my best to smile and waved at the fans, all the while still trembling uncontrollably. I know I sounded terrible as we started to sing, but apparently the fans didn't notice or care about that, either. Or maybe they just couldn't hear my weak trembling voice over the sound of their screaming. Possible.

The guys heard me, though. They were all stealing glances over at me the whole time. I just kept going, trying to pretend that I was okay. I was going to die tonight. They were going to kill me. They were all in on it and they were going to kill me. Oh god. I was going to be sick. Now *that* would be something the fans would never see coming.

I had to get myself under control. Nothing was wrong. We’re in a performance now. The Nick Carter with worries, insecurities, fears and a fucking stalker (or four) does not exist on stage. Remember? Cool, calm, and completely in control.

It wasn’t working.

It couldn't be the guys. They wouldn’t do that to me. They’re my brothers. Sure they get irritated with me from time to time, but nothing that serious that they’d want to hurt me like that. It was someone else. It had to be. Some random 'fan'. Please just some random fan. That's it. A random fan. Here at the arena tonight. Watching me. In which case, being on the back-of-the-audience platform was not a good place to be. The audience is a little too close and there was very little holding them back. Normally that didn't really bother me; I usually love the adrenaline that comes with being mobbed, I admit it. But knowing that my attacker could be out there somewhere...it made me nervous being so close to the audience. Sure, security was there to make sure nobody managed to actually get up on the platform or anything, but it didn't make me feel much better. Don't get me wrong. I wasn't kidding when I said I love the fans...I just prefer to admire them from afar right now, you know?

I was relieved when the bridge lowered and I began to cross back to the safety of the front stage. And away from the other guys a little bit. Maybe as soon as the last song was done I just wouldn't go offstage with them. Just in case. I'd wait there until security came and got me and then I'd just go lock myself in my hotel room. But they got into my hotel room before. Brian had the key to my room. He could have given it to Kevin.

I was so screwed.

I ignored my fear and tried to act normal. I moved to the railing a couple times and waved at the fans who were swarming the bridge like they always do. I tried to lean down to touch hands a little bit, but it wasn't working very well because it was slowing me down too much not to be able to bend my knee and ya gotta *really* lean over the rail a lot to even have a chance at reaching. Besides, I was the one who was usually expected to get my butt to the other side of the bridge first so I couldn’t really take the time anyway. We should have changed our order, but hey, I did have my skateboard so it wasn't too hard to get there and stop on my mark so that we were fairly evenly spaced across the bridge.

I stepped off the board and moved again to the railing, smiling out at the fans as they crowded around the bridge. I could take my time a little bit here since I didn't have to move along until the others started moving again and caught up to me. So I leaned my entire weight against the rail so I could lean down farther.

I think I knew it was going to happen a split second before it actually did because suddenly I was struck with an even more overwhelming fear than before. I was going to fall. And it was like I completely froze so there was not a thing that I could do about it. There was a loud creaking noise and before I could recover from my fear and pull back, the railing broke and dumped me into the crowd.

Cheers turned to screams as I toppled off the bridge and into the mob of teenage girls. I felt hands trying to grab me and keep me from falling, but it was a lost cause. I was too big and heavy for the girls that were trying to help. I involuntarily cried out as I struck the ground hard. Add a broken shoulder to the list of injuries. Ow. Fuck!

I must've yelled that last thing aloud because I could hear it echoing throughout the whole arena. Oops. Great time for my mic to be live. Maybe we should look into the lip syncing thing for future concerts. I'd never hear the end of that from AJ. Or from the parents who were probably now going to declare me as a horrible influence on their teenage daughters. Whoops. Oh who was I kidding, I would never live to be in a concert again. So swearing in front of an audience was the least of my worries.

"Nick!" I heard Brian's voice booming above the noise of the girls crowding around me. His mic was still live, too. "Nick, are you okay?"

"I fell off the bridge, what do you think?" I muttered, only to hear it amplified. I cried out involuntarily as I tried to get up and pain overwhelmed my body.

"Everybody move back!" AJ's panicked voice chimed in with Brian. Nobody paid attention and I became aware that lots of people were starting to crowd around me.

Damn it, someone turn off the mics! I knew I was about to lose it. Fortunately someone else had the same idea because I suddenly couldn't hear the high pitched whimpering echoing anymore.

I felt hands grabbing at me. Hands pulling at my arms, at my legs. Cloth was tearing. Hands in my hair. Hands. Ripping me to shreds. Tearing at my clothes. Ripping my blanket away from me. No. No blanket. My duster was gone, though. I tried to curl into a little ball but I couldn't. People had my arms and legs and I was being pulled in every direction at once. The wire was cutting into my wrists as my arms were lashed to the pipe over my head. No. No. No.

I began to scream as I felt my shirt being yanked really hard, nearly choking me before it suddenly gave way, ripping away from my skin. Leaving me exposed to his leering eyes. No. No. I was yanked roughly to my feet. My knee was throbbing with horrible pain--the brace had given way and was no longer supporting me. Every movement I made felt like a knife was slicing down the length of my leg.

"Everybody get back! Don't hurt him!" I could hear some fans yelling, but still the hands were still everywhere. Grabbing. Ripping. Clawing. "Get back!"

I began struggling with every last bit of strength I could find, getting my limbs free from my captors...no, not captors. Fans. They weren't trying to hurt me. Weren't trying to tear me apart. Oh god help me. I tried to move only to stumble. I felt hands against my bare back, pushing me. I stumbled and fell once again to the ground as more hands reached.

He dragged me back down the hall, not giving me a chance to get up and walk on my own. I knew what was coming. No. Please don’t. The tears were blinding me as I felt his hands violating my body. No. No. No, no, no. The weight of his body was pressing me to the floor. I was helpless to stop his intrusion.

don't touch me don't touch me don't touch me

I wasn’t pinned. He wasn’t here. It was just the fans. I tried to crawl through the maze of legs and hands that still grabbed for me. I could feel my leg convulsing sending waves of pure agony through my entire system. My vision was getting blurred by the tears that were by then running rampant again.

More hands grasped my body and pulled me back to my feet. I didn't know which way to go. Which way? I looked back up toward the bridge. AJ was yelling something that I couldn't hear and pointing over toward where I was. I couldn't see Brian at all. Where did Brian go? I looked the other way down the bridge and saw Howie and Kevin. Howie was tugging frantically on Kevin's arm and was obviously telling him something...while he was pointing over toward me.

For a moment it was like tunnelvision. I could see Kevin clearly. For that moment it was like there was nothing else in the arena but me and him. He was staring directly at me and our eyes locked. He looked...insane. Pure fury. Oh fuck. And then suddenly he was running the other direction, back across the bridge toward the back of the audience.

I had to get out of there. He was going to kill me. I struggled to get myself free from the hands that bound me.

"Let us through!" I heard a woman's voice from right behind me screaming and I felt someone pushing me forward. My knee tried to buckle, but someone else caught me and held me up. And then I was being half dragged down the row of seats. By then most of the fans were backing away and it'd gotten a lot quieter. Well a lot less loud, but it was hardly quiet. I think they'd finally realized that I was hurt and terrified. What gave it away? My shaking, or my tear-streaked cheeks? “You’re okay,” I heard the woman’s voice again as she and a few others helped me to the end of the row. “Your security guard’s right over here...”

And then suddenly someone else was there, grabbing me and throwing me over their shoulder. "Back away, let us through," a familiar voice bellowed. I was carried swiftly through the crowd and through a side door as arena security opened the door for us.

Once the door shut, the sound of the crowd was completely gone. Blocked by the soundproofed door. My rescuer set me down carefully. "Are you okay Nick? Are you hurt?"

Duh?

I looked up at Ed. "My knee..." I heard myself whimpering. "I...lost my brace..." Oh gawd I was so pathetic. I felt myself shaking harder than ever. My shirt and coat had been completely torn away and I felt totally exposed. "Help me..." I felt myself sinking back to the ground, but Ed grabbed me before I fell.

He propped me against the wall for a moment before taking off his jacket and draping it around my shoulders. I clutched it tight in my fists, holding it closed. Pretending like it was holding me together.

“I’ve got Carter,” Ed radioed to the other security. “He’s safe, but needs some medical attention. I’m taking him out.”

“Jack is on his way over there, but it seems that somebody decided to chain the door over here. He’ll be there as soon as arena security gets over here to unlock it,” Lon’s voice came through on the handset.

“Sir?” Geo’s voice cut in. “We’ve lost Littrell. I think he’s in the audience. There’s a mob over near the left exit, but we can’t get over there. Someone chained the door here too. Arena security is enroute, but we need to get Brian out of there.”

“I’m on it,” Ed replied before shutting off the radio.

What? He was going to leave me? I heard myself make a really pathetic whimpering noise as I looked up at him pleadingly. Don’t leave me alone. Don’t leave me where they can get me.


“It’s okay, I’ve got you...” Ed said lowly as he picked me up again. Effortlessly placing me over his shoulder. Geez, it seemed like everyone was able to just carry me around these days. It wasn’t fair. It’s not like I’m a total lightweight here.

But wait, wasn’t he supposed to be going to get Brian?


“NICK!” I heard Brian yell out as the side door burst open again and he tumbled into the hallway. Well I guess that saves Ed having to go get him. “Oh God! Are you okay?” He rushed up to us. “Is he okay?” he asked Ed.

“He’s fine,” Ed assured him, sounding very irritated. So I wasn’t the only one who was tired of that question. “But I’m getting him out of here. I’ve got to get him to a hospital. His knee is out of place.” It is? That would explain the excruciating pain emanating from it.

“Okay, I’ll grab his clothes and come with you...” Brian said, hurrying ahead of us and ducking into the dressing room. Wait...wasn’t he supposed to still be onstage? And he’d come through the side door. He must’ve gone off the bridge too, which left AJ and Howie to keep the show going. Because Kevin was on his way to kill me.

Ed swore under his breath and started moving faster.

He wasn’t fast enough.

I saw Kevin burst around the corner, coming up from beneath the stage area. The image I’d gotten of him up on that bridge was nothing to what he looked like now. He came barreling down the hallway as if he were possessed by the devil. Which I guess he was.

I tried to open my mouth to warn Ed what was coming, but no sound would come out I was so terrified.

“You fucking bastard!” Kevin yelled at me with more fury than I’d ever heard *anyone* use before. I felt my heart breaking. It was true. He really hated me that much. I’d never imagined Kevin to get this out of control. And he’d pretend to be my friend. My brother. Why? Why did he hate me?

He dove at me, shoving Ed to the ground in the process. The large bodyguard landed on my leg funny and I found my voice at last, screaming in agony. I almost blacked out the pain. I became aware that Kevin was on top of Ed who was on top of me. He was punching Ed trying to get at me. I tried to squirm out from under the bodyguard but it was no use. I was flat on my back with the weight of two men on top of my wounded leg. Every punch that missed me and hit Ed sent waves of pain through me as his body crushed mine. Finally Ed managed to roll off of me and turned on Kevin.

Oh God...this couldn’t be happening. I watched for a few moments, stunned by the absolutely crazy way Kevin was swinging at the bodyguard. He’d gone completely off his rocker. Ed managed to get into a position to fight back. I couldn’t watch this. I rolled onto my stomach and began pulling myself along the floor, unable to even consider getting up, my leg hurt so bad.

“Fucking bastard, you...” Kevin’s yelling stopped as Ed managed to throw him against the wall. I glanced over my shoulder and saw Ed slam Kevin against the wall a second time. I saw Ed reach for the gun on his belt, but Kevin just kept fighting and managed to keep him from getting it into his grasp. Kevin was wild. Clawing and screaming. I hardly even recognized him. That wasn’t Kevin. It had to be an imposter. Kevin was a mild mannered hick, not a raving loony psychopath. Kevin managed to dodge another blow and then through a punch that sent Ed sprawling. Oh God. No. I felt guilty letting Ed fight my battle, but I couldn’t stay there. The way Kevin was fighting, I wouldn’t be shocked if he took Ed out. Ed had size and experience on his side, but Kevin had the insanity giving him strength.

I needed to get out of there. But...the exit was too far away. If Kevin overtook Ed, I’d never get there. I needed somewhere to hide. I got to the stairs leading into the arena’s storage basement and let myself tumble down them. I couldn’t help but scream the whole way down. So much for hiding. Kevin would know I came down here. But I couldn’t help it, I was in way too much pain.

“What...Kevin! Wha--" I heard Brian’s shocked voice. Oh no. No, Brian get out of there! Don’t let him hurt you! “No! Get off him!”

No! I looked back up the stairs. I had to go back. Brian was going to get hurt. He obviously hadn’t known that Kevin...he wasn’t a part of it. Oh thank god he wasn’t a part of it. We’d get through this. I had to get back up the stairs and help him.

“Get off! You--“ Brian’s yell was cut short. I could only imagine why. And the images that were coming to mind made me sick. Kevin began screaming obscenities again, finding his voice. I could just imagine him there on top of Brian...choking the life out of him...What had I done? Brian! I wanted to help him, but I was useless.

I heard Ed suddenly start screaming in pain for several moments and then it went silent. Oh god. What had Kevin done?

“Nick!” I heard Kevin yelling. “Nicky!?”

I shrank back. Oh no. Now he was coming for me.

I had to hide...

I dragged myself into the darkness of the basement. I needed somewhere to hide. Fast.

“Nick!?” Kevin yelled again, from the top of the stairs. “Come out, Nicky...” he sounded frantic. “It’s safe, Nick...”

Safe?! Fuck that! I bit my lip hard to keep myself from crying out with fear or pain as I continued to drag myself deeper into the shadows. There had to be somewhere to hide.

I flattened myself to the floor behind one of the crates. It was a pathetic hiding place and if Kevin managed to find the lightswitch I was screwed. But I was anyway. I was cornered. I was going to die. I may as well give myself up now. I closed my eyes.

Mom, Dad...I wish I had the chance to tell you guys one more time how much I love you. Thank you for supporting me. Thank you for going without so I could succeed. Angel, Les, Beej, Aaron...you were the best siblings a guy could ask for. I wish I’d told you more often...or at all, really. I hope you guys know. Brian...oh god Brian, you’re probably dead because of me. I’m so sorry Brian.

“Nick...please Nick, where are you? There’s not much time...”

I bit my lip harder for a moment. Then took a deep breath. I knew it was time to give myself out. There was no point in dragging it out. I was dead anyway. But there was one thing I needed to know.

“Why?” I called out, my voice barely loud enough to be heard. But somehow Kevin heard it.

“Nick?”

“Why?” I asked again. “Why did you--"

And then suddenly there was another yell and loud banging as suddenly Kevin and Ed were crashing down the stairs. I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry when Ed got up first. I could see his form standing over Kevin’s, a gun pointed down at my attacker.

“Why?”

You might have thought that was me. But this time it was Kevin.

The gun made a clicking sound as it was cocked.

My heart broke. “Don’t kill him...” I pleaded. “Please...” I don’t know why I cared. Kevin wanted me dead, but I couldn’t stand the thought of him dead. My heart hurt.

Ed looked over toward me.

In that moment Kevin made his move. His leg lashed out, striking Ed between the legs. The gun clattered to the floor as Ed dropped to his knees. Kevin was on him immediately.

I couldn’t tear my eyes away as Kevin started beating on the fallen bodyguard. I had to do something...the gun...I carefully dragged myself out from behind the crate and slid my body along the floor, seeking the gun. It was too dark to see it, but I felt around. It had to have ended up somewhere over here...

“Fucking bastard you fucking bastard...” Kevin was repeating over and over as he struggled to keep Ed from getting up again. Fortunately, Ed wasn’t down for the count yet. That was the only thing that gave me a chance. I had to get the gun before Ed passed out.

I kept feeling around the floor frantically. It had to be there.

There it was! I nearly knocked the gun away as I tried to grab it. My hands were shaking so badly. But I managed to get hold and pulled it in. I closed my eyes. I couldn’t do this. I couldn’t shoot him.

Kevin managed to get the upper hand again, pinning Ed to the ground. He raised his fist.

“Stop!” I called out, my voice raspy.

Kevin hesitated a moment, looking over at me.

“Please, stop...” I begged him. Don’t make me do this. Don’t make me kill you. I raised the gun shakily. “Just...stop,” I whispered.

Kevin’s jaw dropped. And I swear he had the most horrible look of shock and betrayal on his face. He felt betrayed? What about me? He’d tried to kill me. He’d turned my brothers against me. I felt my hands shake and was afraid I was going to lose hold of the gun.

Then Ed was up again, he slammed Kevin to the ground and rolled him onto his stomach. The fight seemed to have completely left Kevin. He didn’t even struggle as Ed pulled a set of handcuffs from his arsenal. I didn’t know our security carried those. But thank god they did.

After Ed had handcuffed Kevin he turned back to me. “It’s okay now, Nick,” he assured me softly. “He can’t hurt you anymore.”

“No...” I heard Kevin saying. “Nicky...”

“SHUT UP!” Ed bellowed, grabbing a fistful of Kevin’s hair and yanking his head up. “You’ve caused enough trouble.”

I winced at the way Ed was handling Kevin. I know I shouldn’t care. I know that. But I can’t help it. He’s been my *brother* for so many years.

I couldn’t watch. I closed my eyes, turning my head away, shivering. I was so cold. So cold. I felt like my soul would never warm up again. The look on Kevin’s face when I’d pointed the gun at him would haunt me forever. But it was over.

I lowered the gun. Ed had things under control.

I shivered again. I’d lost Ed’s coat at some point. Probably when Kevin had tackled us.

“Please...get me out of here,” I whispered.

Ed let go of Kevin and got up. He moved slowly over to me, reaching out and taking the gun from my hand. He put it back in his belt quickly then reached for me.

Once again I felt myself being slung over my bodyguard’s shoulder. I couldn’t stand being carried like this. I wanted to walk out on my own. Of course that was impossible considering how much pain I was in. So I tried to make myself accept it and relax.

As he carried me past Kevin, Ed drove his foot into Kevin’s side. I winced. He didn’t have to do that. It was obvious that Kevin was subdued. “Stay down.” Ed hissed at him. I closed my eyes, not wanting to see Kevin suffering. Why did I still care?!

We reached the top of the stairs and Ed started toward the exit. I spotted Brian unconscious on the floor. Oh God. Was he breathing? “Ed stop...” I called out. I felt Ed shift my weight on his shoulder. I winced as the movement jostled my injured leg. He just kept walking. “Ed!” I tried again.

“What?!” he snapped grouchily. I shivered at the harshness in his voice. It was just because he was hurt and it couldn’t be easy for him to carry me. But it was over now. He didn’t have to carry me. We could just wait here for the police and an ambulance.

“Brian...” I said hesitantly. “Take me to Brian. I need to know he’s okay.”

Ed cursed. But after a moment he turned and started back to where Brian was sprawled.

“Just set me down and go get help,” I suggested as we approached. “I’ll stay here with Brian.”

Ed dropped me down off his shoulder. I nearly blacked out as I struck the ground hard. Damn. He could have been a little more careful.

I slid myself closer to Brian’s prone form. “Brian?” I asked softly. “Brian wake up?” I shook him very lightly when he didn’t respond. He made a slight moaning noise, but his eyes stayed closed. I could see a horrible knot developing on his head. Damn, Kevin must have dashed his head against the wall or something. He probably had a concussion. What were you supposed to do for a concussion? I searched my brain but came up empty other than you were supposed to keep the victim awake. But Brian wasn’t awake. So what was I supposed to do? I shook him gently again. “Brian wake up...”

What else could I do? I had to make him comfortable until Ed got the ambulance here.

“Okay, I’ll get him out of here right away. Send someone over for Brian and Kevin,” I heard Ed say into his radio.

I reached over to grab Ed’s discarded coat to drape over Brian. “I want to stay here. I don’t want to leave Brian alone,” I protested.

Ed stared at me a moment. “Lon said to get you out of here. There still might be danger. They don’t think Kevin acted alone.”

Howie.

And possibly AJ. I felt my heart tighten.

But I didn’t care about the danger. “We have to stay with Brian,” I insisted as I started folding the coat to place under Brian’s head.

“Lon’s orders. We’re out of here,” Ed spoke again. “He’ll be fine.”

“We have to stay with Brian,” I repeated, shaking my head stubbornly as I carefully eased the coat under Brian’s head. I frowned as I noticed a hard lump in the material. What was that? I reached into the coat pocket and felt a couple baggies. Pulling them out I saw that they contained a phone...and a photo of Kevin’s fearful face staring up at the camera as he lay sprawled in a hotel bed. There was something written on the bottom of the photo. I knew they were lyrics without even reading. I dropped the baggies. And blinked as I realized that the phone was my broken one.

The one that the agents had taken before they’d been killed.

How had Ed gotten it unless...

He was towering over me, reaching for me. His steel grey eyes blazing with anger.

I shook my head. This wasn’t happening. It couldn’t be. I blinked my eyes and looked again into Ed’s.

They were still steel grey.

“No...” I whimpered and started trying to scramble away before he could get a hold of me. I rolled onto my stomach and started crawling as fast as I could, knowing it was a lost cause.

“You just couldn’t come quietly could you?” Ed growled as he reached down and grabbed my injured leg. I screamed as he twisted it. “We could have just walked out of here.”

“Stop...” I gasped.

“But you have to have your own way. Spoiled little brat.” I screamed again as he let go of my leg and it flopped uselessly to the floor. “We have to stay with Brian,” he mimicked me scornfully. “We could have been out of here.” I looked around frantically, looking for something I could use to defend myself. “You could have just come quietly, and then I wouldn’t have to hurt you,” he continued. He reached down and grabbed me under my arms, hauling me to my feet. He shoved me against the wall, holding me there as he stared into my eyes for a few moments. “Now...are you going to come quietly?”

I glanced down as Brian moaned again. “N-nick?” he rasped out as his eyelids fluttered open. Oh Brian no...this is the worst time you could come to...

Ed cursed. “If you’d gone when I said to, I wouldn’t have to hurt him. Spoiled little brat, have to ruin everything.”

Holding me against the wall with one hand, he reached to his belt and pulled his gun out. No. This couldn’t happen.

“Nick?” Brian whispered, sounding completely disoriented.

Ed aimed the gun down at him.

NO! I screamed with fury and pushed off the wall, sending Ed off balance. The gun clattered to the floor as I caught him off guard enough to dislodge it from his grasp. With him no longer holding me up, I crumpled to the floor. I saw the gun spin to a stop a few yards away. I had to get to it first. Ed was still on his feet though. He started toward it.

I grabbed his leg and yanked, sending him crashing to the floor. I swallowed my pain and struggled to get past him to the gun.

Ed rolled us over, trying to pin me. I lashed out, striking his neck like Lon had taught me. His eyes bulged and he made a choking sound as he jerked back away from me for a few moments. Thank you, Lon!

I rolled over and started sliding my body closer to the gun.

Ed was on me again before I got far. He grabbed me by the hair and drew my head back, then slammed it against the floor. My head exploded. Guess that was going to be on my death certificate after all. Okay, so it didn’t really explode but it sure felt like it did. It was weird. Kind of like there were fireworks going off. Bursts of color clouded my vision.

I felt my body being rolled over again.

“..ou c...st...o...ietly...” Ed was saying something but only small bits of it were penetrating the fog. “C...’t...av...y...ightin...me.” What? Not that it mattered. I was dying anyway. I stopped struggling. It was over anyway. Death awaited. I stared up at him, waiting for him to make the final blow.

Instead I felt something sharp jab into my side. A needle. We were back at the beginning again. He was going to drug me. And I was going to wake up somewhere chained to a pipe. And then he’d torture and kill me slowly.

He pulled the needle out.

The syringe sounded like a grenade pin as it dropped from his fingers and hit he floor. All other sound was gone but for the echo of it bouncing. Just a few more moments and the grenade would explode.

Ed stayed on top of me, staring down at me. “That’s right. Just relax.” He reached up and brushed the sweat-soaked hair from my face. It was eerily gentle the way he stroked my cheek. I closed my eyes, not wanting to see the look on his face. “We weren’t finished,” he told me gruffly. I felt his breath against my neck as his body pressed down on mine. My stomach twisted as I realized where this was probably going.

“Get off him!” a voice growled. I twisted my head a little and saw Kevin stumbling toward us, his hands still cuffed behind his back. Oh god. How could I have thought he was the one? I’d pointed a gun at him. I’d betrayed him when all along he was my brother. Ed...I’d let Ed make me doubt my brother. And despite that, Kevin was here to rescue me. I’m so sorry, Kevin, I should have known you’d never hurt me.

“Fuck,” Ed swore. He looked down at me one more time then was off me. Headed down the hall to deal with Kevin. I tried to get up but found that my body wasn’t responding. The blow to my head had really taken its toll.

A moment later I felt a hand squeeze my good ankle gently. I looked down and saw Brian looking at me. “Hang in there,” he whispered. And then he was on his feet and moving swiftly down the hall to the others. He had something in his hand.

A large green vial of pepper spray. He must have grabbed it when he got my stuff from the dressing room.

I bit my lip and shifted my body to try and see what was going on. I felt horrible that I could do nothing to save myself, but was thankful my brothers were there to save me.

Ed had Kevin backed against the wall and was choking him. Brian raised the vial as he approached the pair. “Let him go,” Brian ordered as he aimed the spray. Ed and Kevin both looked over at Brian, but Ed made no move to release Kevin, who’s face was red, with just a tinge of blue around his lips. Oh God. Ed was killing him. I couldn’t let that happen. Not after everything he’d done to try and save me. “Let go NOW,” Brian demanded.

When Ed still didn’t let go, Brian pressed the button and let loose with the spray.

Ed screamed out, releasing Kevin raising his hands to cover his eyes. Kevin screamed too as he fell forward, the spray going directly into his eyes. Brian began coughing and stumbled back, also affected.

I remembered then what Lon had told me about how the spray would affect anyone in the area, not just the one it was aimed at. Oh no.

Ed grabbed Brian and threw him against the wall. He crumpled to the ground, the pepper spray falling from his grasp. This was all my fault. I had to do something. But I was helpless. I could hardly move. What was I supposed to do to help them? I couldn’t let Ed kill them. At the moment they were just as defenseless as I was. Brian was lying lifelessly (no he’s not dead he’s not dead) on the floor and Kevin was stumbling the wrong direction down the hall, screaming in pain but unable to do anything to get the stuff out of his eyes since his hands were chained behind his back. And Ed was swearing a long string of obscenities as he rubbed at his eyes.

And then he turned toward me. His eyes were puffy and red and he had tears on his cheeks. And he looked furious. “This is your fault, you spoiled little brat!” he bellowed as he started toward me.

I started to push myself back with my arms but then spotted the discarded gun. Always step into an attack, not away, I remembered the training. I don’t think this is exactly what that meant, but it was good advice. I slid forward and grabbed the gun. I rolled onto my back and sat up, aiming it at Ed who was still storming toward me.

My vision was clouding over with thousands of little black dots and the hall was spinning. The drug was about to take me. There was just one little thing I had to do first. I couldn’t let him kill my brothers.

I pulled the trigger.

I couldn’t scream as Ed’s weight came crashing down on me. I couldn’t even push him off of me. I could only lie trapped beneath him. I felt a warm liquid dribbling onto me. He was bleeding. I’d shot him. I’d killed him.

I smiled as I passed out.

It was over.
Chapter 17 by Chaos
Did you know that dead men don’t bleed?

I mean when you think about it, it makes sense. When you’re dead, the heart stops pumping. Without the heart doing its thing, blood stops flowing. So if you shoot a dead person, they won’t bleed from the bullet wound. I learned that on an episode of CSI.

It took me a little while to figure out what happened. But I had plenty of time to think. I’d thought of song lyrics. I’d thought of movies. I’d thought of TV shows. Anything to keep myself from going crazy.

And that’s when I remembered.

Dead men don’t bleed.

Ed was bleeding when he was on top of me.

Which meant that he wasn’t dead after I’d shot him.

I stared at Kevin who was lying a few feet away from me. Rather I stared at his form. My eyes had adjusted to the darkness enough that I could do that. Every once in a while, he would move a little bit. And I could hear the sniffling enough to know that he was crying.

Not that I blamed him. I cried at first too. But I’m all cried out. Finally.

I wished we could talk to each other, but the gag in my mouth prevented me from saying a word, just like the gag in his kept him silent. I wished I could move close enough to touch him. Hold his hand. Anything for the physical comfort. But I couldn’t move.

I was only half conscious when someone had pounded the stake into the ground. Not conscious enough to even register then what was going on. It wasn’t until I started really waking up that I realized that the stake had a purpose.

And that purpose was to bind the handcuffs I was wearing to the earth.

That wasn’t the worst realization though.

That came later.

When someone placed a board over the entrance of the…cave or hole or whatever it was we were in. And when the sound of dirt raining down on the wooden plank made me realize that we were being sealed into our tomb.

The End
End Notes:
People say I'm mean. Am I mean? Hmm...
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