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** AJ **

Howie had been crying for seventeen minutes and thirty-two seconds; not that I was counting. He hadn’t moved from the chair since Agent Adams had given us the news about Brian and Nick. I knew that Howie thought that they had been abducted, but I knew better. I had been watching them the entire morning and I could tell just by the way they had been acting that they had been planning something. I should have opened my mouth and called them on it. Instead, I had kept up my charade about being too doped up on medication to think straight. It had seemed like a good idea at the time; a way of detaching myself from the fear that had settled itself in my stomach. Now, watching Howie suffer in isolation, I felt like a complete asshole.

“Mr. Dorough?”

Howie reluctantly lifted his head at the sound of Agent Adams’s voice. He was clearly still reeling from their argument. “Yeah?”

“The rental car that you used to get here this morning is missing.” Agent Adams cut straight to the chase. “Do you have the keys?”

“No.” Howie shook his head. “Nick has them. He drove us ...” He trailed off as the reality of the situation finally dawned on him. “They left? They left on their own without telling me?”

I wanted to leap out of the bed and wrap my arms around Howie. He looked so betrayed, so crushed. I wanted to tell him that everything was going to be okay, even though I was pretty sure that it wasn’t. When Nick and Brian came back, if they came back, I was going to murder them. How could the two of them have been so selfish? Didn’t they care about Howie? Didn’t they care about me?

I looked at my phone that was lying silently on the table next to the bed. I was sure that Nick and Brian had their reasons for leaving, but I still felt betrayed. Brian could have told me what they were planning. He should have told me. Even though we operated at opposite ends of the spectrum of life, Brian was the one person who I knew would always have my back. Even though I had never officially given him the title, he was my best friend.

“It seems that way.” Agent Adams’s face had settled into a permanent frown. “Do you have any idea where they could have gone?”

Howie let out a massive sigh and wiped away his remaining tears. “I have no idea. They never tell me anything.” He glanced cautiously in my direction. “AJ might know. He and Brian are super close.”

Agent Adams turned to me. He looked more than a little sceptical. “He doesn’t have a clue about what’s going on in this room. I doubt that he knows where Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dumb have run off to.”

“I know exactly what’s going on.” My voice cracked as I pushed myself up into a sitting position. “I know that you’re being a colossal asshole.”

Howie actually smirked. “How long have you been off the morphine?”

I decided not to let Howie in on the fact that I had been faking my stupidity for the last twenty-four hours. It would only make things worse. “Long enough to know that Kevin is missing and that Nick and Brian have disappeared ... probably to find Kevin on their own.”

Agent Adams grunted. “Well, if you have all the answers, can you tell us where your buddies have gone?”

I shook my head, struggling to keep my emotions in check. I was pissed at Nick and betrayed at Brian’s choice to leave me in the dark. “I don’t know. They didn’t say anything to me.”

“Even Brian?” Howie looked surprised. “He didn’t saying anything to you?”

I shook my head for the second time. “He probably thought that I wouldn’t understand ...” I trailed off. “... because of the pain medication.”

As soon as the words left my mouth, I felt better. Of course that’s why Brian hadn’t said anything to me; he thought that I was doped out of my mind. If I hadn’t been so stupid, if I hadn’t pretended to be so heavily influenced by the drugs, then he would have confided in me. He always confided in me.

“What do we do?” Howie settled his bloodshot eyes on my face. “What are we going to do, AJ?”

“I dunno, Howie.”

I gingerly propped myself up on the pillows and resisted the urge to wince. My back felt as though it had been shattered into a thousand pieces. The doctors said that I was lucky that I hadn’t broken anything. One doctor had even gone so far as to call it a ‘miracle’ that I wasn’t paralyzed. Miracle or not, I was just happy to be alive. I would never be able to forget the fall or the aftermath; the look on Brian’s face when he had placed his arms around my neck would haunt me forever.

“I have some other news for you.” Agent Adams started. “We’ve managed to locate Mr. Richardson.”

“You have?!” Howie flew to his feet. “Where is he? How is he? What happened? When can we see him?”

I looked expectantly at the burly man. Howie had asked all of my questions in one long breath.

“He’s here at the hospital.” Agent Adams frowned. “An ambulance brought him in a few minutes ago. I’m sorry to tell you that he’s unconscious at the moment. It seems as though he was subjected to a – to a severe beating.”

“What?” I blinked stupidly. “Someone beat him up?”

Agent Adams nodded. “To the point of unconsciousness.”

“I can’t – I can’t deal with this.” Howie fell back onto the chair. The tears were once again rolling down his face. “I can’t fucking deal with this anymore!”

“I don’t understand.” I was still trying to comprehend the situation. “Do you know who hurt him? What are the chances of him waking up?”

Agent Adams had the decency to look upset. “I don’t have an answer to either of those questions at the moment. The best I can tell you is that your friend is being cared for by a highly skilled medical team as we speak. As soon as I have an update on his condition I will let you know.”

“Great.” I mumbled. “I guess we’ll just sit here and wait then.”

The anger was bubbling up inside me. I didn’t want to sit on my ass and wait to hear if Kevin was going to be okay. What I wanted to do was go and find the person who had hurt him and put him in the ground. Of course, that wasn’t an option in my present condition.

“What about Nick and Brian?” Howie spat. “Is anyone still trying to track them down?”

“My team is on it.” Agent Adams replied; his tone equally chilly. “Again, I’ll let you know what we find out.”

“I really want to punch that guy in the face.” I muttered as soon as Agent Adams had left the room. “He’s acting like all of this is our fault.”

“Some of it is our fault.” Howie sighed. “Kevin, Nick and Brian all chose to go off on their own.”

“We can’t start blaming each other, D.” I argued. “I’m sure that they all had their reasons for leaving ...”

“Cut the crap, AJ!” Howie called me out. “Why are you defending them? Someone tried to kill us and the three of them still chose to do their own thing. What does that say about how they feel about us? We’re supposed to be a team. We’re supposed to stick together, but I don’t see anyone sitting here supporting the two of us.”

I didn’t have a response to Howie’s accusations. I had never been in this situation. Usually, I was the one going off on my own and doing my own thing. Every time that I wasn’t a part of the group it was the result of my own choices. As much as I hated to admit it, being excluded stung more than I could have ever imagined. Was this how Howie felt all the time? How many times had we unintentionally excluded him? How many times had we made him feel like his opinions and his contributions didn’t matter?

“This is bullshit!” I pulled my phone off of the table and tapped furiously at the screen. “I’m going to call Brian. He should know that his cousin is lying in the hospital fighting for his life.”

Howie simply shook his head and turned his eyes to the ceiling. “He’s not going to answer you, AJ. It’s back to the way that it used to be with him and Nick. As long as they’ve got each other no one else matters.”

I pressed my lips together and brought the phone to my ear. My stomach flipped as I waited for Brian to pick up. Howie was wrong. He had to be wrong.
Chapter End Notes:
I fully apologize for the lack of updates lately. Life has been getting in the way of my writing. *sigh* I hope that those of you who have been reading this haven't given up on me!!