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"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.


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.


"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.