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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?


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.


"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.


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.