Chapter 41

Zac had just about had it. Calling and calling and calling, even resorting to calling Jason's house, and what did he get? Busy, busy, busy. Call the pagers? Nothing. Nada. Zip. He was mad. "Karen." "Hmmm?" Karen was checking his vitals, frowning. "Hush up a minute, Zac." She was concerned. This was taking too much out of him. His temp had climbed back up a degree, whether a normal evening increase, or all the adrenaline she didn't know. Pulse, respirations, blood pressure, all sky high. He was one giant ball of anxiety. His color was bad, and his sentences were broken by frequent bursts of coughing. He'd had his meds, he'd had his bath, and more than anything now, he needed to sleep, but there was no way that was going to happen. "Karen!" "Oh, sorry sweetie, what?" "I don't care if they call back. Heck with them." "Zac, you don't mean that." "Yes I do! If they even cared where I was, they'd have called back by now." Sighing, she watched him drop the receiver, non too gently, into its cradle, and fix his eyes, resolutely, on the TV screen. Snorting a little, at his temper, Karen nudged him a little. "How you feeling, anyway?"

He thought about it. He felt pretty darned lousy. Everything he'd woken up with had suddenly worsened, and he felt almost as bad as he had hiking along after Jason. He kept coughing up all kinds of nasty junk, he was grossing himself out. He wanted to talk to his mom, he wanted to know what was going on. He wanted to go home! He ticked these off for Karen, for once not appreciating the sympathy. He was just edgy. It was making him crazy, not being able to reach anyone. What could be wrong there? He shook his head, irritable. "How come I feel so much worse than I did earlier?" His stomach was starting to give him grief, and he made a face, swallowing. "I'm starting to feel like I'm gonna throw up. I haven't even eaten anything, how can I feel like that?" "Just comes with the territory, hon. Things tend to get a little worse at night." He turned over, onto his stomach, hoping it would help, and sighed a little when he felt her rubbing his back. Felt good. He was so sleepy. Couldn't relax though. Too nervous. "Karen, why don't they call?" "I don't know, sweetie." He turned back over, looked into her eyes, and she had the disconcerting sensation of being read. "Would you tell me if you did?" Startled at the astuteness of the question, she hesitated for a moment. Would she? She sat down on the edge of the bed, thinking it over. "Well, Zac, I suppose it would depend." He nodded, listening carefully. "On what?" "Well, I guess on what would be best for you. But Zac..." Her face was deadly serious, "I honestly, HONESTLY, have absolutely no idea about any of this. None whatsoever." He stared into her eyes a moment longer, finally sighing and looking away, back toward the TV. His headache was worse now, and it almost hurt to look at it. He stared listlessly, not really caring what was on. His stomach had started doing flips, and the ironic thought. "Man, it's the only part of me that's not tired" flickered through his head. It was really bad, though. He felt sweat starting to break out on his face, and his mouth started to water. Tapping Karen's hand, he swallowed hard, and whispered "Oh, I really am gonna be sick..." She handed him a basin, and reached to push his hair back. "Look at me, Zac" His eyes found hers, and she nodded. "Take a breath," he did as she asked. "Breathe it out. Good boy. You keep doing that. And keep swallowing." His eyes never left hers, as he followed her even, steady breathing. He could feel a tickle in his throat, and fought it. If he started coughing, it was all over and he knew it. "God, it's working..." He was amazed, but the nausea was really beginning to back off.

Karen saw some color begin to come back into his face, and smiled. "Better?" He nodded a little, and she squeezed his hand. "Just do that if it comes back. No guarantees that it'll work every time, though..." He smiled. "I know." Suddenly feeling like he loved this woman more than anyone he'd ever met, he sat up, and slipped an arm around her neck, resting his head on her shoulder. Warm contentment began to slip in. He wanted his mother, but he loved Karen, and he felt safe. Her arms around him felt genuine, he knew she really liked him. Sighing a little, he'd started to doze, when motion outside the window that opened onto the corridor, caught his eye.

Karen felt him tense up, and moved him away from her slightly. "Zac, what is it?" He didn't answer. His smile had vanished, eyes gone blank and far away. "Zac?"

Zac didn't hear her. Zac didn't hear anything. Taylor, outside the window, outlined starkly against the brilliantly lit corridor. Taylor, blood streaming from his eyes, face twisted in pain. A sudden flash, the vision imprinted against his retinas like a sudden bolt of lightening, and his brother was gone. His eyes held the image, glowing blue, as he turned back to Karen. White as paper, trembling, he flung his arms around her, hiding his face against her neck, feeling tears start. God, he couldn't get that out of his eyes!

"Sweetie what is it?!" Baffled, Karen held him, feeling him shake. "What is it, honey tell me." She pushed him away a little, and looked into his eyes. "Tell me what just happened." His voice shook as violently as his body was, as he pulled her in close again. "Tay, I saw Tay... I saw Tay, and he was bleeding..." She sighed, knowing it was all anxiety. Poor thing, he was just scared to death. "Karen, there's something wrong." His voice was tight, strained. "I know there is, there's something wrong with him. Something's happened to him, that's why they're not picking up, or calling back. You don't understand!" He shoved her away, suddenly, irrationally angry with her for not understanding. "I have to find out, and nobody's helping me! Just get out, go somewhere! Just leave me alone!" He was furious, close to tears, and he wanted her out of there. "You think you know so much, and you don't know anything!!" He was shouting now, the unperturbed look on her face making him even angrier. How could she just stand there and look at him like that? He sat up suddenly, eyes flashing. "Everyone thinks they know what's going on, and they're all wrong, and nobody even..." He broke off abruptly. Whatever it was, the anger, the shouting, the sudden movement, some combination, the nausea had suddenly surged back, and he sat back quickly, swallowing hard, refusing to meet her eyes. "Just go, okay? Just go!" She stayed put, for the moment, watching him."Yeah Zac, you're right. I don't understand the whole situation. But I think I know how you feel, it's been a long, hard day, and it's scary to be alone, and not able to find anyone." He snorted, and waved her out." I'm not scared, I just want you to go!" She nodded. "Yeah, okay. You need down time, all you had to do is say the word" She gave him a tired smile as she left the room, wondering as she went when the headache would hit. Both his and hers. "Coffee. I need coffee. With a good stiff shot of bourbon in it..." Muttering to herself, eyeing the clock, wondering how long to give him, she bumped into Christie, her charge nurse. Christie was frowning. "What's all the yelling?" Karen grimaced, and pointed her thumb behind her. "Just Zac, throwing a fit. He's a tiny bit stressed at the moment. Got an Iburprofen on ya?" Christie laughed, and slid behind the desk to get her purse. "Take two, they're small. Maybe even three. You doin' okay?" "Yeah." Karen sighed. "It's just frustrating, he's been trying to call home forever, and can't get through. He's flat convinced there's something wrong. He just blew up." "I didn't ask if HE was okay. I asked if YOU were." Karen looked up, surprised. "Oh, well sure. I'm fine." "How long you givin' him?" Karen smiled. "Maybe ten minutes. We'll see."

"God, my head hurts." Zac stared at the call bell, rubbing it between his fingers. "That was dumb, she's mad at me, now she'll never come back in. Why'd I say that anyway?" He wanted her to come back. "I can't call her. Not after I yelled at her like that..." He felt tears again, and swore softly at himself. "What's wrong with me? God, I'm so useless..." He curled up, call bell in hand, wishing he dared ring it, wondering if he thought at her hard enough, she'd hear him and come back. Sighing, he shifted a little, and caught sight, for the first time, of the hospital gown he'd thrown on, jumping out of the tub. "Oh my God, WHAT am I wearing?" He gazed in horror at the baby deer, baby rabbits, baby skunks, frolicking across the face of the gown. "Bambi. I can't believe I'm wearing Bambi. This is just..." Sighing, he weighed it in his mind. His head was killing him, his stomach was queasy, he was seconds away from bawling like a baby, and he was wearing Bambi. And alone, he couldn't do a darn thing about any of them. Sighing, he picked up the bell again. "Okay Karen, please come back, and please don't hit me..." "Why would I hit you?" Her voice came from just beside him, and he jumped, yelping. "How long've you been there?" "Couple minutes. Here." She handed him a paper cup of water, and two more Tylenol. "Figured you could use these." She sat down next to him, watched him swallow the pills, and took the cup back, noting his refusal to meet her eyes. "So, tiger, wanna talk about it?" He hugged her quickly, and she smiled at his whisper "sorry" in her ear. "That's okay sweetie, I understand. It's scary not being able to do anything about anything. But we're going to find them." He nodded against her neck, and his whisper came again. "Think we could do something about Bambi, here?" She smiled, and gently disengaged him. "I think I can find you something.

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Isaac was ready to throw the phone. It'd been in use too long, the little low battery light glowing obnoxiously in his face. Every time he tried to dial, the call cut off before it could even ring. He'd moved in as close to the base as he could, but it still wasn't working. Damn it. What could he do? His mind, numb, shocked, and too tired to connect, refused to give him the solution, and he sat, frustration mounting, staring at the phone on its base, hoping it would hurry up and charge. Behind him, in the living room, he could hear Taylor. Poor kid had practically no voice at all, and every word sounded as if it were choking him. "Aw Tay..." the thought, guilt ridden. "What'd we do to you?" He rested his head on his arms for a moment, guilt and regret burning in his heart. "Nothing, you dimwit, it had nothing to do with you." He jumped up, eyes huge. That was Taylor's voice, clear as a bell, faintly disgusted. "Shit." Isaac cursed softly, as he sat down. "I'm hearing things." "Right, now use the other phone. Don't be a moron, Ike." He jumped again. "Damn it I heard that!" He stepped into the living room, taking in the scene instantly. There was no way Taylor had spoken to him. He was lying on the couch, eyes closed, Isaac thought he was holding his father's hand, he really wasn't sure. Sighing, he shrugged, and went back into the kitchen. "Okay, so I'm crazy. It's at least a helpful kind of crazy, since the voices in my head seem to be thinking of things I'm not." He plucked the phone from the wall, and dialed the number. It went right through.

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Karen had just started out of the room, when the phone rang, freezing her in her tracks. One ring, two... she glanced at Zac, who's eyebrows had raised somewhere up above his head. Hand resting on the receiver, he raised his eyes heavenward "God, please don't let it be an aluminum siding salesman..." The humor was forced, his screeching nerves showing through. He picked up the phone, eyes closed.

Ike heard the faint, trembling "Hello..." and shouted, unable to help himself. "Yes!! Zac!!"

Zac's eyes filled with tears, and his face light in an enormous smile, all at once. "Oh, Ike, oh God..." His words dissolved into tears for a moment, then came back strong. "Ike, Oh God, why weren't you answering?! Is Tay okay?!" Isaac's voice was just as shaky as his. "Oh, Zac, I'm so sorry, it's been so insane here, where are you?!" Zac shook his head, unmindful of the fact that his brother couldn't see him. "I don't know, I have no... Karen!!" "Hmm?" "Where am I?!" She laughed, shaking her head. "Of all things... you're in Sandy Springs, honey." Zac repeated the name of the town back to Isaac, and his brow furrowed. "Ike, I'm fine, tell me what's going on with Tay." Isaac hesitated. It didn't surprise him that Zac knew something was up, but he wasn't sure how much to tell him. Finally, deciding to err on the side of caution, he hedged his answer. "Tay's okay, I'm gonna get mom, okay? Hold on!!" "Yeah, I'm not going anywhere." Zac's voice was annoyed. He knew Isaac was running out on the question. "IKE!" "What?! Zac, just hold on for mom, it might take me a second, it's a zoo here." Sighing, knowing he wasn't going to get anything out of him, he agreed. "Yeah, okay Ike, I'm holdin..." He raised his eyes to Karen. "He won't tell me about Tay, he's gettin' my mom. I don't like it." She sat next to him, and he reached for her hand. "Did he sound like something was wrong?" Zac shook his head. "No, he just sounded excited, but..." Sighing, he leaned against her. "I'm tired, Karen." "I know, hon."

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"MOM!" Isaac's shout caused Diana to jump nearly a foot, and she turned, flashing him a sour look. She had Jason in front of her, and Ike noted the poor child looked as if he'd been set upon by demons. "Ike, shut up, alright?!" She turned back to Jason, fully intending to keep grilling him about Zac. "MOM!! For God sake, listen to me, its ZAC!!" "He doesn't know where Zac is, Ike..." Her voice was peeved, and exhaustion had fogged her mind to the point where nothing was making any sense. What the hell did he want, anyway? She turned back to Jason, gasping suddenly as hands grabbed her, hard, and spun her around. "MOM!!!" He shook her slightly, and saw fury well up in her eyes, as her hand came up. "Holy God she's gonna hit me..." He grabbed her hand, hard, and shook her again. "Snap out of it and listen! Zac is on the phone!! Now go talk to him!" "Zac is what?" Isaac rolled his eyes, trying to be patient. He wasn't much better off than she was, after all. "Zac, your son..." Giddiness suddenly welled up in him, and he felt himself starting to laugh "the one we've been looking for ALL this time, is ON THE PHONE! So leave poor Jay alone..." Jason shot him a grateful look... "and go talk to him before he explodes waiting for you!" Infuriatingly she stood there, her gaze moving from Jason, to Isaac, back to Jason. "Zac's where?" "Oh hell..." He grabbed her arm and pulled. "Just come on..." It was too crazy out there, she couldn't connect. He knew how she felt. Better to just put the phone in her hand. He yanked her into the kitchen, grabbed the receiver and threw it at her. "He's on the phone! ZAC!" Frowning, she picked it up, eyes questioning. Isaac nodded, grinning, and she put it to her ear. "Zac?"

Zac waited impatiently, fingers tapping. "God, Karen, it sounds like a zoo over there..." She smiled faintly. "It certainly does, I can hear it over here." "Well, my family is all insane anyway, but something's..." He stopped suddenly, caught his breath, and she saw his eyes fill up again... For a moment, he was silent, and then he found his voice, barely, a whisper, "Mom? Oh..." and the last of his control went. Completely. Utterly. Struggling to speak even another word, he could only shake his head... Dropping the phone, his hands covered his face as he cried. "Oh sweetie..." She reached to pick up the phone he'd dropped, and slid an arm around him. Putting the phone to her ear, she spoke quickly. "Mrs. Hanson? My name's Karen. We're so glad we finally got through, we've been trying to reach you for hours..."

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Taylor finally caved in to the voices of reason all around him, and stopped trying to talk. It hurt too much, it made him cough, and most of all, the drugs he'd been given made it too hard to link his thoughts into any sort of order. In short, he didn't know what he was talking about. Assured constantly by his father, and CC, that they wouldn't go anywhere, and would be right there, ready to listen to him as soon as he was able to talk to them, he'd finally relaxed a little, letting his eyes close. God he was tired. He wasn't sure what had happened, and was far too sedated to really think about it. A pleasant sort of drift had taken him over, and he was nearly asleep, when Isaac burst into the room, shouting.

"Zac's on the phone! Zac is ON THE PHONE!!" He was giddy, laughing, and quite unthinking as he picked up Taylor's feet and flopped down on the end of the couch. "Tay, wake up, Zac's on the phone!" Taylor, already awake, heard a chorus of scolding voices wash over him, as everyone in the room jumped on Isaac for disturbing him. "Yeah, give I'm hell..." the thought made him smile. He was stoned out of his mind, yet still feeling slightly superior. He'd heard what Isaac had said, they hadn't. Cracking his eyes open, he kicked his brother lightly. "Is he okay?" God, it hurt to talk. Ike smiled, and rested his arm congenially on his brother's leg. "Yep, he is. He said he was in Sandy Springs. First thing he did was ask about you." "Y'nt tell'm didya?" Ike shook his head, his smile fading. "I told him you were okay. Mom's talking to him now." Nodding, smiling faintly, Taylor's eyes closed again. "D'tell I'm." "No, I didn't." The boys conversation had finally impressed itself upon the others in the room. "Zac's on the phone?!" Taylor smiled again, shaking his head. They were so slow. Ike grinned. "Yeah, he's talking to mom. He's okay, he's in Sandy Springs." Walker was flabbergasted "How, in the name of all that's holy, did he end up there?!" "I don't know. Go ask him." Walker nodded, glanced at CC, who waved him away. "Go, go, we're fine here." Taylor's voice, a slurred whisper, drifted out then. "Y'go. S'all good". Walker's "Hmmpf" followed him out the door.

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"Karen, gimme the phone." Karen frowned, waving Zac off for the umpteenth time. Explaining to Diana exactly what was going on, was being made difficult by Zac's persistent dancing around on the bed, tugging at her arm, grabbing at the phone, and insistent pleading. "Karen, I wanna talk to my mom, gimme the phone!" His tears of relief had come and gone, and he was ready to talk now. Right now. "Zac, can you wait just a minute? I know you want to talk to her, but..." "No!! Gimme the phone!!" His voice had taken on a grating whine, and Diana, on her end of the call, laughed. "He sounds like he's feeling pretty good." Karen sighed, thinking, not for the first time, that Zac, as sweet as he was, might be just the tiniest bit spoiled. "I'd say so, he's all but jumping on my head" Diana's tone turned sympathetic. "You sound pretty Zacced out. Why don't you put him on, once he's calmed down we'll be able to talk." Karen sighed, thinking that more than anything, she needed a break. "Tell you what. Talk to him, and then call back, and ask for ext. 326. The charge nurse's name is Christie, she'll fill you in on all you need to know. I'm going to give you Zac now, before he detonates." Her voice, weary though it was, held a smile, and Diana heard it. "Thanks, so much." "Oh you're welcome. Here he is..." Zac stuck his tongue out agreeably, and grinned, reaching for the phone. "Hey, don't get smart Bambi boy, the fate of your attire rests in my hands." He groaned at the idea of having to wear Bambi one second longer, and took the phone from her. Karen smiled, and gave him a little wave. She'd run and get him some scrubs, and he could talk to his mom privately.

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Tiffany's gaze took in Taylor, moonlight a pale blue wash against his face. He looked peaceful, finally, in sleep. It'd been so long since she'd seen him this way. Funny, the thought, sinking down onto the floor, to lean back against the couch, he used to be this way all the time. Her mind went back, images of Taylor trying valiantly to teach her to skateboard, laughing at her clumsiness, images of days at the camp, hanging from trees, jumping into the lake, sunlight on sparkling wet hair, nights sleeping deeply under the stars. Hours in the treehouse, talking about everything and nothing. Smiling, drifting toward sleep, she remembered the night they'd gone to the fair, and she'd bet him she could ride the Gravitron more times than he could. Cold, hard cash had been riding on that bet, and she'd ridden it six times in a row. She'd gotten so sick after ride six that he'd had to actually hold her up to keep her from going down in a big heap at his feet. He hadn't laughed at her though, not then, and he hadn't gloated on the fact that he'd ridden it eight times, and was still doing just fine. He'd just walked her home, steering her around any obstacles her dizzy head tried to walk her into. He'd held his laughter, and his teasing, until she was feeling better, laughingly brushing off her comment that he was sweet, with "Yeah, no way, I just didn't want you to shove me in front of a truck." Laughing a little at the memory, she looked at his face now. So much had happened. Had she really seen him, pinned to the ground and screaming? It seemed so less real than what she knew was Taylor. Had he lost his mind? When he woke up, would he talk to her, as himself? Or would she hear other voices coming from his mouth, other emotions reflecting from eyes gone dark, and savage. How could that be him? She laid her head on his chest, gently, she didn't want to wake him, twisting a strand of his hair between her fingers, watching the moonlight glinting on it. "Should've done something about this, Tay..." Her eyes filled with tears, and she swiped impatiently at them, angry with herself. She hated to cry. "Should've known something was wrong, how could I let you suffer like that? Haven't you always been there for me? Guess I really blew it this time, just watching you come apart, and not even knowing it."

Steady thump, thump of his heart in her ear suddenly sped up, she felt his hand in her hair, and his voice, a sleepy, breathy whisper."N' Tiff. S'not you'r fault..." His hand stroked her hair, and she felt something inside her finally, irrevocably, let go. Her eyes filled with tears then, tears that overflowed, soaking into his shirt, shaking her body. His other arm went around her then, and she heard his voice again, a little stronger. "N'don't cry. Tiffy, it wasn't you." He kissed the top of her head then, and pulled her even closer. "Wasn't you, y' couldn't have done anything. Y'didnt even know." Tears gave way to anger, for a moment, and she pulled away from him. "I know, Taylor, WHY didn't I know? Why didn't you tell someone? You should have told me." He shook his head, waking up a little more. "No, you're being silly. You weren't even there." His throat burned abominably, and he grimaced. "Tiffy, lemme up, I need to get a drink." She stood up, gesturing to him to stay there. "I'll get it." He sat up, ignoring her, sitting for a moment, head in hands. "N, I gotta go to the bathroom anyway. And you're all crying, you'd get tears, or boogers or something in my water." "That's not funny." It was though, and she giggled a little, relieved to hear him joking. After today, she'd thought it entirely possible that he was gone for good. Amazed, she took the hand he reached up to her, and helped him stand up. He nodded, affirming to himself that he could actually stand, and set a hand on her shoulder. "Think I could lean on you some? I feel a lot like I'm gonna tip over." She nodded, annoyed that he'd even ask. "Yeah, of course you can Taylor, NO, I'm gonna just watch you fall on your face." He smiled again. That was better, that sounded like his Tiffany. She hated to cry, what was she doing sitting here crying over him anyway? Stepping over a sleeping CC, they made their way out of the room.

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"Zac, you okay in there?" "Yeah, Karen...", She chuckled at the boys annoyed tone. "I been doing this on my own for a long time now." "Well get testy why don't you? I was talking more about you getting into those pj's" "Oh! Yeah, I'm doing okay. I'll be out in a couple minutes." "Don't try the top, you'll rip you're IV out!" "I know." She heard him humming around a little, and smiled. He'd been a lot happier since hanging up the phone, with the news that his mom and brother were on their way. She gazed out the window, appreciating the moonlight on the fountain. Pretty. "Hey Karen!" "Yeah Zac." "How come I'm getting all sweaty just putting on pajamas?" She shook her head. "I dunno Zac, your sick." "Well, yeah but I'm not doing anything." "Sick people get all sticky and slimy for no real reason, all the time. Don't worry about it. Do you always feel you have to yell to people on the other side of a closed door?" "Yup! So that's it huh? I'm not like, dying or anything?" "Nope. You feel like you're dying?" She heard his laugh then, "No, just kind of slimy." "That's pleasant, Zac. You about done?" "Yeah. I'll let you know." Rolling her eyes, she trotted out to the linen cart, grabbed a washcloth and a hand towel. If he thought he was slimy, chances were, she'd want to do something about it. Absently refolding the towel as she walked in, she'd almost run into Zac before she saw him. "Zac! Didn't I tell you to wait for me?" He smiled, but she noticed he looked a little out of breath. "Yeah, but I figured, I could make it from the bathroom to the bed. And see, I managed to dress myself." "Zac?" "Yeah..." "Don't figure. Now just stand there and don't move." She put the cloth and towel down, took his arm, and led him over to the bed. "Stand right there, if you feel okay with it." "I'm okay...why though? Can we get this Bambi thing off me now?" "That's exactly what I'm doing. Do this..." He raised his arm the way she wanted him too, craning around to see exactly what she was doing. "What're you... whoa, Karen..." He staggered suddenly, and she caught him quickly. "You okay?" He nodded, holding on to her arm. "Yeah, dizzy. I guess I turned wrong. I'm okay, you can let go now." She shook her head. "Nope. If you're dizzy, you get back in bed. We can debambify just as easily there." She let go of his arm for a moment, "Hold on to the siderail here, sweetie," moving the top of the scrubs she'd brought him out of the way, and lowering the bed slightly. She heard a whimper from him, and turned, catching him swiftly as his legs went out from under him. "Karen..." His voice was choked, and she saw his color drain away. Knowing what was coming, she grabbed for the basin with her free hand. Too late, he started to gag before she had even focused on it, and her arm went back around him. The attack was violent, and she could feel him starting to panic. "Zac, it's okay sweetie, I've got you..." He caught a quick breath and she heard his muttered 'sorry' before it started up again. "That's okay hon, just hush now."

It seemed to Zac that it went on forever, long after there was nothing left in him. "Karen..." He tried to get the words out, to tell her it wouldn't stop, he couldn't breathe, but it wouldn't ease up long enough. Nausea hit in waves, unrelieved, and he began to see sparkles in the corners of his eyes. Just when he thought he would simply pass out, the attack stopped, and he drew in a gasping breath, then another, panting..."Oh God, Oh God, Karen..." She pulled him in closer. "I know sweetie, that was bad. C'mon, lets get you into bed." He shook his head, gesturing down at himself, surprised to hear her laugh. "Oh, hon, you're fine, Bambi has seen better days, but your pj's are fine." She quickly finished removing the hated hospital gown, and helped him into bed. Flipping the siderail up, she smiled quickly. "I'll be back in two seconds." She flew out to the linen cart, grabbed a gown and tossed it on over her uniform, threw a towel over the mess on the floor, and headed back to the sink with a washcloth and a cup. Seconds later she handed the water to him. "Here hon, rinse out your mouth. Don't drink any of it right now." He shook his head, and did as she asked, then shut his eyes as she gently washed his face. "I'm really sorry, Karen." She brushed his hair out of his face, and smiled. "That's okay Zac, I hate this uniform anyway." He shook his head. He didn't think it was funny, and his stomach was still flipping and sloshing around. "Karen..." He swallowed a sudden mouthful of spit, and his eyes darted around, looking for anything he could find, "I'm gonna do it again..." She knew, she had the basin ready for him, holding it with one hand, the other resting gently against his forehead. Poor kid, this was miserable. Not as long, or as violent as the first attack had been, this actually seemed to bring him a little relief, and she was pleased to see a little bit of color returning to his face. Sighing, she slid the basin away from him, and grabbed a towel, to wipe off her arm. He was watching her this time, and she could see he felt bad. "Listen kiddo, let me tell you..." He looked up into her eyes. "I'm a nurse. We get puked on all the time. It's no big deal. But twice in one night? It's a good thing I like you..." He smiled faintly at that, and shrugged. "S'like you said. Sick people get all sticky and slimy, for no reason, all the time..." Her eyebrows went up. "Then why, Zac, since you are the sick person, am I the one who's sticky and slimy?" He sighed, and made a face. "Think I could get a toothbrush?" "Yeah sweetie, I'll bring you something. How's your stomach feel now? Better?" He shook his head. "Not really. Not like I'm about to throw up, but not good." She frowned sympathetically. "I'll get you something to help that." She finished washing his face, and handed him another paper cup of water. "I'll be right back. Try to keep everything in you, in you, until I get back." "Yeah, boss lady, I'm gonna try."

Karen jogged out to the desk, muttering, coming up behind Christie, who turned at the griping she heard behind her. "Holy God Karen, what happened to you?" Karen scowled. "Two guesses and the first one doesn't count, Chris..." "Zac?" Karen nodded. "Who else? I been slimed... or Zacced, or something." "He doin' okay now?" Karen shook her head. "No, he's still pretty nauseated. Where's the damned Stemetil. Oh, there it is..." "Want me to give it, so you can go change?" "Nah, he's feeling pretty bad that he got me, I want to at least get it to him that it's okay. I knew it was coming though. Saw it. I've been waiting for it all night. It keeps hitting him, and then backing off. He's been fighting, but it was bound to happen. He's coughing up all that crap and swallowing it. And he went into hyper mode a little bit ago, got way too excited, tried to do way too much. Yeah, it was bound to happen. All I could think was "Oh Lord, another uniform shot to hell... thank God for scrubs." Christie simply stared throughout the incredible run of words. She'd never heard Karen go on quite so much. "Karen, you about ready for a break?" Karen looked back over her shoulder as she headed down the hall, meds in hand "Y'think?!" She headed back for the bed, groaning when she saw Zac with the basin back up close to him. "Sweetie, you are about as miserable as it gets, aren't you?" He nodded, again out of breath. "It won't stop, Karen, why won't it stop?" "It's okay, Zac, it will. It's really not that unusual." His eyes went to the IV she was working on. "What's that?" "That is going to make you feel a whole lot better." "Does it work fast?" "Very fast. No more than ten minutes. Here, make believe this is a toothbrush." She handed him what looked, to him, like a giant Q tip. "What is it?" "It's like a toothbrush, it's lemon glycerin. Just swipe it over your teeth, it'll get rid of the nasty taste." She watched him, watched him toss the swab away, and turn over onto his side. Already his eyes were glazing over as the medication did it's work. "H'come I'm so sleepy, Karen?" She smiled and stroked his hair back. "The medicine honey, it's going to make your stomach feel a lot better, and help you sleep." "Oh..." He yawned, and rubbed at his eyes. "You wake me up when my mom gets here?" "Of course. Would I let you miss her?" "No..." He patted her hand. "No..." He reached up, clumsy and sweet, and touched her cheek. "S'sorry Karen." "I know, I told you, I hate this uniform anyway. Go to sleep, Zac. Stop being so stubborn." He smiled at that, and waved at her a little, why she didn't know. "I love you Karen..." "Aw Zac..." She kissed his cheek then, and watched as his eyes finally closed, and his breathing evened out. Smiling, knowing she had at least an hour now, she headed out to the desk. "Chris, would you mind getting someone in there with a mop? I'm running up to OR for some scrubs, and taking a shower." Christie nodded. "Yeah, go ahead, and go get a break!" "Twist my arm!"

********************

Taylor sank, exhausted all over again, into the corner of the couch, pulling Tiffany down next to him. "God, Tiff, I feel like a truck hit me." She snorted, and settled herself next to him, teasing him gently. "Yeah, that long hike to the kitchen, Tay..." She started to curl into her own corner, surprised when he reached over and pulled her up against him. Smiling, thinking he was a little weird, she settled back. The warmth of his arms around her felt nice, and the spike of pain that had settled behind her eyes, hours ago it seemed, began to loosen its grip. She felt him kiss her head again, and his cheek against her hair, and tipped her head back a little to look at him. "Hey, what's all the cuddly, mushy stuff?" He grinned at her, and shrugged. "Nothin'. Just..." He shook his head, baffled himself, and she smiled. She understood. After the day he'd had, he probably didn't want any part of being alone. "You okay, Tiff? You comfy and stuff?" She laughed softly. "Yeah, stick boy, I'm fine. You're actually..." She turned and poked him a little in the stomach..."...Pretty darned soft." He grinned down at her, and suddenly she felt her heart racing, felt the blood rush to her cheeks. She looked away quickly. "What the hell? This is Taylor!" Shaking her head, not sure why she was suddenly nervous, she settled back again. "I'm just tired." "How come you're still here, Tiff?" She giggled a little. "Long story. Want me to leave?" His arms tightened on her. "Not on your life. But it's really late, how come..." She sighed, and twisted around a little, so she could see him. "Well, mostly it's because your family is nuts." "You're not just figuring that out, after all these years, are you? What'd they do this time?" "Well... lets see. You're dad pacing and muttering stuff all day, refusing to sit down. We had to threaten to drug him if he didn't just cut it out. Your mom chasing reporters like she's the Terminator, grabbing shirt collars, and films, it was great! Ike's hearing voices, and jumping up as if someone goosed him, every time he sits down, everyone's pagers going off continuously, and the phones ringing off the hook, this place was a madhouse! Now your mom and Ike, who are complete and total idiots, are on their way to Sandy Pines, or Windy Tide, or wherever the hell Zac finally called from, even though they've both been awake for three days, and most likely will drive right straight up a tree. Now, here I am, babysitting the kids, you, and them..." She pointed to the comatose men on the floor.

Taylor's jaw dropped slightly as he took this all in. "Whoa. Sounds like they outdid themselves." He sighed, almost afraid to ask what was foremost in his mind. "Tiffy, um, where was I during all this?" She hedged, pulling away from him a little, and he felt her tense up. "Tiff, come on, just tell me." He was afraid he already knew. He knew something had happened, he just wasn't sure what. She took a breath then, not really wanting to tell him, knowing he had to know. "Well, Tay, you kinda had a major blowout." "A what?" "Tay, you freaked completely. Totally and completely" "Oh, shit..." Tears came to his eyes, and he looked away. "Oh man... Tiff, did anybody get hurt? 'Sides me, I mean?" " Tay, you're in the best shape, physically, of anyone here." "Oh, no..." He mumbled something, trying to hide his face, unable to with her in his arms. "Tiff did I hurt you?" "No way, stick boy, you haven't been able to best me in years." The small smile that brought to him faded quickly, as his eyes took in CC's form, on the floor. Pointing to the bandage on his friends wrist, already knowing the answer, he muttered "Who did that?" "Tay, so you want the whole thing, just straight out?" "Yeah, I think I do, I think I better know."

"Well, the house was nuts, everyone looking for Zac, do you remember that?"

"Yeah, vaguely, CC took me for a drive, then he said we had to come home fast, I think he was afraid, but I don't remember why." He shook his head, frustrated with himself. "There's all kinds of time missing."

"Hon, you must have started to remember something, CC was trying to get you into the house, but some reporter guy with a camera stopped you, and you punched him, and took off at a dead run for the road."

"Oh my God..." Taylor hung his head again, blinking to stop the tears from falling on Tiff's head. She took his hand, holding it gently.

"Do you want to hear the rest?"

"Oh damn, there's more?"

"We haven't reached the fun part yet, Taylor." Tiffany gazed up at her friend, not sure she should be telling him, knowing he needed to know.

Taylor took a shuddering breath, tightened his arms around Tiff, until she squeaked.

"Boy, you got some strength in those pipe cleaners, Tay. What're you doing, pumping iron?" He shook his head, and shifted uncomfortably.

"Stop it Tiff, and tell me what happened," He sounded scared, and she winced. "...Just tell me straight, no more joking, ok?"

Tiff sighed heavily, knowing how much this would hurt both of them.

"Ok, you want it, here it is." She slipped an arm across his shoulders, wanting to keep him close.

"You ran for the road, screaming like something I've never heard before, and Ike tackled you just by the driveway. You clawed his face bad, he and CC almost couldn't hold you down. I grabbed some cops to come help them pin you down but you bit CC on his wrist, and broke his teeth when you head butted him. You just about got free, and Ike was in front of you, and Tay?" She stopped for a moment, thinking how to say it. Well, might as well just say it. "You bit him. you bit Ike's face."

Tears flowed steadily down her face, as she watched despair reflected in his eyes, felt his heart pounding, heard his shuddering breaths.

"I can't believe you did that. Ike was bleeding, and almost passed out. The cop, the stupid jerk, maced you! He maced you!!! you went all limp, and your dad carried you into the house. Your mom started yelling at the cops to help her get the press out of here, then I came in. The EMT guys were giving you a needle, and one of them was fixing up Ike, he was in shock. your dad was crying, Tay, Walker was crying! CC was just shaking, he was just holding on to you... then Tay, you scared the shit outta me. Totally. You started talking in other people's voices. "Other peoples?" His voice was thick, tear choked, and more than anything she wished she'd never started. "Yeah. Sounded like it. I recognized your dad's voice, and Ike's voice, but that one voice, the one that kept saying "Come with me, I've been trying to get you alone all day", that one was so awful." Taylor shuddered violently and pulled away from her. "Oh my God, Tiffy..." She shook her head at that. "No you don't, you just hang on to me." "Tiffany!" His swollen throat croaked what would have been a shout. "How can you stand to touch me? Aren't you afraid of me? Aren't you afraid that I'll freak out like that again, and hurt you this time?" He tried to pull away again, and she held him tightly. "No, Tay, no! I'm not afraid of you. I couldn't ever be! I love you!" Tiffy leaned in closer, putting her forehead against his. "Tay, I was afraid today, but I was afraid for you, not of you." His voice came back dully. He was beginning to feel a little sick, wondering what else had happened.

"Is that everything? Did I do anything else?" "No Tay, after the voice thing, you passed out, and didn't wake up until I disturbed your sleep with my guilt trip." Tiff wiped the tears from her face, and sighed heavily "I'm sorry I woke you, you really need the sleep."

Taylor took Tiff's hand, looked at it for a minute as if he wasn't sure what it was, and used it to wipe the tears from his face. Tiffany yanked her hand away, "Ick, you goof!" They both giggled softly, and Taylor looked into her eyes.

"Tiff, I needed this talk more than I needed the sleep. I needed to know what was going on, and I..." His voice broke, and he brought it back with difficulty. "I needed to know you're not afraid. Thank you," he looked at her face, so close to his, and felt his heart start to race again. He loved her so much. He always had, but something right now felt different. "Ah, I'm still so out of it..." He smiled a little, and felt himself blushing, shifting his gaze away from hers. Blushing around Tiffany. How silly. He looked back at her again, intending to tell her so, and found himself hypnotized by her eyes, so close to his. Her lips... could he? "Tiff..?" His whisper needed no answer. He kissed her softly, gently, and held her closer. His breath caught in his throat as she returned the kiss, new sensations, new connections washing over him. Tiffany, this is Tiffany! "Oh God..." His words were a groan, as he broke the kiss, resting his head for a moment, on her shoulder, feeling her hands in his hair, on his back. God he loved her... He looked into her face, saw her eyes shining back at him. She loves me too, and she's not afraid. "Tiffy, I love you, you know that?" She nodded, not trusting her voice. Taylor, this was Taylor... She hugged him tightly, surprised herself by kissing him again, softly, hesitantly. His response encouraged her and she deepened it slightly, suddenly reveling in his scent, his taste. Tay, this was her Tay, what was all this? Suddenly confused, she pulled back, blushing. "Y'okay?" His voice was amused. "Yeah, bratboy, I'm okay. You okay?" He giggled. "I don't know. I should say I'm sorry, but y'know, I'm not?" She giggled back at him. "Me either..." She kissed him again, quickly. "I love you too..." He sighed then, and slid down, stretching out, pulling her next to him. His eyes closed, sleep had snuck up on him again. "Tiffy..." "Hmmm Tay?" She was beyond content, snuggled there next to him, her headache a distant memory. "Thanks..." "Mmm, welcome." Not many minutes had passed, before their breathing slowed into the rhythms of sleep.

CC's eyes closed in relief. They were asleep. Thank God. He got up quietly, stifling a groan as abused muscles screamed. Padding barefoot to the bathroom, he thought about what he'd heard. His name, and the need to use the bathroom had awakened him. Something, some finely honed sense made him lie still, when he heard the children's voices. It would have been easy to just get up and go, but something made him stay and listen, ignoring the demands of his body as best he could. It had taken only a minute to realize that Tiff was telling Taylor what had happened. Fear jabbed into him, then, cold and sharp. If Tay couldn't take it, if it triggered another flashback, things could get very ugly, very fast. But no, he could hear upset in the boy's voice, tears, stress, shakiness, all manner of entirely reasonable emotions. But nothing out of control. No incipient flashbacks. No screaming. No hair pulling. No vomiting. No regression. He was taking it very well. "Must really trust her... God she's doing great, but I wish she'd either hurry up, or he'd listen quicker." Thinking he should catheterize himself before crisis interventions, he struggled to stay quiet. He didn't want to disturb them. This was making his job a great deal easier. If Taylor could hear all of this, about himself, and stay in control, it boded well for him. "He's stronger than he thinks he is..." He tensed up slightly when he heard Taylor raise his voice, asking if Tiff were afraid of him. Holding his breath, he waited for her answer, praying. Ah, there. She'd told him no, she wasn't, and wouldn't be. How much he had needed to hear that. Thank God. Thank God. He knew he had someone on his side, that was wonderful. His ears perked up at a soft sound, now, and again he stifled a groan. "God, their getting mushy. Taylor, buddy, don't try anything you don't have the strength you think you do." Hoping he wasn't going to have to turn a hose on the two of them, he silently prayed that one of them would fall off the couch, or Taylor would throw up, something, anything, to negate any need for birth control, and so he could get up and go pee. He was relieved that they stopped on their own, after exchanging a few kisses. Thank God, they'd gone right to sleep, he had actually been in pain. Finishing up in the bathroom, he flipped on the kitchen light, and sat down at the table, examining his arm. Looked mean, he'd bitten deep, and it had gone an ugly congealed red around the edges. "Good job, Tay, attaway to do it up right. Throw your guts up, and then bite me. Yeah boy." Shaking his head, he slipped out the back door to get his bag. He had some penicillin samples out there. Looked like he'd need them. He thought to wonder, as he routed around in the back, how Ike as doing. He'd sustained one hell of a bite, and damn near his eye, too. He schlepped back into the house, helped himself to a coke, to wash down the antibiotics, and wandered back into the living room. Walker, asleep in the chair, looking like hell. He'd feel that particular choice of bed in the morning. Taylor and Tiffany, stretched out together, belly to belly, sound asleep. Tiff's arms were drawn in against her chest. "Chilly in here, she's cold..." Ceec picked up the blanket he'd been using, and gently tucked it in around the children. Tiffany's eyes opened as he worked, and he smiled at her. "Go back to sleep, it's fine." She sighed, started to shut her eyes, then looked back at him. "Should I move?" "I don't know, do you want to move?" She shook her head. "No way." He smiled then, and brushed her hair back out of her eyes. "Then you stay there. Sleep well." She smiled back, touched his hand briefly, and snuggled in closer to Taylor, shutting her eyes again. CC's eyes shifted, taking in the boy. He'd certainly looked better, but all in all he didn't look too bad, and he was out cold. Good. He tucked the blanket up a little closer around his shoulders, and tiptoed out of the room. The sun was coming up. He fixed himself a coffee single, and carried it out to the back swing, to listen to the birds, and watch the sunrise.

********************

"Scrubs, Karen?" Tracey's eyebrows went up. Karen sank into a chair, and sank a knife into the coffee cake. "Yep. Scrubs. Zac heaved, not once, but twice, all over that damned ugly yellow uniform." "Uh. Maybe it was an opinion." Tracey's eyes twinkled, as she watched Karen fix her coffee. Karen shrugged, grinning. "May be. Good excuse to throw the thing away. Hey, did you ever hear of a band called Hanson?" Tracey thought about it. It rang some kind of vague bell. "I might have, but it's not really meaning much to me, why?" "Well... I had him in the tub, and he started singing. It was a pretty song and I asked him who sang it. He said he did, and proceeded to tell me that he, and his brothers no less, are actually quite famous. Been all over the world. He was kinda put out that I didn't realize he was a somebody." She smiled, shaking her head. "I don't know whether to believe him, or assume I'm having my leg pulled." Tracey's hand had frozen, in the act of putting a bit of cake in her mouth. "He says he's in that band?" "Yeah. Seemed completely serious. He told me two song titles, lemme think for a minute." She sipped her coffee, mindful of Tracey's stare. "What is it Trace?" "Karen, if he was telling the truth, and he's really a celebrity, why isn't anyone here looking for him?" "Oh, he got hold of his family, his mom and brother are on the way here from Tulsa." "Tulsa?!" "Yeah. That's where he lives. One of the songs is Um bop, or something like that. Can't remember the other one." Tracey's face lit up in a grin. "I do know that song. So do you, Sheila was "umbopping" when you came on shift, remember? In the activities room? You asked her to turn down the music." Karen's smile was blank. She really had no idea. "So, the CD is down in the activities room?" "Yeah." The two women eyed each other for a moment, grabbed their respective snacks, and streaked, laughing, down the hall to the activities room. A few minutes of digging through the stack of CD's and Karen held one aloft in triumph. "Aha! I have Hanson! And son of a gun, if that's not our Zac!" Tracey leaned over her shoulder. "Yeah, it sure is him. These two must be his brothers? Put it in! Then take a look at this." She waved a magazine in Karen's face. Karen nodded, stuck the CD in, and pressed play, wincing a little at the music that issued forth. She wasn't much into pop music. Ah well, it was pretty cute, and whichever one of them was singing had a pretty good voice. "What's Zac do, anyway?" "I dunno, hang on." She cruised the liner notes, piping up with "Drums. Figures, he seems the type to like to bang on things. What ARE you reading?" Tracey was literally on the floor, tears streaming from her eyes. "LOOK at this! Just look..." she flung the magazine in Karen's direction, and wiped her face, erupting into giggles every few minutes. Karen read for a moment, amused. "The "babely" Zachary..." She paused, expression amused. "Babely? Oh sure he is. I should write to them." "Write to who, the magazine? Why?" "To tell them what it's like to be puked on by one of the "Babely brothers". I bet I could get a hundred bucks for that disgusting uniform." "You mean since he heaved on it?" "Well, yeah. Valuable now, y' know. I shouldn't have washed my arm, I could have charged admission. THIS kid... the oldest one? Makes me wish I was twenty years younger." "Karen, really. Going to subscribe to Teen Beat, now?" "Nah. He's cute, what's his name, Isaac? But he's no Donny Osmond." Tracey snorted. "You and Donny..." "Hey, I happen to like him." "I happen to know that. I hate to tell you this, but break's over. I gotta get back up to the unit, and you gotta get back to MMMBop boy." Karen snickered. "MMMBop boy. Wish I'd taken a picture of him in the Bambi gown. Babely. Haha. Babely in Bambi. Make a mint." Laughing, she took the magazine with her, as she headed back to the floor. If he woke up, she had plenty she wanted to talk to him about.

.

Chapter 42

Taylor watched, nerves strangely calm, as CC settled himself on the floor at his feet. These were his people here. His family, his friends, and they were here to listen. He loved these people, they loved him. Yet he felt nothing. Why didn't he feel anything then? There was no love, no fear, no appreciation, nothing. Numb apathy, and no idea what words to say. Eyeing CC, he shrugged. "Ceec, I don't know what to do." CC nodded. "I know. Sit back for a few minutes." Taylor did, resting back, hand stroking Zac's hair, as he listened to this man who claimed he could help him.

Taylor didn't raise his eyes from Zac's sleeping face. So much peace there. Had he ever felt like that? He had to have. He knew he had. God he loved him, how could he have hurt him? Sighing bitterly, he ran his fingers through the boy's hair. "I love you so much, I never meant to hurt you." He didn't see the eyes fastened on him. "It wasn't even you I saw, Zac." He sighed again, that bitter, hopeless breath, and finally looked up. "I never even saw him, do you know that? Until right at the end, I didn't even know it was him. None of you ever understood." His tone became scornful, faintly accusing. "You told me it was safe. How come you told me it was safe?!" His voice rose a little, but the hand stroking Zac's hair stayed gentle. "How come none of you were there to stop him?! WHY WEREN'T YOU THERE TO HELP ME?!" Tiffany jumped at the shout, and CC heard Diana gasp. Nobody answered, and Taylor caught his breath, alarmed at his own outburst, struggling to stay rational. "I have to tell you, I have to make you see what happened to me. I don't even understand it, I don't know why it's doing this to me." He stopped again, words backing up like a log jam in his throat. "CC, I don't know what to do, I don't know where to start." "How about at the beginning Tay? Just tell them what you're talking about. Tell them what happened." Taylor nodded, eyes closed, sending a mental prayer heavenward. "God, help me..." He opened his eyes again, looking down at Zac. Safe there. He sat for a few moments, not sure he could do it, not sure he could bring himself to say it. Glancing final time at CC, who nodded almost imperceptibly, he jumped in. Voice bleak, and barely audible, Taylor began to tell them.

"The man in the park. It was the man in the park." He took a breath, and his eyes drifted to the ceiling, as he slipped back into the past. "We spent the whole day in the park, with all those people, and that one guy, you remember him." His stare was pointed. He wasn't asking. "That one guy, the creepy one. The one that wouldn't stop looking at me. I wanted to go back to the hotel, he scared me. I told you that." Eyes on Walker, accusing and hurt. "You told me it was safe, you ALWAYS told me it was safe! I believed you. Even when he tried to separate us, even after you told us to stay away from him because of the way he was staring, when we were wrestling and my shirt came up, and he did that thing... even then, you told me it was safe. "Just stay together, don't go off alone, it's fine"" His voice broke, and CC got up quietly, slipping back in again a moment later with a glass of water. Taylor accepted it wordlessly, staring at his father. "That guy saw my shirt come up and grabbed himself, and you told me it was okay! And I believed you. You're my dad, I believed you. I did what you said. I kept on working, and I stayed with you all. You told me he was gone." His voice had taken on some strain, and Diana eyed the hand stroking Zac's hair nervously. Spotting her, Taylor sat forward suddenly, all but spitting the words out. "I'm not gonna hurt him! Get over it, I'm not gonna hurt him!" Sitting back, his eyes slid back to Walker. "It wasn't my fault, I got dressed before they did. All I did was go wait outside the trailer. You told me he was gone. Do you know what he did? Do any of you know, or care, what he did to me?!" He paused again, memory beginning to crowd him, replacing reality. Afraid, so afraid. That couldn't happen again. "I was sitting there, drinking a coke... and he came back. He sat down next to me, and he..." He swallowed suddenly, nausea sweeping up his throat. "He kept rubbing my leg, trying to get his hand in here... I kept pushing him away, and trying to get up, but he had his other hand here..." He touched the back of his neck, shuddering. "He had my hair, I couldn't get away. He told me I was more photogenic then they were, that I was ruining my career hanging around with them, that they were losers. He told me he'd show me, if I just went with him. I told him no, I told him to get away. None of you came out!!! Where were you while this guy had his hands all over me and I couldn't get away?! Dad... you told me it was safe. And even when he was sitting there, making me sick, making me hate myself for not running, for being a coward, even then, you never came. He had his hand up in my hair. Every time I tried to pull away, half my hair came out. It hurt, so much... And I was so scared, and I hated what he was doing, he had his hand's all over me. He stood up, and he had my neck, I couldn't get away. He was going to take me with him! Do you understand?! He was right in my ear, whispering to me, telling me what he was gonna do, and I COULDN'T GET AWAY FROM HIM! Jay came out and saw him trying to drag me off the bench. He yelled and the guy took off. While he had me by the neck, he stuck something to me. I don't even remember the rest of the day. I know I got sick. And I know someone told me to get used to it. "You're a good looking kid, you have to expect to get groped" Oh. Oh. NO! He had his hands all OVER me! He DRUGGED me, and you made me work!!! I don't even remember doing it! Zac, you have to get up! I'm gonna be sick, you have to let me up!" "Taylor!" Taylor's head swung around eyes boring into CC's. "You're not gonna be sick, you're gonna be fine. Don't run from this now..." Taylor stared for a moment, and then his gaze shot to his father. "I don't even know how much of it was real! He drugged me! They took me from the hospital, right to work! I got so sick, and they made me go! I was so scared, why didn't you do something about it?!?!" His gaze turned on Walker. "Why didn't you help me?!" He took a breath, looked down at Zac, and made a conscious effort to stop shouting. "Dad, you told us all of it was safe. Nobody told us we'd get our hair ripped out, and our clothes torn off. Nobody told us we'd be so lonely! That we'd have nobody to talk to but each other! Nobody told us our friends would leave, and we wouldn't be able to talk to any of the kids who came to see us play, because they'd hurt us. Nobody told us we'd need security everywhere we go, and that we couldn't ever, ever, ever go anywhere alone! Nobody told us people would want to kidnap us, or that grown men would want to fuck with us! Nobody told us! All you said was "It's totally safe, we'll all be together." Right. Chris yelled at Zac that time, remember? For running out ahead? Made him cry? Because he told him "You can't ever run out like that, do you want someone to shoot you?!" Shoot him!! Every day we leave the house we're taking our lives in our hands and nobody even cares!! "Here, take this pill, you'll feel better" I don't feel better. Nothing made me feel better. Don't you understand what was happening? I was dying?! I threw up everything I ate, I never slept without waking up screaming?! And what did you do? You handed me a pill and said Here, take this. Then you handed me another one to undo what the first one did. You drugged me just like he did. To make me do what you wanted me to do, you're no better than that pervert in the park." Zac winced, and pulled away from his brother, curling up against the opposite arm of the couch. Silence held sway for a few moments, and looking around, CC knew this was it. That had pretty much been the last straw. They'd taken a lot. Reaching for the pack in his pocket, he shook one out, eyeing faces as he lit it, mentally counting down from ten. On six, all hell broke loose.

.

Chapter 43

What on earth... Banging, pounding. Ugh. Taylor turned over, stretching blissfully, blankets soft around his face. So comfortable, if only that noise would stop. What WAS that? Construction? He turned back onto his belly, snuggling into the pillow. There. Whatever it was, it had stopped.

"Sleep. Sleep is good." He'd started to drift off again, when the pounding started once more.

"Hey! Golden boy! What're y' doin' in there?!"

Reality asserted itself, and he groaned. Ruby. Morning. He'd slept through the alarm again. "She's gonna shoot me." Yawning, scratching his head, he sat up. "Yeah, yeah, keep your shirt on, I'm coming." "Yeah, I've heard that before Blondie, haven't I? Don't make me come in there after you." Taylor grinned. "Last thing in the world I want, I'm on my way!" "Yeah, I'm waiting right out here, I have the key, and if you're not out in five minutes, I'm comin' in after you." He laughed, and pulled on jeans, padding to the door. Opening it, he leaned against the doorjamb, grinning. "You want to give me time to take a shower first, or should I just head down there like this?" She wrinkled her nose. "House meeting, you got ten minutes, we're waiting on you. Go, go, last thing we want is you stinking out the room." Sticking out his tongue, he shut the door on her, smiling to himself. He loved Ruby. She was tough, but she cared. He gathered up clothes and headed into the bathroom. She'd be sitting on his bed waiting when he came out, he knew. Nothing knew about this scenario. His smile became thoughtful. She made a lot of jokes, and a lot of them cut, but that blade didn't really bite. It was a sham, like the rubber knives kids carried at Halloween. For all her brashness, when he'd needed her, she'd been there, and he loved her. "Man, I'm gonna miss her..." He started the water, and stepped in, hissing a little in the heat. Felt good. Hot water streaming over his face, he shut his eyes. Hypnotic, beat of water against skin, soap silky, soft, smell of shampoo, homey, cozy scents and sounds. Home. Soon. Eyes shut tight against the suds, his mind drifted. Home. Flashes of another shower, cold water, angry voices. Days spent sitting, just sitting. Inertia. Pain. Fear.

His breathing sped up a little, and he knuckled soap and water out of his eyes, trying to break the spell. "Just count, just count..." He took a breath and held it, counting back from ten, the way he'd been taught, letting it go on one, breathing out the tension. Six months here hadn't been for nothing, at least he wasn't at the mercy of the panic attacks. Feeling himself begin to relax, he shook his head, smiling a little under the water. "Get a grip Tay, you're going home, not to San Quentin." He ran his hands through his hair, enjoying the sensation of the steaming water down his back.

"Move it or lose it, Golden boy, you think we got all day?"

"Ruby!" He yelped, frantically looking for something to cover himself, completely forgetting a curtain separated him from the bathroom. "Ruby, get out! For God sake! Privacy, huh?!" He heard her snicker. "You think you got something special there, Barbie? Diamond studded maybe?" He sighed, exasperated "Ruuuby..." He could hear her fussing around with something. "What're you doing? Ruby, why are you in here?! Get OUT..." "Nope. You been in there for half an hour, and we're all waiting." "I'm coming!" "Too much information, blondie, too much information." "Arghh! That's not what I meant!!" He heard her small "moo" of satisfaction a second before the water turned to ice. "RUBY!!" He jumped back, hand on the curtain, "Watch it Blondie, don't jump out too quick, or I'll be looking at your great pride and joy..." His hand flashed on the shower curtain, and she scurried out, smiling at his parting shot. "Big talker, that's all you are, lady..." She let herself out into the hallway, leaning against the wall to wait for him. Time was, she remembered, that she'd never have been able to joke with him like that. Just walking into the room would have thrown him into a panic attack that would have lasted hours. She could remember whole nights spent holding him, rocking him, hysterical, sick, shaking, scared senseless of everything and nothing, triggered by a step on the walk outside the window, or a laugh from the hall. Weeks of walking on eggshells, knowing the slightest thing could set him off. Not wanting to coddle him, but wanting him to know he was safe. Long, hard, bumpy road, they'd traveled with him, and there had been one hell of a lot of roadblocks. "Come a hell of a long way, baby..." She smiled at the cliche, grinning as the door snicked open, and he came up behind her and slung an arm around her shoulders, planting a kiss on her cheek. "Hey, hey none of that, Blondie, familiarity is against the rules." "Yeah, yeah, what're they gonna do, kick me out? I'm leaving on Friday anyway. God Ruby, what'll you do?" "About what?" "You won't have anyone to torment with blond jokes, you're head will explode or something." "I got your number, Golden Boy, I'll just call you up." "That was a dirty trick, shutting off the hot water." "Yeah, well, I had to use extreme measures, some of us have lives to get on with, y'know." He laughed as they entered the common room, where the rest of the house sat waiting. "Yeah, well next time I'm barricading the door, I about froze my ass..." He broke off, flushing crimson as laughter erupted in the room. "Whooo Taylor, you takin' community showers now?" "Hey, showering together's against the rules!" "Ruby didya wash his back for him?" He rolled his eyes, and grinned, blocking his ears against the whistles and catcalls. "Hey Ruby, we always knew you liked him!" "Even if you did try to kick his butt the first time you saw him..." Ruby laughed and waved them off. "Now I am not proud of that..." A few more minutes and the laughter faded, as people settled into the business at hand.

Taylor leafed through the sheaf of papers in his lap, trying to situate the schedule. Lot to do, not a lot of time. Maximum usage. He grinned as yet another of CC's phrases flitted through his mind. He suspected those would stay with him for life. He listened with only half an ear as the others detailed their day plans. He couldn't even FIND his, lost amid the pile of scrawled notes in his hands. Keeping detailed day planners was one of Livingston's rules, and one he admittedly sucked at. Well, he was leaving in a week, too late to change bad habits now. He glanced up, sheepishly, at Karen, as she gently chided Brian for not having written anything down. Her gaze caught his, and she smiled slightly. She knew. Yeah, she sure did. Knew him pretty well too. He smiled, remembering his surprise when she'd come to work here. Zac's nurse, working here at Livingston. Small world. It hadn't taken him long to warm up to her, and to understand why Zac, weeks past his illness, had continued to talk about her, and send her email. "She's just awesome..." The thought, old and well worn, floated through again. He'd met a lot of awesome people here. Sighing, he sat back, listening as people reported their plans, their goals, their accomplishments and failures. Listened to Karen dole out praise, advice, recriminations, suggestions. A familiar wash of sound, after six months, one he easily let run over him, lost in his own thoughts. This place had become home to him. He was happy to be going back to his family, but he found himself not wanting to leave. Safe here. Safe and happy, for the most part. "Taylor..." He looked up, suddenly aware that he'd been hearing his name for a quite some time. "Sorry, thinking." "I can see that." She smiled gently. "I need you to pay attention now." He nodded, and sat forward, hands clasped between his knees. Something new going on. He could see it in her face. Fleeting thrill of old anxiety, there and gone almost unrecognized, unfamiliar no longer synonymous with danger. "Okay, we have a new boy coming in, who needs a one on one. Pretty much a been there done that, for most of you. Lot of big changes, not a lot of coping. Drugs, booze..." The murmur in the room said it all. Most of them had, indeed, been there, done that. "He's clean now, but he can't stand more than one or two people around him, strangers throw him into panic, it's gonna be tough." They all nodded, the murmur growing to a rumble. "Won't Ruby take him?" Eyes turned to Ruby, who was shaking her head. "No way, I've got six new birds on the ropes." Dan sat up and stretched. "I'd do it, but I'm in Muskogee all day, with Ceec." Taylor sat back again, coming off alert. It didn't apply to him. He'd never taken on a new kid, hadn't been here half as long as some, no, he wasn't qualified for this. Still, the more he heard, the more he found himself wishing he could do it. The kid sounded like him. He remembered the first time he'd ever been here, how confused he'd been, unsure if he was only here to see it, or if he was going to be made to stay, scared, threatened, freaked out by all the strangers, head pounding, stomach twisting, and it had all come out as hostility. Ruby truly had tried to kick his butt, they'd actually gotten into the beginning of a fistfight, before Danny had broken it up. Sighing a little, he shook off the memory, still listening to Karen's comments on the new boy. Mark. His name was Mark, and he'd be here at ten. Murmur of voices as the rest shuffled through their schedules, occasionally shooting remarks to Dan and Ruby, that this was their job. He could see annoyance building on Ruby's face, and slid his arm around her again, poking her in the ribs. "Don't get all ugly, woman, you'll be throwing people in the pit." She snorted and shoved him back. "You got that right, Barbie." Standing up, she turned to the room, bowed comically, and exited, before her temper could get the better of her. Grinning, shaking his head, Taylor eyed his list for the day. Hm. "Karen?" She glanced over, "So you're with us. You've been quiet..." He nodded. "I'll take him, if it's okay. I mean, if I'm allowed..." "Oh, you're allowed. What've you got scheduled?" "Nothing I can't change, I've got a session with June, but it's just a wrap up. Ropes, but I don't wanna be around Ruby when she's mad anyway..." Dim rumble of laughter at that one, and Karen waved them off. "D'you mind, you guys? That's all, Tay?" "And Zac's supposed to come up this afternoon. But he can come just as easy tomorrow." "Oh, remind me to be off tomorrow..." He grinned. She'd not only not be off, she'd be waiting at the gate. "Okay Tay, you got him, why don't you go let June and Ruby know you won't be around, call Zac, and head down to CC's office. He'll fill you in."

"Man... Tay..." Zac sounded exasperated. "It's not exactly easy for me to get a ride out there, you know." "I know, I'm sorry, but this is important." Zac sighed. "What're you gonna do with this kid, Tay?" Taylor stretched out on the floor, under the pay phone, long legs sticking out into the corridor. "I don't really know. Show him around, help him get the feel of the place, keep the hordes from descending. Hopefully avoid any fistfights, freakouts, or murders." "That's not that funny, Tay." "Aah, lighten up. So can you come up tomorrow?" "I don't know. I'll have to see if I can get dad to drive me. It's not like you're not coming home of Friday anyway, I could just skip it." "Yeah, you could, but I don't really want you to..." He broke off and winced as pain suddenly jabbed up his leg, looking up to see Karen standing there, hands on hips. "I almost broke my neck, Taylor, could you reel those in?" Giggling, he pulled his feet up. "Hey Zac, Karen 'bout just fell over me." "Karen's there?" "Yeah, wanna say hi?" "Yeah..." Taylor wordlessly handed the phone up to Karen and climbed to his feet. "Talk him into coming up tomorrow. I'm heading over to Ceec." She nodded, grinning as he wandered down the hall, absently rubbing his leg, where she'd tripped on it.

********************

Diana shook out a sheet, narrowing her eyes at the thought of climbing over the bed to tuck it in. "I should never have put these beds against the wall." Groaning, she knelt in the middle, struggling to get the corner of the sheet over the mattress. "Damn it..." "What're you cussin' for mom?" Zac's voice startled her, and she yelped. "Oh! Zachary!" He giggled. "Sorry, want some help?" "If you don't mind." He stepped to the head of the bed, and tugged the sheet into place. "How come you're doing this? It's not like anyone's used his bed..." "No... thank you baby, can you get the foot too? No, but I didn't think six month old sheets and blankets would be particularly pleasant." He shrugged. Didn't much matter to him, they looked clean enough as far as he was concerned. "Can you drive me out to see Tay tomorrow, mom?" "Tomorrow? I thought you were going out today? Zac, get on over there and help me with the rest of this." He smoothed the blankets out, nodding. "I was going today, but he told me not to. He's helping some new kid today." She shook her head, and shot him a helpless look. "I can't baby, I have Jessie's doctors appointment, and Mackie has the dentist. Maybe your dad..." He sighed, tucked in the last of the corner, and wandered out of the room. Diana watched him go, frowning at the dejection in his face. Ah well, Tay would be back home soon enough. Soon enough... As she gathered up the old linens, her mind drifted back to that afternoon, six months previously. Poor Zac, curled on a ball on the couch, coughing and feverish, smoke from CC's cigarette burning her eyes, shouting voices, people crying, Taylor's voice, hurling accusations, her own voice, raised in anguish "That's not FAIR! How can you..." Flash of remembrance of the horrible feeling of knowing someone had hurt one of her children, and she hadn't been there to protect him. Guilt... Sighing, she shook it off, and started the washer. Water under the bridge, and the sessions with CC and the staff at Livingston had put a great deal of it into perspective. Wandering back upstairs, the echo of a question, recently asked, in her head. "Are you ready to have him come home?"

********************

"Hey." "Hey CC..." Taylor slid down the bench a little, sliding his breakfast over with him, to make room for his friend. "You're taking on a fledgling, huh?" "Don't cut to the chase or anything, Ceec..." CC laughed, took out a cigarette, and caught Taylor's scowl. "Want to wait till I'm done eating before you light that thing, please?" Rolled eyes, pained expression, it didn't cut any ice with Taylor. "Cc..." "Yeah, yeah, I'm putting it away. So, you up for this?" Taylor eyed him over his orange juice, swallowing hurriedly. "I don't know. Whatta you think?" CC shrugged vaguely. "I think you'll be fine. As long as he doesn't try to rip your head off, the way you did Danny's." "Funny. What all do I have to do?" CC handed him a sheet of paper. "What's on here. Take him around, show him where everything is. Be alert to how he's feeling. If he starts to whig out, get him away from people. If he's stressed, keep him quiet. He's checking in today, so show him his room, and if he wants to just go sit in it, let him. Go with him though. Don't leave him alone. Try not to let him sit and veg though, keep him moving, keep him active. Keep him away from the phones, don't let him use them." Taylor frowned. "Well, Ceec, what if he wants to?" "Throw your body in front of it and don't budge." "CC..." Sighing, he finished off the juice, shoving his tray away. "Alright. When, where, and how do I find this kid?" "That all you're gonna eat?" "Yeah, I don't use two forks like some people I know." His glance was pointed, and CC chuckled. "That's why I'm not a beanpole." "Funny." "Keep him away from Ruby. We don't want any casualties." Taylor grinned, pulling CC's hand away from his leftover breakfast. "Yeah, you know it. Get outta that, you're gonna be late. Where do I go to get Mark?" "Meet him at the gate. Oh, Tay?" Taylor turned, shrinking a little from the tone of voice. Up to no good, no question. "How long you and Ruby been showering together?" Taylor groaned, but shot back quickly. "Not as long as Karen's been blushing when she hears your name." Grinning, he waved at his open mouthed friend, and headed down the stairs.

"Barb..." The secretary looked up, and smiled. "Sweetie, they're coming. You're so impatient." "Barb, it's ten thirty. Ceec said to meet him here at ten." "I know, but people are always late. Traffic, school busses, lights, police chases..." She was rewarded with a fleeting smile, and patted his hand gently. "Taylor, they'll be here." He nodded, shrugging. "I don't wait well, what can I say?" "Want me to put you to work filing?" He grinned, shook his head good naturedly, and slouched back out to the front step, settling himself back in a sunny spot. They'd be here soon enough. It was nice out here, warm. His thoughts drifted a little, then, as his eyes followed a stray thread of shadow on his legs. Drift soon replaced thought, as the hypnotic combination of light, shadow, and warmth worked their magic, and he lost himself to the rhythm.

"Tay... Tay!" Voice breaking into his thoughts. "What?" He squinted up at Barbara, caught her gesture, turned his gaze outward. There they were. Just pulling in. Frowning, he struggled to focus, climbing to his feet, drowsy and sluggish. "Barb I'm a lizard, the sun makes me dozy." "Well, I'd wake up quick if I were you, things look a little tense. Good luck, sweetie." She hugged him quickly, and scurried back into the office. "Oh, thanks Barb, just leave me here..." He smiled at her retreating back, and took a few steps toward the car. They were arguing. Great.

"I'm not going in there." "Mark..." Amy sighed. Days like these made her wish she'd never gone into social work. "You very well are going in there, now come on." "No, and you can't make me." "We've had this conversation, Mark." She let herself out, trudging around to open his door, eyeing the blond boy standing by the steps. Slight looking kid, pretty almost. Great. Mark would eat him alive. Glad she wouldn't be around to witness it, she reached in and hauled on the arm of her passenger. "C'mon. You're not staying in my car all afternoon." Sighing, knowing he had no choice, the boy unfolded himself from the back seat, sunlight glinting off copper hair. Bottle green eyes, clouded with suspicion as he gazed at the boy waiting for him. Blond, girlish, eyes distant, face expressionless. "Oh he's real happy to see me." Dejection, already ingrained, surged in him, and he felt a wash of dislike for his would be companion. "I get to hang around with pretty boy there, huh?" Amy shook her head, wordless. She'd about had it with him. Plucking his bag from the trunk, she took his arm, heading for the steps, pulling her unwilling charge with her.

"Hello, I'm Amy, and you are?". Taylor jumped slightly. He'd seen them coming, but the sleep dazed part of his mind had failed to register it completely. "I'm Taylor." He shook the proffered hand, and stepped back as she pulled Mark forward. "This is Mark." Mark dropped his eyes, grunting a little. "I ain't goin' t' shake with you, so don't even bother." Taylor nodded. He hadn't been going to try. "Okay. That's fine." He picked up the other boys bag, and gestured slightly. "Come on, you don't need to hang around for her to do your paperwork. Unless you think you want to..." Mark snorted. "Not hardly." He glanced back, uneasily, at Amy. He'd given her a hard time, but she was really all he had. She smiled then, and nodded. This was it, he was here. Sighing, he turned back into the shadows of the hall. That kid looked familiar. "Hey, what'd you say your name was, Taylor?" "Yeah..." Taylor shook his hair out of his eyes, and smiled at the boy next to him. "And you're Mark, right?" "Yeah, you can hear, huh? Ain't you that Hanson kid?" Taylor's eyes clouded a little. "Yeah, one of 'em. We gotta go upstairs..." Mark snorted, and planted himself in the middle of the corridor. "Nope. Don't want to. I want to leave." Taylor smiled faintly, and gestured back out the door. "Go..." Mark scowled, knowing he couldnt do that. Where would he go? Sighing, hating the horrible out of control feeling, he followed his guide. Hanson kid. This Hanson kid. Pissing him off, he hated when big stars did this slumming with the druggies thing, making themselves look good. "Hey Mr rock star, this your fifty free hours seein how the other half lives?" Taylor shoved his hair back again, and looked into the other boy's eyes. His voice, when he spoke, was quiet enough that Mark had to strain to hear. "No, Mark, I live here." Speechles, Mark stopped walking, eyes suspicious. "Why. You doin't research or somethin?" Taylor sighed. "No. Come on, this is heavy." Following, Mark tried again. "Well, how long you been here?" "Six months." Eyes wide, Mark continued following, wondering what could have turned this pretty boy rich kid, into enough of a mess to have to live in a place like this. Wanting to ask, not quite daring, his own anger forgotten for the moment, he stared, chewing it over. Should he ask? He jumped a little, when Taylor turned and looked over his shoulder, grinning. "Unless you want to carry this yourself, you better speed up. I'll tell you about me later, if you want." Mark stepped forward, and took the suitcase away from Taylor. "I got it. Show me where to go." There was more to the statement than he knew.

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Zac wandered outside, preoccupied. He wanted to go see Taylor. He didn't want to wait. He pouted a little, wondering how on earth he could get there. His ear caught a familiar sound, and he wandered around the side of the house. Isaac. Singing. Smiling, he wandered over, liking the sound of his brother's voice. Happy. Sounded happy. His world of new car, sponge, hose, bubbles and song. "You're gonna wash the paint off that, Ike..." Isaac grinned and tossed him a sponge. "Right. What's up?" "Nothing." He squirmed at the feel of water running up his sleeve, and giggled. "Hey Ike, whatcha doing tomorrow?" "Tomorrow? Why?" "Well, you want to take me up to see Tay?" "Tomorrow? I thought you were going up this afternoon?" Zac ran the sponge over the windshield, watching the bubbles reflect multicolors against the glass. "I was, but he called and cancelled. He's doing something with some new kid." New kid...." Isaac's eyes went wide. Must be doing pretty good, to be helping out kids coming in. Big change. That place had helped him so much. Saved his sanity. Saved ALL of them. His mind took him back, remembering a Taylor who couldn't even manage to take a shower on his own. Big, big changes. His own guilt so much less, just from talking to people who understood, who could tell him why. Why. Biggest question. And they'd answered it. "Ike? Hey, wheredya go? Come back! Speak to me Ike!!" Wet, soapy hands closed on his shoulders, shaking him slightly. Grinning, ducking back to avoid flying soapsuds, he pulled himself back to reality, and pushed his brother's hands away. "Yeah, yeah, I'll take you up. What time you want to go?" Smiling happily, Zac rung out his sponge, absurdly delighted with the sound. "Any time you want to, he told me to come up whenever I could wrangle a ride. Can we go before lunch and eat on the way?" "You got a thing for fast food, Zac. Yeah, that's cool, whenever you want. Now either help me, or get outta here before I use YOU to wash the car." Giggling, Zac dropped the sponge into the bucket, jumping back from the splash. "Ike, you just rock." "Yeah, yeah..." Isaac went back to his song, grinning, and Zac, happy now, struck off across the yard to report his success to his mom. Concentration on his feet, in a cheerfully futile attempt to step on his own shadow, he almost ran into Tiffany before he saw her. "Hey, Zacman, whatcha doin?" He grinnied, and hugged her. "Nothin' lady, you?" She shook her head. She loved the kid. "I'm going up to see Tay tomorrow, I wondered if you wanted to go." Zac's eyes widened in disbelief. "Whoa, first I got no ride, now I got two. Ike's takin me up, you want to come with us? But you gotta be here before 11, we're goin' early. Ike's buying lunch!" Tiffany laughed, wondering if Ike knew he was springing for food, and reached out to ruffle Zac's hair. He grinned and shoved her hand away. "Hey, watch the do!" "Yeah, you got a do, Zac..." She laughed, and headed behind him, into the house.

********************

"Oh my God, I'm tired." Taylor groaned a little, leaning against the wall. Staff had finally taken Mark off his hands, and all of his energy, it seemed, along with him. He'd had no idea how hard just hanging out with someone could be. The struggle to keep his temper, alone, had about undone him. Man, that kid had attitude. Sighing, he dragged to the day room, and flung himself onto the couch, arm across his eyes. "Five minutes. Just five minutes... My God, my brain hurts. Eat. I didn't eat. I should go eat. What time is it?" Groaning again, he sat up. This wasn't good, he wasn't even thinking whole thoughts. "Food. I need food." He started out the door, feeling his heart pounding in his head. "Man, I am SO tired..." "Hey, hey slow up!" He turned, grinning as he saw CC trotting up the hall. "Hey Ceec, how was Muskogee?" "Dull. C'mon, time to pick your brain." "To what??? C, c'mon, I'm starving to death." "You didn't think you'd get off this easy did you?" Taylor shook his head, completely confused and too tired to figure it out. "CC, what are you talking about? I'm tired, I'm not in the mood, okay?" He turned and headed back toward the cafeteria, determined to ignore CC, and whatever nonsense he was spouting. "Taylor!" Stopping, he sighed. That was CC's "I mean it now" tone. "What Ceec, I'm really tired, and I'm hungry!" He knew he was whining. He could hear it. But damn it, his head ached, his stomach was snarling and snapping at him, and CC just wasn't making any sense. CC laughed at the irritated expression on Taylor's face. "Tay, I know you're tired. Come on with me. We have to ask you some questions, but no fear, we'll feed you. Danny went to McDonalds. There's a Big Mac with your name on it. Lets go."

Taylor turned up the volume a little, settling the headphones a little more firmly, and stretched back out on the sofa. Up past curfew, he was asking for trouble, but he couldn't lie in bed any longer. Too tired to sleep, his mind wouldn't stop working, and frustration had driven him to wander the halls. He'd made it as far as the day room, before his spinning head convinced him to just sit down. Now, eyeing the shadows of leaves outside the window, feeling the breath of air against his face, he let his mind wander. The whole day had been so confusing, Mark going hot and cold, agreeable one moment, hostile the next. The kid was on a hair-trigger, and Taylor'd had no idea what was safe, and what wasn't. Almost afraid to speak, for fear of setting him off, he didn't want to seem like he didn't care. It'd been hard, and the murky depths of memory had been stirred up, muddying the clarity of thought he'd enjoyed for so many weeks. He understood the kid, remembered his own first day here, his fear, and confusing and uncertainty, all coming out as hostility. He'd hated Danny, hated him! He wouldn't say anything, wouldn't respond, wouldn't fight back. Now, he understood. He'd done the same thing to Mark, let him rant and carry on, and refused to let himself be dragged into argument or debate. Why argue with someone who was so confused they had no idea what their point was? Sighing, he rubbed at his eyes. So tired. Regret shot up, suddenly, out of the whirlpool in his mind, flashing to the surface, dragged down again. Regret for so many things, as he followed that current. He'd hurt Danny, his first time here. Hurt him physically, and hurt him mentally, Danny's well meaning touch triggering a flashback, triggering an attack that had caused DAN to flashback to his own stuff. He'd shut down, CC told him, shut down for days. "I never meant that, not for a minute." Regret for the things he'd said to his family, blaming them, putting it all on them. Why hadn't they stopped him? Why hadn't they known? Known things he was afraid to tell them... not fair. Not fair at all. Zac, poor Zac, bruised, bleeding, staring back at him in fear, vomiting blood onto muddy ground, broken inside, and at his hand... The wave of memory surged on, relentless as the tide. So many people he'd lost, so many thing's he'd ruined. His career, his brothers career. Over. Zac's trust in him, and his carefree life. Gone. He'd never completely lose the memory of Taylor doing that to him, no matter how much therapy he had, no matter how many times he said he understood. Some things were there forever, he understood that. Sighing, he turned over a little, away from the moonlight, suddenly intrusive. Ike, losing the music, his love, his passion. Because of him. "I wasn't there..." Another current, tugging him along, the times he'd not been there. Ike's friend Michael, dying in that crash. Ike, alone, dealing with it without him. Calling him, crying, "Talk to me, Tay, I just need somebody to talk to" and him hanging up, too fragile, too strung out, to sick, to cope with it. Too caught up in the disintegration of his own sanity to even care. "You're leaving now, you're going back," there it was, the worst thing, spewed up out of the waters of memory, hitting him like a stone. He was leaving, and he didn't know if he could. Didn't know if he dared. He loved them all, missed them all so much, but could he leave this place? This place where he HAD a place, where he fit. They loved him here, and he'd never hurt them. He'd never hurt any of them. The song on the radio, pulsing into his brain, changed suddenly, breaking the hold of memory, as his consciousness arrowed in on the words... "So please hand me the bottle, I think I'm lonely now..." catching a breath that felt like glass, he felt his control sliding along a razor edge, cutting it off... Please give me direction, I think I just caved in... "Oh God." The pain in his heart broke free, then, as the song played out, louder in his ears than his own sobs. Forgetting where he was, forgetting anyone could hear him, not even completely aware that he was crying, he fell into it, barely registering the strong hands that suddenly slid under his arms, pulling him up, pulling him close, hands that tore the headphones from his ears, letting in the voice that floated by his head, a voice unfamiliar in its gentleness, yet too familiar. Memory of a million nights, crying in these arms. He let himself be held, let it come out. Moonlight fell in on them, woman and boy, reflecting off the tears on both faces.

Ruby's hands shook, as she poured water into her teacup, and she laughed softly, at herself. Lord God, but that had scared her, and damn badly, walking into the day room and finding him like that. The sound of someone crying had drawn her from her room, and she'd expected completely to find the new boy. But no, it had been Taylor, sobbing as though his heart would break, hands whiteknuckling the cloth of his shirt. Her heart had jumped to her throat, as six months worth of memory crashed in on her. Six months... she stirred honey into her tea, and settled at the table, mind filled with images of the past. Taylor, angry faced and stubborn, refusing to listen, refusing to understand. Everything was "stupid," everything "pointless". The activities, designed to build trust, demonstrate co-operation, teamwork, and problem solving were "dumb" and he'd refused to participate. How many days, the two of them, nose to nose, each trying to shout the other out. It had come to blows on more than one occasion, spurring talk of separating them permanently, and moving him into another cottage. Thank God for CC, he'd vetoed the idea, not wanting Taylor to become a pinball. "Stability, stability, he needs things to stay the same, and if one of those things is Ruby's desire to kick his behind, well so be it." Not that he hadn't told Ruby, in no uncertain terms, not to touch him. "Don't you get into it with him, Ru, you know the consequences." Yes she had, and it had been good for her, learning to sit on her temper like that. Oh, but she'd hated him, and he her. Laughing again, she thought about it. Hated her so much that the first time things had crashed on him, it had been her door he'd been banging on. She'd been sound asleep, awakened by hysterical pounding, and opened the door on the first of many sleepless nights, nights spent holding him while he clutched at her desperately, begging her, "Make it stop, Ruby, make it stop, I can't stand it..." There had been insanity in that, desperation, a mind coming apart, unable to come to grips with itself. Nights he'd cried himself sick, and she'd held him, on the ragged edge of collapse, over the bowl, her voice an ongoing repetition that it was going to stop, it was going to stop. Nights of dreams, waking with screams, edging into panic, screaming rages he hadn't been able to control, attacks he'd been helpless to abort. Night after night, seemingly unceasing. It'd been terrifying, for him, and for her, and her first thought tonight, as she'd grabbed him, limp and unresisting, up off the couch, had been "Oh God, baby no..." But no, it hadn't taken her long to see that these were only tears. No hysteria. No, just a boy, with too much on his mind, too tired to think about it. Only tears.

Taylor hung up the phone, leaning his head against the wall. Drained, almost out of breath, he eyed the couch. He could spend the night there, it was a much shorter walk. Not too comfortable though. "Hell with it." He turned his back on the dayroom, and the light glimmering from the kitchen. He knew Ruby was in there, but he'd had it. Crying by himself, crying on Ruby's shoulder, crying on the phone to Tiff, he couldn't take the chance that talking to Ruby would lead to more of it. His head already felt stuffed with cotton. "Damn, I better just go to bed, if I ever want to breathe again." He let himself into his room, and sprawled out on the bed. No good. Nerves singing, head pounding, there was no way he was ever going to sleep. "Maybe, idiot, if you took off your clothes and got IN the bed..." But no, stripping down made him shiver, and he sighed. "Good, now I'm cold." He carried the clothes to the hamper in the bathroom, fleetingly grateful that he no longer had a roommate to laugh at him padding around naked. Dumping the clothes in the hamper, his eye was caught by the bathtub. Hot water. Hot bath. Relaxation. What the hell time was it? He leaned back into the bedroom. Midnight. Not too late. Nodding, decided, he cranked the water over all the way, and waited as steaming water filled the tub. He eyed it, a little leary. "Nothing like adding some cold there, Tay..." Shaking his head, he stuck a toe in. "Yeeeaaahh, it's hot." Giggling a little, at the image that came to him, of Bugs Bunny, repeatedly trying to lower his fuzzy butt into a tub of steaming water, he slid down in, sighing blissfully. "Yes..." Relaxation finally within his grasp. He let himself go then, mind drifting on its own, breathing in steam, feeling the headache begin to back off, as his head cleared, and heat worked its way into overtensed muscles. It had been nice to talk to Tiffy. He missed her. She hadn't minded at all that he'd gotten her up, and she'd been more than willing to listen to him. She was so awesome... He smiled to himself and ducked under the water for a moment. He was so lucky to have her. Swiping water from his eyes, his thoughts blipped along on their own, no connecting thread. His mom, his dad, his brothers and sisters. Isolated incidents, good times, bad times, some sort of spilling out had started, and he went with it, vaguely focused, unaware that he'd begun to tense up again, even as he drifted toward sleep, and dreams crept in.  Smell of baking, good things, cinnamon, vanilla. Sound of singing, his mother, singing as she cooked. Sweet, happy. Reaching into the oven, turning to speak to him, something hot, oil? Flowing like lava up her arm, burning. Cry of pain, and the soft smile on his sleeping face twitched into disturbance. Eyes flickering, taking in the tub, the tile... "Fell asleep, better get out," the thought too unformed, to far below the edge of sleep, as another dream crept in. Zac and Jeremy, head butting soccer, man they were good. Laughing, watching them cheerfully competing. Zac, eyeing him laughingly, waving. Oh, look out, Jeremy's body falling onto Zac's, pushing him into the goal. Scream of pain, white bone poking through bleeding skin. His eyes cracked open again, surroundings no longer penetrating the dreamscape. Jessica, running, laughing, twisting around to talk to him, he could catch her, his long legs, she couldn't outrun him. Laughing, shrieking, sudden silence as her head hit the stairs, limp body carried away by white coated strangers. Isaac, new car, beautiful blue, such a cool car, gesturing to him to come on, side of the road outside the house. What house was this? Questioning glance, question voiced, "Where are we?" "Home, Tay, this is the new house, you've never seen it." "New house?" Isaac's mouth open to answer, screech of brakes, metal on metal, fire... heat. Standing on the sidewalk watching the car burn. Where was his brother? In the car? "Tiffany, where is he?" "Gone Taylor, too busy answering you to watch the road." Dark, dreamy terror, running through the house, looking, searching, what house was this? He didn't know his way around, "Tiffany what is this place? Where are they all?" "Not your place, Taylor. They moved on. Sorry they forgot to give you a room, but you weren't here. You see what happens anyway, everytime they try to deal with you." "No, I didn't do anything." "You ruin everything for everyone, Tay, you always have... wherever you are, it all goes bad." Blue eyes flew open, staring blankly, the cry from his lips echoing off the tiled walls. "Oh God..." A dream, all a dream. Sweat slicked, even in water now grown cold. Too hot, he was too hot, breath rasping in his throat. Scrambling from the water, "Dream, just a dream, damn it, calm down!" Yelling at himself, trying to dry off, pulling on old sweats, viciously reaching up to pinch his own cheek, eyes watering. "See it hurt, you're awake! You're awake, just a dream." Count backward, just stress, that's all, stress. Nothing's ruined, nobody's hurt, just stress, calm down! Struggling to slow his breathing, counting backward, he felt his heart speed up, as adrenaline surged through him. "Not working, not working, God I'm so hot..." His control began to skitter sideways, he could feel tears beginning again. "Hold on to it, hold on to it!" He paced the room, out into the bedroom, around, skirt the bed, back into the bathroom, out into the bedroom, around, skirt the bed... images flashing in his mind. Crying, screaming, bleeding, dying, "Because of me?!" Shaking his head, counting, "Just stress, nobody died, calm down..." Too hot, much too hot, sweat sticky and shaking. He looked in the mirror, groaned, face flushed, wet, eyes wild "Stop it!!" The shouted command no good, too hot, he ran water, soaking his hands, his face, swallowing glassful after glassful, "Gotta stop this..." Sudden nausea, throat closing. "No, no..." He tried to breathe it out, head and hands tingling, face numb, horrible sick feeling in his throat. "Gonna pass out, God, stop it!" Gagging suddenly, dropping to his knees over the toilet, hot forehead resting on forearm, he could smell the water, eyes caught by the glimmer. "Don't! Don't get sick, don't get sick, don't, don't..." Swallowing over and over. "No. No no no, I won't..." Trembling, crying out miserably, fighting it. Terrible numbness sweeping over him, black spots bursting in front of his eyes. "I can't do this... Lord help me..." Struggling again, to slow his breathing, to not be sick. "I can't do this on my own, God help me, I don't have the strength..." Unaware that it had taken on the overtones of prayer, the plea in his mind. "Help me, God help me, make it stop, I can't do it on my own..." Thoughts knifebladed on the words, "Help me, just please help me, please help me, I'm not strong enough to do it on my own, please help me..." Slowly, almost unaware it was happening, he felt his breathing begin to slow. Everything in him focused on the words in his mind, leaving panic behind, and CC's training kicked in, muscles consciously relaxed, adrenaline surges counted down, breathing held steady. The cycling, hypnotic phrase in his mind shifted. "Doing it, I'm doing it, thank you, going away, I'm doing it, thank you..." Eternity, kneeling there, head on arm, waiting for things to come back to normal. Finally, nausea reduced to a faint ripple in the back of his throat, breathing slowed to normal, he pushed himself back against the wall, eyes closed. "Oh God, that was bad... that was bad." His eyes flickered up to the ceiling, around the room, and he uttered a shaky laugh. "We have normality. Repeat, we have normality, at a probability factor of two gazillion to one against. Oh God, I'm out of my mind." Shaking his head, he grabbed onto the towel rack, pulling himself to his feet. All sweaty, he'd have to take another whole shower. "Nothing like staying up all night." He stepped in, running it almost cold, rinsed off quickly, and stepped out. He'd do a better job in the morning. Sleepiness threatened to overwhelm him, if he didn't hurry up, he'd land right on his face on the floor. Stumbling to the bed, his eye caught the clock. WHAT?!?! The shock drove him awake again. "One fifteen?" He thought back for a minute. He'd climbed into the tub a little after midnight, and fallen asleep. He'd slept long enough for the water to get cold. Must have been at least 40 minutes. Laughing softly, he laid back. It had felt like an eternity, that horrible, out of control panic, he'd thought the sun must be at least on it's way over the horizon. "Not even fifteen minutes, I bet. Man..." His eyes flicked to the ceiling again. "I don't know whether to thank you, or thank CC, but if anyone ever tells me there is no God, I'll punch their lights out." Sleep took him quickly then, and this time, there were no dreams.

"And your problem is what?" CC's flat, unemotional tone was throwing Taylor. What was he missing, here? "Ceec, did you hear anything I said?" "Yeah. I'm wondering what you're so upset about." "CC, I haven't had that happen in weeks!" CC sighed, and shook his head. "You are so hard on yourself. What do you think you are, Taylor, a robot? Programmed to be good, and stay even?" "Huh?" CC got up, lighting his cigarette, cracking open the window. "Tay, step outside the situation, and look at it. Yesterday you spent the day with a new kid, a kid who is one hell of a lot like you used to be. Brought back all kinds of memories, all kinds of old feelings. You did a complete reversal, and functioned on the flip side of that coin. You held it together, even though you probably felt in two places at once all day, and being around him was making you nuts. Am I right?" "Well, yeah, but..." "Hold on. My turn. You had to look at a lot of old shit yesterday. You skipped every single routine you've come to depend on at the same time. You handled all of his reactions, your old reactions, looked at him and saw yourself, probably did one HELL of a lot of soul searching, and all without the slightest shred of the rituals you've been depending on. You functioned, more or less in free fall, with no staff to guide you, all day long. You stayed up later than you're used to, ate at weird times, you disrupted everything you've come to know. Add to that, you're going home in four days! That's stressful as hell. You miss them, you love them, you're dying to go home, but face it, the last time you lived there you were in merry damned hell! A lot of hard words have been said, a lot of people have been hurt. Those things won't go away if you all stay in therapy for a hundred years! Like it or not, all of this is something you'll always have to deal with, all of you, for the rest of your lives. You're leaving here, and of course you want to! Who want's to live in an institution? But at the same time, you'll miss us, you know we'll miss you, and you're safe here! Nobody here has any grudges against you, nobody here has any blood with you, and you haven't done any damage to anyone here that they couldn't just shrug off and forget about. And they've done none to you. So of course you don't want to leave here! This transition is stress beyond measure, you think we don't know that? Did you expect to go through it and feel nothing? If you did that, Taylor, you wouldn't be human." "But Ceec...." "I am not done yet. Willya kindly shut up?" Taylor scowled and sat back. He would. Be no use arguing. "You're all upset because last night, way past the time you're usually in bed, you were up, unwinding, and you went into a crying jag. Big fat hairy deal. Beat yourself up for being human why don't you? Tell me something, Taylor." "What..." "Before any of this ever happened to you, did you ever do that? Did anyone you know ever do that?" "Well, yeah, of course, but I..." "YOU reacted the way anyone who was overstressed, overtired, and shaken to the gills could have reacted. There was nothing abnormal, or crazy about it." "Yeah, well I should have held it together." "Oh yeah, sure. And I can throw these butts out today with never a twinge." "But what about later?" "Later? You said you had nightmares. Stress will do that. And judging by what you said they were, it's very reasonable. It's guilt, Tay, those were guilt dreams, and fear dreams. You're afraid you're gonna royally fuck something up again. Well big deal, aren't we all. You're afraid they're going to blame you, even though what happened to you was in no way your fault. You're dreading having to face people who know about it, you're ashamed, and embarrassed, and nervous as hell about it... and so you had an anxiety attack. Did you wreck anything?" "No." "Did you throw up?" "No, but it was close" "Close don't count. Did you hurt anyone, yourself, anyone else?" "No." "Did you go flying to wake someone up?" "No." "Did you need meds, or intervention, or anything at all? Or did you just recognize it, calm yourself down, and go to bed?" "Uhm..." "See?" CC sat back, hands behind his head. "You had a garden variety attack of nerves, and it was miserable as hell, but you got through it, on your own. It felt like forever, but you said yourself it only lasted about fifteen minutes, near as you could tell." "Yeah well I prayed one hell of a lot." "That's fine, that's great. Whatever works. God ain't goin' anywhere." "Yeah, but..." "Will you stop? Taylor, you're ok." "So what if it happens again?" CC's eyes went wide, and he reached for another smoke. "What if??? Taylor, my friend, it WILL happen again. As long as you're a living, breathing, thinking being, it will happen again. You'll worry about things, you'll stress about things, you'll have anxiety, you'll cry... but you'll also get over it, and you'll do it on your own." CC watched him for a minute, struggling not to laugh at the peeved expression on the boy's face. "Taylor, the only way to make sure it never happens again is to yank your brain out. Or maybe your soul. Don't stress over being human." Sighing, eyes uncertain, Taylor looked at CC. "You really think I'm ok, Ceec?" "Yeah. I do. Wouldn't be sending you home if I didn't." "I don't really wanna go, CC." Brief nod, as he tamped out his cigarette. "I know. The real world is a scary place. But you were in it a hell of a lot longer than you were out of it. You'll do fine." "It's not gone, CC." "Nope. Won't ever be gone. You got company coming today?" Unbalanced by the topic shift, Taylor frowned. "Yeah, Zac , Ike, and Tiffy." CC's eyebrows went up. "Tiff, huh? Well..." He stood up, and opened the door. "Get the hell out of my office, and go make yourself presentable. You look like you were up all night."

"For heaven sake, has he always been like this?" "Shut up Ruby!" Taylor laughed, swiping tears off his cheeks. "Here I go again, okay? I suck... But I'm gonna miss you." He flung an arm around her again. Of all the good-byes today, this one was the hardest. He knew he'd see CC. That was a friendship that would continue. Karen too. She wasn't going anywhere, that was solid, and she was pretty well an item with CC. Where you found one, you pretty much always found the other. Ruby though, he didn't know. Irrevocably part of Livingston, he couldn't picture them seeing each other again. "Yeah, Barbie, I'm gonna miss you too, but for mercy sake, look at you! Look at him!" She gestured to Diana. "He just does this, did he always?" Diana grinned, nodding. "Pretty much, yeah." "Ah, Barbie, look at you." She pushed him away gently, taking his face in both hands. "Eyes all red, nose all running, you got me all wet, what're we gonna do about you? Your pretty girlfriend over there's gonna run when she see's you." "She's not gonna get too far." Ruby stepped back, and waved him toward the car. "You get going. I don't want to see you back here, either." He smiled, feeling tears start again, shocked to see her eyes glimmering too. "Ruby, look at you. And you talk about me." He picked up his bags, and nodded to his mother. "Go ahead, I got these." He watched her head back to the car, and open the trunk, leaning into the back to yell at someone. Some things never changed. He followed her, dumping the bags in, slamming it shut. He stepped to climb in, turned for a minute, expecting to see Ruby. Where was she? Frowning, he held up a finger. "Just a sec." Not waiting for a reply, he ran back across the parking lot, up the stairs, and down the hall. Ruby moved fast, but he knew where she was going. Cutting up the back stairs, against the rules, but what the hell, they could just throw him out, he hit the kitchen a step ahead of her, running full tilt into her arms, holding tight around her neck. He felt her arms around him then, without the watching eyes of his family to make her edgy. They stood there for few minutes, holding each other tightly. They'd learned a lot from each other, given one another so much. This parting needed more time than they'd given it. Finally, on his own, he kissed her cheek, and stepped back. Blue eyes gazed into brown for a moment, and he hugged her again. "I love you, you know." "I know Taylor. I love you too." She stepped back, and smiled. "Now you go." "You gonna be okay?" Surprised, she broke into a grin. "Aren't you just something. Yes, Taylor, I'm gonna be fine. Once you get outta here so I can cry into my tea in privacy." Rolling his eyes, he kissed her again, and without another backward glance, pounded back down the stairs to his waiting family.