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...Three Years Ago... Just Before Nick Turned 32...

Nick was sitting in a chair when AJ inched into the door.

"Hey, man," he said quietly.

Nick didn't move. He didn't dare to. He didn't dare to see AJ's face. Brian's arm had been hard enough, seeing the way his left arm had been all torn up and sewn back together, oddly thin on the outside, the skin paler than the rest of his normally tannish skin... He couldn't prepare himself to see the changes in AJ's face.

AJ rubbed his palms across his shirt. He stared at Nick's head, wondering what happened in there. Wondering why. He stepped a little closer. "Brian, uh - Brian said you were up... that you knew... about..." he paused, "Everything."

Nick turned to look at AJ.

AJ's face was a mess, the left side oddly disfigured by a scar that ran forehead to chin, half an inch wide. The right side of his face was a smile, the left expressionless, like the drama masks.

His stomach turned and he looked away quickly.

"Dude, talk to me."

Nick's voice was hoarse... cracked. "I'm sorry," he rasped.

AJ neared him and sat down in another chair that faced Nick's. Sunlight was coming in the window, and on the ceiling of the hospital building adjacent to them a pigeon was waddling about, bobbling its head. Nick had been watching it. AJ glanced at it. He hated pigeons, they were dirty.

Nick's eyes followed the bird as it moved about.

"It's good to see you awake," AJ commented. "It's been awhile."

Nick glanced at him, careful to only look at the right side of AJ's face, to concentrate on that part of him, on the smiling side of the mask. He couldn't. He turned back to the pigeon.

AJ leaned forward, "How're you handling... everything?" he asked.

Nick closed his eyes.

"I should've been the one who died," he whispered, "Not Howie."

AJ clasped his hands on his lap.

"I'm the single one," Nick said, "I'm the one without a kid. I should've been the one to die. Nobody relies on me, nobody gives a fuck about me." He waved his hand at the bed, "I just spent six fucking months sleeping, and nobody missed me, nobody's life stopped because of me, nobody's world ended." He spat the words.

AJ couldn't get over how hoarse and breathy he sounded, how un-Nick-like his voice was.

"I should be fucking dead," Nick broke into tears.

"Don't cry," AJ muttered, getting up, "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have asked." He crossed the space between them and knelt in front of Nick, whose face was crumpled. "Seriously, you can't cry," he pleaded, "You're gonna hurt yourself."

"Maybe I'll die," Nick gasped.

AJ shook his head, "Don't say that."

"What do I have to live for?" he asked, bitter. "I'll never sing again. My fucking voice is paralyzed or some shit..."

AJ felt sick.

"I killed Howie, I ruined your face and Brian's arm," Nick's voice shattered in the middle of the sentence. He covered his face, his hands cupping it. I don't deserve to be alive, he thought, finishing the words he'd meant to say aloud.

AJ closed his eyes. As much as he wanted to argue with Nick, he could think of no words to say. It was a very bad idea that he'd come here. He wasn't ready to see Nick yet. He wasn't ready to pretend that he'd forgiven him. Finally, he squeaked out, "It's not your fault."

"You barely could say that," Nick whispered, looking up, unable to get his voice any louder than that. He reached up and ran his hand along his throat.

"You didn't do it on purpose," he said. "It was an accident, that's why they call it an accident."

"I'm sure Rochelle didn't think that when she saw you looking like that."

AJ looked away.

"She left you."

He shook his head, "I left her."


AJ crawled backward into the chair he'd started out in and swallowed. He didn't want to answer that. Because we were Beauty and the Beast, he thought, She deserves better than me. He sighed, "It just wasn't working out," he lied.

Nick stared out the window at the pigeon again.

"And people did care," AJ said quietly, "During those six months. It wouldn't have made anyone less hurt if it'd been you instead of --" AJ couldn't say the name. He was my fucking best friend, he thought, bitterly, Why did it have to be Howie?

Nick shook his head, "I didn't leave anyone without a father," he said, thinking of little James, contrasting him in his mind with the joy that Baylee had on his face when he looked at Brian.

AJ looked at his hands. As much as he wanted to argue with Nick, as much as he knew he needed to argue with Nick... Nick wasn't saying anything that AJ hadn't thought himself over the past six months.