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...Three Years Ago... When Nick Was 32...

Brian walked into the living room, tapping the palm of his hand with the antennae of the Littrell's home phone. Leighanne was on the couch, watching Food Network, copying a recipe into a notebook, Baylee asleep on the couch beside her, using her knees as a pillow.

"Nick's phone's been disconnected," Brian said, stepping up behind the couch.

Leighanne looked up.

Brian was now chewing on the antennae nervously.

"Why?" Leighanne asked.

Brian shrugged.

"Did you try reaching him on his cell phone?"

"That's gone, too," Brian whispered. His heart was pounding anxiously.

Leighanne frowned. "Why hasn't he asked for help?" she wondered.

"You know Nick," Brian said, frustrated. "Him and his stupid pride, he'd rather live in a freaking box than ask for 'charity'." He turned, rubbing the back of his neck nervously, his muscles all tense. "And damn it, I can't even like just go over and check on him because he's gotta be in freaking Los Angeles..."

"Maybe it's a coincidence," Leighanne said, "Maybe he had to change the number for some reason?"

"Without telling me?"

"Maybe he just hasn't called yet?"

Brian sighed, "He's in trouble, Leigh."

Leighanne thought for a moment, then took a deep breath, "Call the airport."


"Yeah, book a flight. You know you won't rest until you check on him. So go check on him. In the mean time, you could call and have AJ go over there and see what's up," she suggested.

Brian nodded. He leaned down and kissed her forehead and rushed out of the room without another word.

Leighanne turned back to the TV and rewound -- thank God for TiVo, Brian was going to love this recipe when she made it...

AJ parked in Nick's driveway and glared at the house. He hadn't seen Nick since his birthday, and before that, not since the day in the hospital. It was now well into March.

He got out of the car, and the first thing he noticed was how dark the house was. The outside trip light didn't go on when he walked by it. He stared up at it and frowned. He knocked on the door and waited, then knocked again.

When he still didn't get a response, he turned around and walked to the fifth bush on the left of the stoop, bent down, crawled under and found a plastic deer that was shoved up against the foundation of the house. He picked the deer up, turned it over, opened the secret door on the bottom and pulled out Nick's keys.

Breaking into Nick's house, he reached for the light switch and flipped it. Nothing happened. He flipped it several times, flickering it up and down with his fingers, and still nothing happened. "What the fuck..." he muttered.

"Nick," he called, "Nick? Are you home?"

AJ wandered a little further into the house, holding out his hands so he wouldn't bump into anything. He knew Nick had a weird fetish for putting furniture in the middle of freaking nothing, and therefore was liable to trip at any moment over like a table or a chair that had no reason to be in the dead center of the room other than that was how Nick decorated. Like his mind, his house had always been a little bit off center, a little disorganized, and a whole freaking lot of random.

But AJ's hands found nothing, made no contact with anything.

"What the crap," he muttered. He found a second light switch and tried flickering that one, in hopes that the first one had been a bad lightbulb. When that one didn't work either, he concluded the power must've been out. "That's weird," he said to himself, "There wasn't any storms. Must be a line down somewhere..."

AJ reached into his pocket and pulled out a lighter that Howie had given him for his birthday the year before. He'd had it engraved To the best best friend a guy could ask for ... I'm proud of you, Skulleeroz! - Howie D. On the front side, he'd had the logo AJ had worked so hard on creating engraved on it. It was the best gift he'd ever gotten, and he treasured it five times more now that Howie was...

AJ's thought process ended short of the last word.

He flicked the lighter and the warm glow of the flame filled the room. He looked around. It was empty.

"What the..."

Moving into it, he continued looking but there was nothing there.

AJ made his way through the entire house, finding nothing anywhere, until he got to Nick's actual bedroom, and there... laying on the floor under an old comforter, a stack of books and a small assortment of trinkets by his side, was Nick, asleep on the carpet.

AJ stood there a long moment, staring at him. Nick was unshaven, his hair disheveled. A lump rose in his throat as he watched him sleeping.

Last time AJ had sat and watched Nick sleep, it had been while Nick was in a coma. He'd sat in a plastic chair beside the bed and just waited, hoping Nick would wake up. Brian and AJ had taken turns for the first week after the accident this way, waiting... AJ had been the first to give up. Brian had gone on waiting for a month before a nurse finally told him he couldn't sleep there anymore and Leighanne had begged him to spend more time at the condo they were renting because Baylee was missing him.

The last time AJ had been there, though, was the hardest because he'd been sitting there reading a book when Nick had stirred.

He'd told no one.

But Nick had stirred just a little bit and his eyes had fluttered ever so slightly and he'd rolled his head to the side and whispered, "F-fellas...?"

AJ had looked up.

"AJ?" Nick had whispered, his voice a breath because the traumatic blow to his head had damaged it - the doctor had called it a paralyzed vocal chord. He'd said Nick would only speak again after his throat had been given time to heal, and that his voice would never be the same again. "Howie?"

AJ froze.

"Where's Howie?" Nick whispered again.

"Howie's dead."

It was the only time AJ had said the words so bluntly.

Nick's eyes had fluttered again, his nostrils flaring and flexing harder than normal, the way they did when he cried, but nothing else was happening.

AJ had stood up and turned around. "You fucking killed him," he muttered, rubbing his forehead, and leaning against the cold window, "Fucking around with me, you fucking killed my best friend..." he put his palm against the window. "We fucking killed my best friend," he amended.

When he turned around, Nick had slipped away again and his face was expressionless once more.

What AJ didn't notice was the track on Nick's face, left behind by a single tear that had slid down his cheek and off the edge of his jawbone.

Now, AJ was looming over Nick's sleeping body again, once more unnoticed. He stared down at him, his stomach rolling as he thought of that day in the hospital room, and of his anger with Nick when they'd talked just after Nick had first woken up, before Christmas. He thought of the anger that had boiled in his gut during Nick's entire birthday dinner. Why are we celebrating him, AJ had wondered bitterly, If it wasn't for him, Howie would still be here.

AJ knew his emotions were wrong. Deep down, he knew it wasn't Nick's fault. But he was feeling too much not to blame somebody. And he didn't dare to blame God. Nick was the next best thing.

AJ turned and bolted down Nick's stairs through the dark, almost falling off the last one. He ran out the front door, slamming it behind him, and got into his car and drove away. He called Brian.

"Is he okay?" Brian asked, his voice panicked.

"He's fucking fine," AJ had muttered, "He's fine."

"Thank you for checking on him," Brian said, his voice carrying relief, "I'm on my way to the airport now, I figured I'd fly out and see if I can help him out. I mean obviously he needs help with the phone bills..."

"Yeah well at least your best fucking friend is alive for you to help," AJ snarled, bile rising in his throat. He hung up the phone and pulled over and got out and puked his guts out into some bush on the side of the road.

It wasn't until he got home that night and went to light a cigarette that he realized he'd lost his lighter. He curled up on the bed that night, agonized sobs wracking through him. He'd lost every part of Howie that he'd had left.