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" I close my eyes and
tell myself
to breathe and
Be Calm "

"Are those children?"

Russell squinted his eyes through the glass at the three little bodies occupying their waiting area's chairs. The man he was addressing simpered at him with a helpless shrug, before shoving his hands deep into the pockets of his white lab coat.

"Michael Holcomb—you know Mike right? The man who just recently agreed to fund this entire facility? Yes? Well, he asked me to watch his little progenies. What was I supposed to say?" Dr. Adam asked him, the sarcasm irritatingly potent. Russell directed a narrow eyed glare in the older man's direction. They had been friends and partners in work for a few very long years. Russell snorted.

"How about no? Does that man not know that we're trying to run a mental hospital? We don't have time to babysit brats," he muttered, crossing his arms to keep from throwing somethin. At an imposing six-foot-three, Russell towered over the blonde doctor and probably would have intimidated any other man. As it was, Dr. Adam just rolled his eyes.

"Guess not, Russ. Anyway, I have work to do—as I'm sure you are well aware of—so I need you to keep an eye on them for me," the slighter man informed, grabbing a stack of papers off a desk and motioning with a jerk of his head towards the three kids sitting just outside the glass doors. Russell took one glance at them and laughed outright.

"Oh hell no. I am not a teenage girl. You babysit," he protested, jabbing his finger into Adam's chest. Adam sighed, cracking his neck. He would have to use threats to get what he wanted and inwardly he felt a little bad, but Russell was asking for it.

Dr. Adam leveled the bigger man with a stony cobalt gaze. "Do I have to remind you, Russell, that with great power comes great responsibility? I have these to file and organize. So either you can entertain the tykes or," he shoved chunk of papers against Russell's chest, "you can get started. There's three-hundred-forty-six more after this one."

Russell took one look at the piles and piles of endless paper and begrudgingly relented. "Fine. I'll do something with the stupid children."

A smile lit up the doctor's face and he quickly pulled the wad of papers back to his own side. "Good! Thanks a ton, Russ!" he called, already making his way into a secluded area to begin reorganizing the files they had on all their patients. Russell resisted the very strong urge to kick something small and undeserving.

Heaving a huge sigh, he made his way through the glass doors, his presence causing the three arguing youngsters to pause and stare up at him like he was some sort of otherworldly creature. Russell noticed absently how two of them looked nearly like twins—with the same blonde hair and brown eyes as Michael Holcomb himself—but the third boy looked entirely out of place with dark brown hair and bright baby blues. They all continued to eye him as he stood solidly before them, clearing his throat and getting his best boss voice ready.

"I'm Russ. But you'll call me Mr. Russell. And you three are gonna do exactly as I say without a hint of back talk, understand?" he questioned, narrowing his eyes and crossing his big, intimidating arms—the muscles flexing threateningly. Three heads bobbed up and down quickly, big eyes watching him in an amazed fashion. "Now, what's your names?" Not that he really cared, but he supposed he couldn't just call them 'Kid one', 'Two' and 'Three'.

The tallest—and presumably the oldest—spoke first. "I'm Zack Holcomb. That's my brother Jeremy. And this is my best friend Kaleb Moore," he supplied, taking it upon himself to introduce the other two who were almost, but not quite, hiding behind him.

Russell squinted his eyes suspiciously, eyeing the only brunette—Kaleb—who squeaked under his scrutiny. "That one's not Holcomb's?"

Zack shifted his position to stand fully in front of the younger kid, his dark brown eyes glaring up at Russell. "Yeah, so? What's it matter? He's with us." Behind him, the other Holcomb brat nodded profusely, still looking a bit frightened.

Russell groaned. Fantastic. Not only was he watching Holcomb's kids, but he had to keep an eye on someone else's brat too? His hand raised to message his temple trying to keep himself from slamming his head into the nearest wall. "It doesn't matter. So, uh, what do you kids usually do?"

Zack paused at his words, seeming to be the self-appointed speaker for the three of them. "We… we play videogames or wrestle or something," he muttered, glancing around the small white waiting area, obviously noting that there was no games and definitely not a safe place to wrestle. Russell sighed, standing up straight and running his fingers through his dark hair.

He really didn't want to play daddy with a bunch of children…. Maybe he could dump them somewhere and not tell Dr. Adam. His eyebrows raised at that thought and he felt a smirk tug its way onto his face. That wasn't such a bad idea. Besides, the tall one—Zack—wasn't that stupid. He could probably, at the very least, follow some basic rules right? After all, he was Michael Holcomb's kid.

With a self-satisfied chuckle, Russell squatted in front of the three, his movements causing the younger two to flinch. "Okay, Zack. I've got a proposition for you." Zack eyed him carefully, his arms still held up protectively in front of Kaleb and Jeremy. "If you promise not to break anything, or open any doors, or go anywhere that says not to, then I'll let you and the other two run around the hospital and do whatever you want. What do you say?"

Zack eyed him skeptically, biting his lower lip and mulling over Russell's terms. But before he could reply, the smaller one—Kaleb peeked up under his arm. "We'll do it, Mr. Russell," he agreed, shooting Zack a look. Russell grinned and reached out to ruffle the brunette's hair absently, not quite noticing the instinctive lurch the older Holcomb did at the movement.

"Smart kid," he murmured, before lugging himself to his feet and pointing towards the opposite door that lead into the hallway. "Anyways, you can go look at the patients if you want. They're all 'mentally ill' so don't knock on the glass or anything. I wouldn't be surprised if they tried to kill you. The Children Ward's up a floor if you want to go see some of the kids. I'm pretty sure a snack machine's down there that way. And if you need any help or anything go find a nurse or a guard or something. They'll help you, alright? Now get out of here."

With that he made a 'shooing' motion with his hands and the three kids hurriedly scurried out, not even sparing a glance as they departed. Russell watched them go with a relieved sigh.

There. Job well done.

"He was kidding about the kill thing right? I mean they're not actually gonna try to kill us are they?" Jeremy asked, lower lip trembling at the thought of getting torn to shreds by an insane person as they stepped down the hall, white tiled flooring and white-washed walls only adding to his anxiety.

"Of course he wasn't kidding. People who direct mental hospitals never laugh," Kaleb stated plainly, glancing out at the large windows on the left side of the hallway, overlooking the expansive and green courtyard that sat in the middle of the hospital. Gray storm clouds blocked out the sun and cast a dim shadow over the entire building, looming with the oncoming threat of rain.

Jeremy stuck close to Kaleb's side, Zack walking ahead of them. "So then… we might die?" he whimpered at the thought, suddenly wishing he'd stayed home. Being in the huge mansion alone definitely beat the prospect of death. Zack glanced over his shoulder with a small smirk.

"Yup. And if the crazies escape we'll throw you at them first. That way Kaleb and I can run while they're distracted and chopping you to pieces," Zack informed, taking pleasure in the little squeak his baby brother gave at his words. Kaleb frowned.

"Dude, what the heck? Are you trying to scare him to death?" he grumbled, Jeremy gripping his t-shirt tightly and clinging to his side, knowing that Zack would've smacked him upside the head if he'd tried to do that to him. Zack wasn't exactly the gold medalist when it came to being a big brother.

Zack backpedaled at Kaleb's words, turning to walk backwards so that he could face his younger friend. "Aw, c'mon Kale. I'm just messin' with him," he muttered, shooting Jeremy a glare for getting Kaleb mad at him. Like it was his fault.

Kaleb rolled his blue eyes. "Yeah? Well stop it, he's only seven," he said with a sympathetic look at the youngest Holcomb, who was practically cowering behind him. "Jeez, if you wanna freak someone out then do it to me, okay? He's scared bad enough already."

Zack pouted, turning back around with a grumble, looking very much a child who'd just been scolded by his father. "I don't wanna scare you. If Jeremy wasn't such a baby, I wouldn't mess with him so much…" he trailed off, a sulky slump to his shoulders.

Kaleb sighed, inwardly thankful he didn't have a big brother as he shifted to place his arm around Jeremy's shoulders with a comforting squeeze, leaning down to whisper, "it's okay. He acts all big and tough, but he's actually deathly afraid of spiders. One time there was one crawling on his cheek at night and he squealed like a little girl."

Jeremy's eyebrows raised and his jaw dropped open in surprise as he tried to imagine big, bully Zack screaming and running around, trying to get the spider off his face. He laughed at the mental picture; the fact that he was scared momentarily slipping from his mind. "Really?"

Kaleb nodded wiggling his brown eyebrows. "Yup. You should've seen him. He was practically crying when I finally plucked the thing off of him. But you didn't hear it from me," he offered in a hushed voice, placing a secretive finger to his lips. Jeremy fought back another fit of laughter at the older boy, his hands flying to cover his mouth, bright eyes watching Kaleb with a huge grin.

Zack's fists were clenched at his sides as he cast covert glances over his shoulder at his best friend and his annoying little brother. The two of them were huddled close and Jeremy was giggling at something Kaleb had said, looking completely different from the terrified little boy he'd been earlier. Zack scowled, wanting nothing more than to throw the brat out one of the giant windows. Why did that always happen? Every time he invited Kaleb over, he'd get this lecture about how mean he was to Jeremy and then Kaleb would take his side over Zack's all the time! It pissed him off. Kaleb was supposed to be his best friend!

Just when he could barely stand the two's furtive conversation without stomping over and physically tearing them apart, his blue eyes caught sight of something that made him smile and he quickly called over his shoulder, happy to interrupt the two. "Hey! Kale, I found the snack machines Russell was talking about!"

Kaleb and Jeremy about jumped out of their skins at Zack's shout, but followed the direction of his stare to indeed see two tall machines, standing quite conspicuously in the bright white hallway. Kaleb retracted his arm from around the younger Holcomb's neck to head over to Zack's side, being sure to shoot Jeremy a reassuring smile.

"That's great and all, Zack, but I don't have any money," he remarked offhandedly, shooting the older boy a glance.

Zack rolled his eyes, and fished his wallet out of his cargo shorts pocket. "Dude, you make it sound as if you don't got, like, the richest best friend in the world," he said with a smug grin, picking out a bunch of crisp one dollar bills and waving them under Kaleb's nose. "You know you want it."

Kaleb inhaled with a smirk, following the swaying money as if it were food. "Yes, I do," he exclaimed, his hand flying up to grab the green bills and missing them by inches as Zack pulled them back.

"Ah, ah, ah! I don't think so, Kale. Ya gotta do something for me first!" he said waggling his eyebrows at the younger boy, who narrowed his eyes suspiciously at his words. Zack smirked and flapped his unoccupied hand in Kaleb's face. "Kiss my hand, Slave!" he requested, procuring his hand expectantly.

Kaleb snorted at his older friend, but grabbed his fingers and leant forward to press his lips against Zack's skin chastely. Then, pulling back and holding his own hand out, he said, "pay up," with a completely serious expression. Zack fought down a triumphant grin, dropping the money into Kaleb's palm.

"You're such a whore, Kale. I shouldn't have to pay for your services," he joked with a chuckle. Kaleb ignored him, stepping over to the snack machines and poring over their contents with avid eyes. Once Zack was sure Kaleb was distracted by all the sugary snacks and candy, he turned to Jeremy who'd been watching them quietly. With a warning glare, he slipped a far enough from Kaleb so as to be out of earshot, tugging his brother with him.

"What were you and Kaleb talking about?" he questioned in a low voice, his brown eyes narrowed. Jeremy bit his lip, fighting down the fear that rose in his gut as his older, bigger brother loomed over him. He couldn't say that he wasn't completely and honestly scared of Zack, but he didn't want Kaleb to get in trouble with him either—not that Zack would ever do anything to hurt his best friend, but still. Kaleb asked him not to tell.

So, taking a deep breath, Jeremy put his hands on his waist and glared up at his older brother. "None of your business, Zack," he hissed, his eyes shifting only slightly to catch a glimpse of the subject of their conversation. He noted, with a flare of anticipation, that Kaleb had just gotten his snack and was presumably on his way over to the two.

Zack immediately snarled at Jeremy's defiant words and he tensed, barely keeping himself from smacking the kid over the head. "Jeremy, if you don't tell me what the heck you two were talking about, I'll—"

"You'll what? Hit me? In front of Kaleb?" Jeremy questioned with a tiny hint of a smirk, suddenly realizing that he held a certain threat over Zack's head. He understood the power Kaleb had over his brother and how irritated the brunette got when Zack teased him.

Zack instantly bristled, teeth clenched tightly as he tried to restrain himself, fists twitching with the urge to do just what Jeremy had suggested and deck the little brat. But before he could say anything, Kaleb materialized at their side with a pink Sno Ball in his hand. He chewed softly as his blue eyes glanced back and forth between the two.

"What's… going on?" he inquired, quickly sensing the tense atmosphere and squinting his eyes suspiciously. Jeremy broke eye contact with his brother first, glancing over at Kaleb with a small smile.

"Nothin', Zack was just asking if I wanted anything from the snack machine, 'cause I didn't bring any money with me. I said no," he lied easily with a small shrug. Kaleb shot Zack a quick once over, noticing his obvious signs of rage, before turning back to Jeremy and taking a big bite of his Sno Ball.

"Mm. He must've really wanted to buy you something, 'cause he looks kinda pissed off," he informed around the sugary mush in his mouth, swallowing thickly and talking as if Zack weren't right beside them. Jeremy giggled at his words, Zack still eyeing him with murderous intent, and grabbed Kaleb's arm with a grin.

"Anyways, weren't we gonna go to that kid ward? C'mon," he said, lightly tugging the older boy in the direction they'd originally been heading before they'd detoured off to get to the snack machines. Kaleb raised an eyebrow curiously, nibbling at his Sno Ball.

"I thought you didn't wanna go?"

Jeremy smiled, squeezing Kaleb's arm. "Not so much anymore, you made me feel better with that thing you said about Zack," he replied happily, inwardly laughing at Zack's expression to his comment. Kaleb made an 'oh' sound and finally began walking along with the youngest Holcomb, grinning a bit at his words.

As they walked, Kaleb quickly glanced over his shoulder, swallowing the last bit of his Sno Ball. "Hurry up Zack or we're gonna leave you!" he called to the frozen older boy who jumped at his words, shaking his head.

"I'm coming," he grumbled, rushing to catch up with the two, in complete full-on glare mode at Jeremy.

"I don't really give a crap, Jeremy! I said we're going that way!"

Jeremy scowled. "Well, I think it's the other way! We already went up two flights of stairs 'cause of you! What makes you so special anyway? Why can't we ever do what I want for a change?" he hollered back, glaring petulantly. Zack scrunched his nose up in frustration.

"Because! I'm the freaking oldest, that means you have to listen to me!" he growled, equally as petulant.

Kaleb watched the two Holcomb boys toss words back and forth, both positively livid. He had to admit, despite how annoying they were, he was a little pleased to see Jeremy finally standing up for himself. Maybe now Kaleb wouldn't have to baby him so much anymore.

They'd walked in the direction Mr. Russell had indicated and even gone up a floor, but had somehow gotten a bit mixed up along the way and were now thoroughly and completely lost. All the signs indicated this way and that, but none of them actually led the right way. Kaleb suspected they'd asked one of their mentally ill patients to put them up.

"Actually, we've been following your orders for forever and now look what happened!" Jeremy shouted, motioning to the empty hallway surrounding them. Zack narrowed his eyes.

"Shut up! It's not my fault these signs were put up by the freaking directionally challenged!" he shot back with a snarl.

Kaleb huffed, not at all pleased with the amount of noise they were making as they continued to shout. Inwardly, the brunette wondered if this is what brothers were supposed to be like. Noisy and downright stupid. They could have found someone to ask. They'd ran into a nurse on the way down the last hall, but no one had the guts to get her attention. Zack's excuse was that she looked like she was in a hurry and would've gotten angry.

"You're the directionally challenged one!"

"You don't even know what that means!"

Kaleb blinked. Wow, this was getting really boring. He wondered if they would notice if he slipped away.

"Why don't we rock-paper-scissors for it?"

"Only you would wanna do a baby game like that, Idiot!"

Nah. They definitely wouldn't notice. With a quiet mumble, Kaleb excused himself. Neither of the Holcombs noticed. Trying not to feel just a little unappreciated, he tiptoed his way around the corner and down one of the long hallways. The shouts echoed after him before eventually fading into nothing.

Kaleb let out a sigh of relief when he could no longer hear the two. He loved them, but jeez, they'd been arguing for a good fifteen minutes. This was one of the many reasons Kaleb liked being an only child. Nobody to fight with about the stupidest things. He chuckled to himself at the thought of how Zack and Jeremy would react once they realized he'd gone.

Kaleb put his arms behind his head in a comfortably relaxed position, once again finding himself walking alongside a long row of giant windows, exposing the familiar courtyard from before. Only it was raining now. It fell in sheets from the dark clouds overhead, soaking the grass and creating puddles of water, scattered around the earth like big polka-dots.

He'd always loved the rain, it never failed in making the atmosphere around him all warm and cozy. Of course, he could do without the sudden bouts of thunder. Their loud booms shaking the entire building down to its foundation and making him jump. It made him feel as if the whole four floors of hospital were about to collapse in on themselves. He'd be crushed if that happened.

Kaleb shivered subtly at the thought, rubbing his forearms to rid them of the Goosebumps that had suddenly formed. He almost wanted to turn around and head back to Zack and Jeremy, but he was pretty sure they would have gone by the time he managed to get back there, if he could even remember how to get back there.

With a slight grumble, Kaleb glanced around at the wall opposite the windows and suddenly caught sight of a nice big sign with a bunch of arrows and words. Stepping closer to it, he examined the many destinations it had listed, reading them off as he went.

"Cafeteria, Security… Infirmary, Children's—aha!" he exclaimed to himself, a triumphant grin sliding across his lips. If he continued on to their previous destination, he would eventually run into Jeremy and Zack. Hopefully.

Kaleb followed the direction the arrow indicated and rounded the corner. As he did so, he suddenly caught sight of a door flying open. Suppressing a startled noise, Kaleb saw a teenager, dressed in white, come tumbling out. He tripped over his own feet like he was dizzy or sick, unaware of Kaleb's presence, before falling to the tiled floor of the bright hall.

Kaleb's blue eyes grew wide and he bit his lips to prevent the escape of another surprised gasp, frantically wondering if he should run to help the man or go and find someone else to do it. He wasn't quite sure if he was dangerous or not. What exactly were the rules in an insane asylum?

He heard the boy groan as if he were in pain and, unable to help himself, Kaleb dashed down the pristinely kept hallway, coming to a halt at the struggling form below him. He gulped, before kneeling at his side, his presence causing the teen to jump and instantly attempt to jerk away.

"Uh, wait! Wait, I'm trying to help you!" Kaleb explained hurriedly, looking the young man up and down, checking for any possible injuries that could have caused his current state.

Icy gray eyes narrowed at him and the stranger shifted away slightly. His shaggy, uneven black hair was plastered to his head with sweat and his chest heaved as he regarded Kaleb with the utmost apprehension.

"A-are you okay? I just saw you fall. Did you get hurt?" Kaleb tried, once again glancing around the teenager's body and seeing nothing but his clean white pants and shirt. No blood, no tears in the cloth, he seemed perfectly fine—though he was barefoot, if that mattered at all.

The boy didn't answer him. He only moved, using his hands to try and push himself off the floor. He seemed to have trouble with the feat as his forearms shook visibly. Kaleb watched him with a worried frown and his hands reached out in a subconscious reaction to offer help. But at his movements the teenager managed to jolt away, his vivid gray eyes staring at Kaleb's hands as if they were poison.

Kaleb scowled at this. It was like trying to catch a stray cat that didn't want to be caught, the guy wouldn't talk and kept darting away from him like he was going to get hurt. "Hey! I'm just trying to help you up," Kaleb muttered, disgruntled expression prominent on his little face as he placed his hands flat to the white tiled floor. "There. See, I'm not gonna hurt you. I won't even move my hands unless you say so, okay? I just thought you might need help."

The stranger eyed his unmoving hands before glancing up to look at Kaleb directly, his penetrating stare causing the younger boy to flinch back slightly. After scrutinizing Kaleb for an intense moment, the boy suddenly exhaled: a shallow, shaky breath. "Who are you?" His voice was low and raspy as if he hadn't used it in a long time. Kaleb saw him swallow hard after asking.

"My name's Kaleb. Me and my friends are here and I was trying to find them again when I saw you," he said, noticing how the strange guy kept glancing back at his hands cautiously and being sure to keep them pressed against the tile.

He took a deep breath and finally released his tense posture, seeming to regard Kaleb as a non-threatening person. "…fine. You can help me up," he conceded, gesturing with a jerk of his head that Kaleb could move his hands now.

Kaleb hurriedly obliged, shifting to wrap his small arms around the teenager's midriff, tugging the larger boy onto his knees. The stranger also tried his hardest not to fall over as he leaned heavily against Kaleb's standing form, nearly the same height though he was kneeling.

"You okay?" Kaleb asked, both his hands flying up to wind around the teen's shoulders in order to keep him from toppling forward. The young man took a deep breath, closing his eyes silently, seeming to concentrate hard. Kaleb wondered what could have possibly been done to the boy to make him so exhausted he could barely kneel without collapsing.

"Who're your friends?" the boy suddenly asked, eyes still closed as he gathered himself. Kaleb kept his grip on him tight, the assumed-patient's arm around his small shoulders.

"Um, Zack and Jeremy. They're the man who pays for this place's sons," he informed, watching the boy worriedly. He quirked an eyebrow at Kaleb's words, interest seemingly piqued.

"Really, now?" he asked, a slow smirk suddenly spreading across his lips, his eyes still closed. Kaleb opened his mouth to say, 'yes, really' but the guy suddenly lurched forward so hard, the brunette nearly dropped him. He mumbled something in a quiet harsh voice, indecipherable to Kaleb who was utterly confused.

It was quiet for a few tense moments, before the guy jerked his head abruptly, teeth clenched and body tensing as he hissed something else under his breath. His gray eyes squinted shut. Kaleb gulped, wondering what in the world was wrong with him. But before he could ask, the arm around his neck suddenly flexed taut against his skin and wrenched him so tight in his grip, Kaleb nearly gagged.

The boy's head twisted to the right suddenly, facing away from Kaleb as he growled more inscrutable words to himself, the arm around Kaleb's neck squeezing even tighter. Kaleb gasped for breath, his hands immediately flying up to pull at the muscular arm, his eyes wide with fear.

The young man seemed not to notice his struggle as his fist clenched so tightly in front of Kaleb's face, the brunette saw little crescents of blood ooze from his fingertips. The stranger once again snarled, this time loud enough for Kaleb to hear. "Fuck no! I won'tdo it!"

The boy cringed again, his entire face contorting as if he were in pain and his arm pressing so close it nearly completely cut off Kaleb's air supply, his forearm forcing against his jugular. At the sudden pressure and the pain shooting up his throat, Kaleb cried out. It was almost a whimper barely escaping past his lips before his throat was practically crushed shut, preventing any more noise.

At the sound, however, the teenager suddenly froze, his eyes instantly flashing open and his grip slackening around Kaleb's neck. This allowed the younger boy to wheeze for air, coughing and hacking as he struggled to take in the much needed oxygen.

The stranger stared over at him, his arm still loosely around Kaleb's shoulders, gray eyes wide with disbelief and mouth hanging open. He stared, completely mortified, as Kaleb fought to remain standing, his small hands flying to massage his neck as panting breaths slowly became more even, each intake of air rubbing raw against his sore throat.

The teen bit his lower lip, his brows pulling together, left nearly speechless. He immediately shook his head, his other hand quickly raising to cup Kaleb's cheek, as he whispered gently, "oh God, I'm sorry… I'm so sorry…." Kaleb flinched at his touch, his bright blue eyes blurred behind involuntary tears. He stared at the other boy, hand still at his neck, red from the constriction of his arm.

The stranger didn't tear his eyes away from the big contusion already forming along the younger boy's skin. His pupils were dilated, filled to the brim with tremendous guilt and an endless pit of apologetic regret, as he continued to speak in a soft voice, "I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry…"

Kaleb looked at him, frightened and baffled at the glazed over film in the man's eyes—as if he were talking to someone else, in a different place, at another time. There was a faraway expression on his face and he kept murmuring apologies, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, baby, I'm so sorry…", his hand stroking Kaleb's cheek tenderly.

Kaleb couldn't bring himself to move away. The boy before him looked so vulnerable, so pathetically helpless, he nearly felt that his fear was irrational. He couldn't possibly imagine this stranger hurting anything, he looked so desperate and lonely. Kaleb couldn't believe it was the same guy who'd been choking him seconds ago.

Kaleb swallowed hard at the sight, trying his hardest to squash the pity that bubbled in his throat. The teenager continued to stare at him as if he'd hurt the most precious thing in his world, tears welling up in the corners of his gray eyes.

"Please… please forgive me, I didn't mean… I'm so sorry, baby, please forgive me," he murmured quietly, his voice so pleading and wretched and heartbroken, Kaleb couldn't help the sudden sympathy that managed to fight its way into his chest, tearing at his heartstrings and incinerating the better part of his common sense.

The sympathy—his human instinct—forced him, irrationally, to wrap his small arms around the teenager's shoulders. Forced him to bury his face gently into the material of his white shirt, to hold him affectionately tight, to whisper soothingly against his ear. "It's okay. I forgive you, it-it's gonna be okay… I forgive you, I forgive you."

His hushed words caused the stranger to weaken, his body growing limp in his hold. Kaleb didn't so much as shift when his strong arms wound around his waist and squeezed him close. He pressed his nose to Kaleb's shirt collar, choking back a quiet sob. "Oh thank God, baby… I love you, I love you so much…" he sighed, relief laced through every syllable. He kept on holding him tight as if just barely loosening his grip would cause him to be lost forever.

Kaleb blinked softly, his arms never relinquishing the older boy, when he felt the stranger's breath hitch, as if he were waiting for something. His mind raced for what he could possibly say in reply to the boy's words of love. They didn't even know each other, and he knew that the patient must have been imagining someone else in a different time. So he said what he could only assume the boy wanted to hear. Kaleb swallowed hard, fighting to find his voice. "I—I love you too… I love you too."

His words cracked as he squeezed harder, struggling against the tears that were forming once again. He'd never met a person who sounded so sad before, so defeated, so desolate. So abandoned. And the sound ripped his heart in two.

"Please… please, baby, please don't leave me, please don't leave me here," the boy whispered, his voice overflowing with pleading desperation. Another violent sob wracked his entire body, shaking the two of them to the core and leaving nothing.

Before Kaleb could respond, before he could assure him that he would never leave him alone—never let him suffer by himself in this place, never let go of him—he felt something grab his sides and violently rip him from the teenager's grasp.

"I got him!" a low voice shouted as Kaleb stared with wide eyes at the man who'd swept him away from the helpless boy. His gaze darted back down at the teenager, who was writhing, kicking, shoving, fighting against another, bigger man who had him pinned to the tile, pushing his face down.

Kaleb could only gape in horror, as the teen clawed and scraped at the hard ground, his eyes screwed shut as he screamed, "no! Please, please don't leave me! Let me go! Let me go! Don't leave me! Kaleb! Oh God, Kaleb! Don't leave me! PLEASE DON'T LEAVE ME!"

Tears were pouring down his raw cheeks, running through well-worn tracks as he thrashed violently back and forth, his eyes shooting open to stare wretchedly up at Kaleb, his lips parting once more, "Please—please… don't leave me…" he barely managed, before his desperate gray eyes gradually drifted shut, his head falling to the tile, unconscious.

Kaleb's lips trembled at the despondent sight of the stranger—his body motionless—and allowed his own wail of cries to erupt from his throat, eyes watering profusely as he struggled against the man who'd grabbed him, ignoring his quiet, calming voice as he attempted to soothe him.

The man quietly began walking down the hallway, carrying Kaleb away from the scene, the young boy's gaze entirely trained—desperately—on the teenager who lay sprawled on the tile as another man, with a syringe in hand, hefted himself to his feet.

Kaleb fought to keep breathing past the block in his throat as he was taken away, the listless teenager's forsaken face forever imprinted in his mind.