© 2005-2011 Julien Gregg
All Rights Reserved


Chapter 96


They gathered in the waiting room with first Skyler and then Jeff taking turns going up to spend time with Ashton while they waited on news of Chad's condition. No one said anything. There was nothing to say. They were all very worried, but at least the entire family was together. Ben and Tabitha sat with Jason and Cassie. Jase and Alex were sitting with them as well. Skyler thought it was fitting somehow that Alex had Mike sitting next to him.

The night wore on as they waited with no news. Skyler kept imagining the worst, but he didn't dare voice his fears to the rest of the family. Cassie looked like a shell as she sat, staring off with her hand in Kaleb's. Jason looked haunted and worried while Darby paced back and forth through the waiting room. Skyler wanted to comfort her, but he just didn't know how. He wasn't so comforted himself.

"I can't take this waiting much longer," Ben sighed into his hands, breaking the tense silence that had built around them.

"Why won't they tell us something?" Cassie asked, looking from her father to Skyler and back again. "They should tell us something."

"Do you think it's bad?" Jason asked quietly. "I mean if they're not telling us anything at all, do you think it's bad?"

"I don't know what to think," said Ben. "I just know I don't like being kept in the dark about one of my children."

Skyler didn't know what to say to any of that. He was happy that his father was there, but it didn't make anything any better really. Chad was still lying in a bed being worked on by doctors and nurses because he'd overdosed. Was he trying to kill himself? Was he really that scared of going to prison? Skyler couldn't fathom it. He wasn't in Chad's shoes though. He just couldn't understand. What he could do was be there for his brother. Yet how was he supposed to be there for him if the doctors wouldn't tell them anything?

Kristy Swanson came in with Brian Krause and she hugged Skyler tight, asking if there was any word. He was just telling her that they hadn't told them anything in over three hours when Justin Timberlake and Brian Littrell came in. He hugged them both and told them the same thing.

"Why wouldn't they tell you something by now?" Justin asked. "I mean you said it's been three hours, right?"

"That's right, Curly," Skyler replied. "I'm wondering why they haven't told us anything myself."

"Maybe we should go and bug the nurse's station," said Kristy. "I mean if they won't come and tell us on their own, maybe they need a little prodding."

"You know you just might be right," he said, smiling. "Let's do it."

Cassie and Jason followed them out of the waiting room and down to the nurse's station. There were four nurses doing various things at the station and Skyler waited until one of them looked up at him. She was a blond with big blue eyes. Her eyes were big because she was staring at him. He wasn't in the mood for fan reaction when he wanted information on his brother's status however.

"I'd like to know what's happening with my brother," he said. "It's been three hours since he was brought in by ambulance and no one has told us a thing about what's going on."

"I'll send a doctor to talk to you as soon as I can, Mr. Thomas," she said with the same wide eyed expression. "Right away."

"Thank you," he said just before turning and walking away from her. His brother and sister followed him back to the waiting room where he told the others what the nurse had said.

"So she's getting the doctor?" Tabitha asked.

"That's what she said," replied Skyler.

"She was kind of star struck though," informed Jason. "If she doesn't get a doctor in here we can always make a nuisance of ourselves until they tell us something."

"That won't be necessary," said a dark haired man in scrubs. "My name is Doctor Phillip Prince, and I've been working with your brother for the last three hours."

"Doctor, tell us what's going on," Skyler said a little more forcefully than he'd intended.

"Mr. Thomas, your brother had quite a bit of heroine in his system," said Dr. Prince. "We have him stable at the moment and will be transferring him to a private room in a few moments. Now I don't want a crowd of visitors tonight. He's sedated, so he won't know any of you are there at any rate. I don't suppose I can ask you all to please go home and get some rest. I promise to call you, Mr. Thomas if there's any change in his condition."

"Thank you," said Skyler. "But I'd like to see him for myself, please. I know that he's sedated, but it would make me feel better if I could just see him."

"Fine," sighed the doctor. "Only you. If you'll just follow me, I'll take you to him."

Skyler followed the doctor out of the room and down the hall with a look back at his family and friends. Chad's room was at the end of the hall. There were three beds in the room and no patient could be found in the other two. Chad's was against the far wall with two windows directly across from him.

The room was bathed in white from the walls and floors to the thin blankets that dressed each bed and covered each patient. Skyler noticed after a moment that there were faint mint green pinstripes running down the walls. The floor tiles had little mint green specks in them, and the ceiling had mint green runners around each tile.

Chad looked lost in all of the white of the room. There was a tube down his throat as well as one going into his left nostril. He looked pale and drawn. Skyler suspected that was because of the heroine. He looked down at his brother's right hand and saw that there was a little pulse monitor attached to his index finger. A blood pressure cup was around his left arm, connected by a long hollow tube to an automatic machine that would take his pressure at intervals. There were also electrodes on his naked chest.

"It was a very close call," said Dr. Prince. "If your father hadn't found him when he did your brother would be gone."

"Thank you for all you've done for him," Skyler said mechanically. His mind was elsewhere as he stared at his younger brother in the sea of white.

He was transported back in time inside his mind to a winter day in Detroit when school had been cancelled and he'd kept the twins outside in the freezing cold to save them from Chuck. He'd convinced them to build a snow fort and before he knew it Dale and Peter were there to help. Then other kids from around the neighborhood were bringing snow in wagons to pack with water so that the fort would hold up. They'd had a huge snowball fight once the fort was constructed.

He could see the twins' smiling six year old faces as they happily threw snowballs at anyone they could find. They were oblivious to how cold they were, but Skyler could see their red cheeks and hear them sniffle now and then. He knew he had to get them inside before they caught colds. He was trying to protect them from Chuck, but it would be useless if they were sick, because he was worse on them all when they were sick.

"Oh, Chad," he sighed as he sat in the chair beside his brother's bed. He took his hand and just stared at his sleeping face. "Why, buddy? Why did you do this? I told you we'd all be here for you. We love you, Chad. You can't do things like this to yourself, because I can't save you from death."

He was silent on the way back to the house. He watched the back of his father's head as Jeff held his hand while they rode with Brent, Phil and Matt. He couldn't believe that Chad had tried to kill himself. The alternative was that he'd fallen off the wagon and just taken too much, but Skyler knew his brother wasn't stupid. That meant that he was desperate. How could he be so terrified of prison that he would want to take his own life? Skyler couldn't wrap his head around that one at all.

Everyone sat in the living room when they got to the house. Skyler was shocked to see his father sitting beside Jase with Tabitha on his other side. Alex was seated beside her. He wondered just how long his father could be civil with Alex around. He hoped there wouldn't be a scene. He wouldn't be able to handle it if there was.

"How did he look?" Ben asked, breaking the silence in the room.

"He looked bad," replied Skyler. "I can't save him from this one. I can't even understand it."

"What do you mean by 'save him from this one'?" Tabitha asked.

"All our lives I've saved the twins from everything I could," he said, tears filling his eyes. "In the beginning it was Chuck. Then it was the press and tabloids. I couldn't save Chad from drug abuse and I couldn't save him from whatever this is that made him want to do this to himself."

"Skyler, you can't save everyone all the time," said his father. "I know that at present I'm not the best man to talk to you about this. I've been an ass, and I want to apologize to all of you. Alex, I'm apologizing to you as well. I can't believe how narrow minded I was being about your situation. I don't expect you to forgive me."

"You're forgiven," Alex said quickly. "I'm just happy to know that you don't hate me."

"Chad is the issue here," said Tabitha. "Ben, you, Jase and Alex have a lot to work out. You have a lot to work out with all three of your children, but this isn't the time for it. You've apologized. Now I think it's time to get back to Chad."

They talked into the night. Skyler was so shocked by his father's apology and then the heat in his step-mother's words that he was mostly silent. Jeff finally dragged him to bed around three in the morning. He had no pressing engagements for the next few days, and he was sure that Gavin and Clay weren't stupid enough to intrude upon them at a time like this.

They slept late and ate a light lunch before returning to the hospital. Skyler was told that his father was already in Chad's room, so he went upstairs to see Ashton. He met Dr. Kimball as soon as he walked into the room. The man smiled at him and shook his hand.

"I'm sorry to hear about your brother," he said softly. "I know his doctor, and I assure you he's in good hands."

"Thank you, Dr. Kimball," Skyler replied, squeezing the man's hand. "What can you tell me about Ashton today?"

"Well Ashton is another story completely," he said loudly with a big grin on his face. "The infection seems to be going away, and he's in less pain. He's getting restless, and I think he's ready to leave this place."

"You mean we can take him home?" Skyler asked quickly.

"No," said the doctor just as quickly. "I want him to remain here for a few more days. I want that infection knocked out, and I want to make sure that he has no more bowel problems. It won't be much longer, Mr. Thomas."

"Thank you," he said, smiling. That was one worry lifted from his shoulders. He'd thought that Ashton's condition had to be more serious than they were telling him because he'd heard nothing about when he could take him out of the hospital.

"Did you hear that?" Skyler asked Ashton when the doctor had left the room. "You get to come home soon."

The boy looked excited for a moment and then his face fell. He looked at Skyler as tears began to fill his eyes and then looked away. Skyler went to his bed and sat in the chair. He reached over and took his hand. He didn't know what to say to him. He had no idea what was bothering him.

"Do I have to go home?" Ashton asked with a quivering voice.

"I thought you wanted to come and live with us, Ashton," Skyler said softly.

"I do want to live with you," the boy said, turning to face Skyler. Skyler's heart broke as he watched the tears fall from his eyes. "But you said I have to go home."

"Oh, Ashton," he said, squeezing his hand. "When I said you get to come home I meant you get to come home with me."

"I don't have to go back to them?" the boy asked. Skyler could see the fear in his eyes.

"Never," he said, leaning forward to kiss his forehead. "You never have to go back to them, Ashton. If I have anything to say about it you'll live with me for a long time."

The boy was silent for a moment as he stared into Skyler's eyes. He so wanted to believe that he could go and live with him and that everything would be better now. He didn't even want to think about how mad his daddy would be at him for telling on him and his mommy. They would hurt him again if he had to go home. All because he wouldn't do what they wanted.

"They'll hurt me if I go back," he said softly. His voice was a frightened whisper, and Skyler saw a shadow of that fear on the boy's face.

"Ashton, listen to me," he said, breaking the hospital rules as he slid out of the chair and sat beside the boy in the bed to take him into his arms.  "You're not going back to them, and they'll never hurt you again. I promise you. I want you to come and live with me. Do you remember Mary?"

"The lady that gave me puzzles," he said softly. "I remember."

"She said that you can come and live with me," he said quickly. "And you know what happened next? We went to a judge. That's the law, Ashton. The law says that I'm your guardian. Do you know what that means?"

"No," the boy said in that sad pitiful voice. Skyler held him tighter.

"It means that I get to watch over you and make sure that nothing ever happens to you again," Skyler said. He thought of the security that Clay had hired for Ashton. "I want you to meet someone."

He got off the bed and went to the door to ask Roman to come into the room. Roman looked confused for a second, but he followed Skyler back into the room. One look at Ashton's tear streaked face and Roman was humbled. He'd never seen a child so broken in all of his life. It made his stomach want to cave in to see it now.

"Ashton, this is Roman," Skyler said as they approached the bed. "He's your bodyguard; one of them. He's going to help me make sure that this never happens to you again. You'll meet the other two later. Just rest easy, buddy. Roman and I won't ever let anything happen to you again."

Ashton looked at Roman with wide tear filled eyes for a long moment without saying anything. Roman couldn't believe that anyone would do something so terrible to a child. When Ashton spoke it nearly broke his heart to hear his voice quiver as he said, "You're big."

"Yes," he replied, thankful that his voice didn't shake. "I promise that no one will hurt you again."

"Hear that?" Skyler said, smiling at Ashton. "He's going to help me keep you safe. There are two others that will help me keep my promise. Brendan and Thomas are both going to help, too. Not just with you, but with Preston, JR and Alyssa as well."

"Can I meet Brendan and Thomas?" Ashton asked, looking up at Skyler with awe filled eyes.

"When they're working I'll bring them in to meet you," Skyler promised. "The point is that you never have to go back to your old house, Ashton. You're going to come and live with me."

Skyler was surprised when Ashton leaned close and wrapped his arms around him. He held the boy carefully, not wanting to hurt him. He nodded to Roman and the man went back out into the hall to stand guard at the door. There was no way he would let anyone take this child from him now. Mary had said that after they'd lived together for a while she'd support his attempt to adopt Ashton, but he wasn't sure that the courts would allow it. He'd find a way though.

He left Ashton after making sure that the boy was asleep. Roman had many questions when Skyler came out of the room. The man couldn't fathom how anyone could hurt a child and make them so afraid that they never wanted to go home again. Skyler told him that there were a lot of children out there in the world that were victims of cruel parents. It sickened him to think of them all but there was no escaping the fact that they were really out there. He could only save Ashton, and Roman promised to help him keep the boy safe.

When he got downstairs to Chad's room he found his brother awake. He stood in the doorway for a few minutes just looking at Chad as a million thoughts went through his mind. He still couldn't understand why Chad would try to end his life. Sure he was scared of prison, but he would have survived it. No one in the family would have turned away from him. He had to know how much they all loved him. If he didn't know then Skyler knew he had to make him understand just how important he was.

"I know you're mad at me," Chad said softly without looking at Skyler. "I can't say I'm sorry enough, Sky. I was just so scared. I didn't know what to do and then I saw a way out."

"A permanent way out," Skyler said just as softly. "A way to make us all die a little inside because you were gone and there was no way to bring you back. Yeah I get it, Chad. I know you're scared, but do you have any idea just how important you are to me? What about Cassie? Chad, we love you so much."

"I'll never be able to make up for this one," Chad replied. "I know that."

"Chad, you still don't get it," Skyler said, coming into the room and sitting beside his bed. "There's nothing for you to make up for. You made a few mistakes, sure. Everyone makes mistakes. I'm not mad at you. I'm scared for you. Do you have any idea how hard it was for me to know that there was something hurting you and I couldn't fix it? Do you know how much I wish I could make all of this go away?"

"But you can't save me from this, Sky," Chad said, looking at his brother finally. "I love you so much for wanting to but you have to know that you can't save me from what I've done to myself."

"You can come back from this, Chad," Skyler said. "I'll help you. I know I can't save you but I can do everything in my power to help you through this. Please don't ever try anything like this again."

"I'll never do anything like this again, Sky," Chad said, losing his battle with tears. "I don't know what's going to happen now, but I know that I'll never even look at drugs again."

"Why did you try to kill yourself?" Skyler asked. "I know you're scared but suicide isn't an answer to anything."

"Sky, I didn't try to kill myself," Chad moaned. "I would never try to end my life. I just took too much. I knew that I was in trouble when I put the needle in my arm, but I couldn't stop myself. I just wanted to escape it all for a while. I'm so damned sorry."

"We'll get through this, Chad," Skyler replied. "It won't be easy, but we'll get through it."

"Darby was here this morning," Chad said, looking away from Skyler for a moment.

"Something wrong with the two of you?" Skyler asked.

"She told me that if I ever pull a stunt like this again she's moving back to her apartment and forgetting she knows me," he said miserably.

Skyler's initial reaction to this news was anger, but then he thought about the conversations he'd had with Darby himself. He knew that she'd lost her mother to drugs, and he knew that she hated any form of drug use. She'd warned Chad twice already. This latest warning was probably her final one and he couldn't be angry with her for letting Chad know that she'd had almost all that she could take. He just wished that she'd have waited until he was back on his feet. The fact was Skyler didn't know how long it would take to get Chad back on his feet. Was Darby really supposed to be expected to put her feelings aside for an indefinite period of time? Skyler didn't think so.

"Chad, she's been through a lot," he said carefully. "You've got to get your act together if you want to keep her in your life."

"I know that, Sky," he said, turning to face his brother as tears fell from his eyes. "I know I fucked up, Skyler. I know how badly I've fucked up. I told her I'd do whatever it takes to keep us together. I'm going to rehab as soon as the doctor discharges me from this room. I'll go to court and take my licks for the hotel and possessions charges. I'm going to make this right."

"I know you're going to make it right, Chad," Skyler replied. "I'm going to help you in any way I can."

"Just don't judge me for this," Chad said softly, looking at Skyler with tear-filled, pleading eyes.

"I'm not judging you, Chad," he said quickly. "I'm being here for you."

Over the next three days Skyler spent a lot of time at the hospital. The press began to gather in throngs when the story about Chad's overdose hit the media. Reporters screamed questions at every member of the family and even members of both Chad's and Skyler's security teams. So far they hadn't figured out that Roman, Brendan and Thomas were even connected to the Thomas family. Skyler and Brent began to strategize and plan for the day that Ashton was released from the hospital. They were all expecting trouble with the press and Skyler was in no mood to be troubled. In the end it was decided that every member of Skyler's security team along with Ashton's security would be there to shield them from the press.

On January fourth Chad was moved from his private room on the fifth floor to the rehabilitation ward on the third floor of the hospital. The move went smoothly as members of the security team along with hospital security prevented members of the press from entering the hospital. Chad was in relatively good spirits when he arrived in rehab. The were all upset when they were told that for the first seventy-two hours he could have no visitors. Ben finally talked to the entire family and told them that he was sure that the first few days of treatment were probably the hardest and Chad didn't need any distractions. They all agreed to stop complaining about it and started worrying about Ashton's release from the hospital instead.

Bright and early the next morning Skyler, Jeff and all of their combined security arrived at the hospital. They made their way through the press without answering any questions of any kind. They said nothing as they were let inside the hospital. The security teams began discussing tactics with the hospital security staff while Skyler and Jeff went into Ashton's room to help get him ready to leave the hospital. They found Ashton in good spirits. The boy was full of smiles and a bundle of excitement.

"I get to go home with you today," he said cheerfully. His face was alight with excitement and a huge smile greeted them as they walked in the door.

"That's right," said Skyler. "You're coming home today. We need to talk to you about what's waiting outside the hospital though. I don't want you to be scared though."

"You mean the reporters?" Ashton asked. "The doctor and nurses were talking about that when he came to tell me I could go home today."

"Yes, I mean the reporters," Skyler said softly, smiling at him. "They can get really scary."

"Will they try to touch me?" Ashton asked with the first signs of distress betraying his smile.

"They'll try," Skyler replied honestly. "But we have so many security men today. They're going to surround us and keep the press away. The SUV is going to be waiting for us at the entrance and we're going to get you inside it as fast as possible."

"All right," the boy said, looking down slightly.

"Hey, Kiddo," said Jeff as he walked over and sat in the chair beside Ashton's bed. "We're going to protect you. I promise that you'll get to the car quickly and no one will touch you but me, Skyler or one of the security people, and maybe a doctor or nurse."

"We'll get through them, Ashton," Skyler said quickly. "Don't worry."

Things began to happen quickly after that. Doctor Kimball came into the room with Ashton's release papers. He told them that he'd never seen such a circus and wished them luck as soon as all of the care instructions and follow up information was discussed. Then Skyler helped Ashton into a wheel chair and they made their way out into the hall where the entire security staff surrounded them. They looked like an army as they made their way to the elevators. Nurses and visitors of patients stopped to watch them pass, whispering to colleagues and loved ones as they watched. Skyler was worried about what would happen when they got to the main entrance. He wished they'd figured out a way to sneak out of the hospital, but Brent had already told him that the press were at every exit. There was no choice but to just get through it and get Ashton home safely.

It was as he'd feared when they got to the main entrance of the hospital. The press had flanked the SUV and were waiting for them with microphones extended. Photographers were already snapping pictures. Skyler had worn one of his old tour jackets for this specific reason. He quickly took it off and placed it over Ashton's head, telling him that it was necessary to keep them from taking his picture. The boy was clearly terrified and Skyler was more angry than he'd been in a long time as they made their way out the front doors of the hospital.

"Skyler!" called a female reporter, Skyler didn't look up. "Is that Ashton Burke? Skyler, what are you planning to do for the boy? Skyler, just one quote. Please!"

"Mr. Thomas, why are you taking the boy out of the hospital?" cried a male reporter.

"Skyler!" cried yet another female. "Why are you taking this boy out of the hospital instead of visiting with your brother?"

"Skyler!" cried another male. "Tell us about your brother's suicide attempt!"

"Brent!" cried Skyler as Ashton began to shake in the wheelchair. "Get us out of here. Now!"

"Working on it, Sky," said Brent as he and five others from the security staff stepped forward, violently shoving cameras out of their faces and warning reporters to back off.

They got inside the SUV, but Brent and the driver were still trying to push through the crowd. They could still hear the reporters screaming questions at them from outside of the vehicle as cameras flashed over and over again. Skyler held Ashton close to his body, keeping the jacket firmly over his head as they waited in fear. He couldn't believe how vicious the press was. Had they learned nothing? They were all crazed and he was once again thinking about just staying home and never coming out again for any reason.

"Skyler, I'm scared," came Ashton's muffled voice from under the tour jacket.

"I know, buddy," he said, holding him closer still. "We'll get out of here soon. I promise."

Then the vehicle began to rock as reporters surrounded it and began to push against both sides. Skyler's heart was racing. Were they going to tip it over? What kind of people were they? The security men in the front seats sprang from the vehicle and began to shove reporters away from the SUV, screaming at them to get away before someone was hurt. Skyler watched the scene with wide eyes. He was near panic. This was worse than when they'd kept him in Detroit when he'd tried to take Preston from the hospital. His steps to avoid the press had done nothing to stop them. If nothing else they were move vicious than ever. He couldn't believe it.

Then he saw policemen in the crowd, many of them. As he watched, reporters were arrested. Brent and the others got into the SUV and began to drive. They had to go slowly because the idiots outside kept stepping in front of the vehicle. Skyler had half a mind to have the driver run them over. They deserved it in his opinion. He couldn't believe how crazed they were. It was completely unreal. Ashton shook beside him, and his anger boiled as he watched the scene outside the windows.

He nearly suffered heart failure when the window beside his head imploded, sending shattered glass all over the back seat. A camera was thrust into the broken window and a reporter began screaming questions. Skyler put his hand on the camera lens and pushed as Ashton screamed beside him. He was screaming at the reporter but he didn't know what he was saying. All he knew was fear in that moment. He was still trying to push the camera out of the vehicle when the passenger side window imploded.

"Drive!" he screamed at the driver. "I don't care if you have to run over every one of them. Get us away from here. Now!"

* * *

"Are you seeing this?" Tabitha asked Ben as they sat, staring at the television screen in horror. They were watching the news and it was featuring what was happening at the hospital. Tabitha couldn't believe it.

"Is that Skyler?" Cassie asked, leaning forward as she saw what looked like Skyler pushing a wheelchair with a small boy in it. She saw the tour jacket and gasped. "It is!"

"Merciful God," Tabitha breathed as she watched a cameraman break one of the SUV's windows. "I can't believe this."

They watched the scene on the television as Ben tried over and over again to get Skyler on the phone. When he couldn't get through to Skyler he tried Brent and then Jeff.

He couldn't get Jeff either. Then he started calling every number for the security team he had. He didn't understand at first why he could get no one on the phone. Then he looked at the television again and noticed that it was a live feed. This was happening while they watched. His stomach rolled as he watched. Watching he was reminded of a conversation he'd once had with Laura about the difference between Skyler and Chad's versions of fame. She'd said something like Chad's was a gentle breeze while Skyler's was always a frenzy. That frenzy looked like it was currently about to swallow Skyler whole and take Jeff and Ashton right along with him.

"Just let them get home," he said quietly. Tabitha looked at him and then took his hand. They watched the television silently as the scene continued to unfold.

* * *

The SUV continued to rock, but two of Skyler's security men were standing in front of both broken windows. Skyler didn't know which ones they were. He was too busy gripping Jeff's hand and holding Ashton against him. This was too much. They'd gone too far. He didn't know what he could do about it, but he knew one thing. He was never giving another interview to anyone outside of talk show hosts and music television reporters again. Everyone else was out of the question. No reporters from any news magazine, tabloid, traditional newspaper or television news program would ever hear a word that come out of his mouth again. In fact they'd be lucky if he didn't attack them on sight.

"Drive, Kent," yelled Phil from outside as he pounded on the roof of the SUV. "They've cleared a path for you, damn it. Drive!"

Kent, the driver, began to drive slowly through the throng of reporters and cameramen. He made it to the street and then they were nearly flying down the busy Los Angeles street away from the hospital. Skyler half turned in the seat to stare back at the throng. None of them were giving chase. From the looks of it the police had blocked off the street after they'd gotten away. He sighed in relief but he was no less angry as he carefully removed the jacket from Ashton's head and shoulders. The boy was crying as he looked up at him, and Skyler was more angry than ever.

"We're going home, Blondie," said Jeff, squeezing his hand.

"They have to pay for this, Jeff," he said through clenched teeth. "They've terrified Ashton. After all he's been through those sons of bitches did this to him."

"Then we'll find a way to make them pay, Sky," said Jeff. "We will."

"Brent, I want fences, gates, armed guards and cameras around both of the houses as soon as possible," Skyler said quickly. "Mom and Dad's too."

"I'll call the best firms in the city, Sky," said Brent. "I'll make sure you get what you need."

"Thank you, Brent," he said, calming only slightly as they drove on.

"You don't have to thank me, Sky," said Brent. "I'm just as angry as you are right now. What happened was unacceptable."

"They'll probably get ballsy after this, Brent," he said, thinking of the last time this had come close to happening to him. "From now on whenever we go anywhere, I want decoys and as many of you in matching SUVs as possible to surround me on the streets. We'll find alternate routes that make it possible."

"Whatever you say, Skyler," he said. "I'll see to it. Don't worry."

They made it home faster than they ever had before. Six of Skyler security men were still at the hospital, but he wasn't bothered by that. They'd get home once the mess was cleared up. He was just happy to be home. They were safe. That was all that mattered. He carried Ashton from the vehicle to the house before Kent drove on to the garage to start looking the vehicle over. Skyler didn't want to look at it anymore. He just wanted to get Ashton safely inside. He was met by his step-mother, father and uncles when he came in the front door.

"Oh thank God!" Tabitha said, coming to him at once. "Let me take him."

"No," he said, shaking his head. "I'll take him upstairs. Jeff, please come with us."

They went straight to Ashton's room and Skyler sat him on his bed. The boy looked around the room with a tear streaked face. He looked at the walls, the floor and the ceiling before he looked back at Skyler and Jeff. He shivered as he looked at them. Skyler wondered what the boy was thinking and wished that his first look at his new room could have been a happy occasion as it was supposed to have been if not for the press.

"Why did they try to hurt us?" he asked, looking from Skyler to Jeff and back again.

"Ashton, I don't know why they do anything they do," Skyler said, kneeling down to face the boy. "I promise that we'll do whatever we can to make sure that nothing like that happens again though."

It took a while to calm Ashton down. In the end it was Alyssa, JR and Preston that did the trick. Skyler took him down the hall to the room the children played in and that's when he heard Ashton laugh for the first time in days. He sighed in relief as he stood in the doorway with Jeff to watch them. Jeff put his arm around him and they stood together to watch perfection for a few minutes while they tried to calm down themselves.

Two detectives came to see them two hours later. Both were older men with salt and pepper hair, hard faces and stiff pressed dark suits. They informed him that at least twenty men and women had been arrested so far and more arrests were pending. They asked a lot of questions and Skyler tried to remain calm as he went through the events step by step with the detectives. When they'd questioned both him and Jeff, Skyler asked them to please send along every name of those arrested, who they worked for and any information they could give them. They agreed, knowing that it was for the lawyers.

The next day, Brent made good on his word. Workmen from high rated security firms came to the estates to assess the needs. Skyler talked with several different men about what he wanted ultimately. Then the work began. They started work on a wall that would surround both houses, leaving the back yards open to access from each house. Gates were installed at the front of both estates, cameras were installed in various places. When they were finished the estates would be very well protected and the wall would assure that none of them could be seen in the joined back yards unless someone flew a helicopter over them. Skyler was pleased. He also let Ashton see all that was being done so the boy would feel more protected. It worked, and Skyler was happy for that.

He decided to go ahead and attend the wrap party for the film. They put their multiple SUV and security plan into action and it ended up taking over an hour to get to the club, but Skyler was happy. The security men surrounded him and Jeff as they got out of the SUV and headed for the entrance, making sure that no one came close. They took steps to make sure they weren't photographed and said absolutely nothing to the reporters as they entered the club. Jase and the others were starting to worry about Skyler's reaction to the press but he didn't care as long as he was safe. To keep the security men happy he stayed at the party until it ended before saddling up to return home.

They repeated the ordeal again two days later when Skyler attending the American Music Awards. They did everything the exact same way that day, making sure that no photographs were taken. Skyler performed "Who's Crying Now", collected his awards for Favorite Pop/Rock Artist and Favorite Pop/Rock Album for "Dangerous Emotions" and presented the Favorite Pop/Rock New Artist to Brody before he returned home. All without a single photo being taken and nothing said to any reporters, not even music television.

Skyler had finally gotten his two dancers from the reality show but was unhappy to hear that dance rehearsals were going to be filmed for the show each week. Evan Bradford and Alex were his two additions to the dancer line up. They still weren't telling anyone that Alex was his uncle. Skyler showed up dutifully to the school for the first rehearsal which was more James showing them each move and then getting them to perform it over and over again until he was sure they had it. By the end of the day he had them going through one whole routine and told them that they'd rehearse every day.

The press was thick again once Sky High announced the tour and that Brody would be touring with Skyler, but the new security routine worked very well in thwarting them each time they encountered them. Jeff had many conversations with Nick on the telephone about how paranoid Skyler had become where the press was concerned, but Nick told him that if he'd been in Skyler's shoes he'd have quit and done his best to disappear from the face of the Earth. Jeff felt a little better about Skyler's reaction after that.

Ashton still needed a lot of help dealing with the traumas of his young life. Skyler searched the city for a child therapist that could ultimately travel with them when tour time arrived. He found Richard Stark and met with him the day before Chad had to be in court. Richard was in his late thirties with dark hair and eyes. He looked rugged but friendly, and Ashton liked him on sight. Skyler was relieved by that. He still had many questions for Richard before handing out the contract and confidentiality agreement.

"You come highly recommended," Skyler said as they sat in the office together. "You indicated that you have no trouble traveling with the tour when it's time."

"No, I don't have any problem with that," he said. "I do have a question though."

"You can ask anything you like," Skyler replied. "Understand though that some questions won't be answered until the confidentiality agreement is signed."

"Of course," he said, smiling warmly. "My question. If I'm to travel with you would it be all right if my wife travels with us?"

"Of course," Skyler replied. "The tour will take months. I wouldn't dream of having you separated from your wife, Mr. Stark."

"Would she have to sign the agreement as well?" he asked.

"Anyone who is not family and connected to us in any way signs the agreement," he replied. "I'm afraid that's standard around here."

"No, it's fine," he said. "I was just curious about the situation."

"There's one thing I want you to understand, Mr. Stark," Skyler said, watching his face. "You'll be here to work with Ashton only. The other children are not in need of therapy, and I would appreciate it if you didn't try to counsel them. That's mine or Mr. Timmons's job."

"Of course," he replied. "I assure you I'm completely professional. I wouldn't go near the other children without permission, Mr. Thomas."

"Well your references and credentials are impeccable," Skyler said, smiling. "We'll get started with the background check and once that's completed we'll present you and your wife with the agreement and you with the contract."

"That sounds just fine, Mr. Thomas," he said as they stood. He shook Skyler's hand. "Let me say that it's quite an experience being here."

"Thank you," Skyler said, smiling. "I'll be in touch very soon."

Brent showed Richard to the door and then went back to surveying the work of the construction around the estates. Skyler smiled as he thought about how closely Brent was watching everyone. He was just coming out of the office when Clay and Gavin came in, remarking to each other about the construction. They followed Skyler back into the office and took seats in front of his desk. Both had papers upon papers for him. He sighed inwardly as he looked at them.

"You know with dance rehearsals under way you really should let me take care of the business side of the company, Skyler," said Clay. "I promise to alert you to any real problems."

"That's a great idea, Clay," Skyler replied. "But let's just get through this day first."

"All right," said Gavin. "First of all we have your schedule cleared for rehearsals. You'd already committed to The Grammy's next month and I'm sure you're still planning to attend the premiere on the eighteenth. I trust Jeff will be staying here with Ashton."

"He will," replied Skyler. "I'll be gone one night. I'm flying out that morning and returning the following morning. As for the Grammy's, I'll worry about them next month. All I have that will interrupt rehearsals this month other than the release party is Chad's court appearance. I won't be talked out of going."

"Absolutely not," said Clay. "You should go to show your support. Will you be lifting the restrictions on who you will and will not consent to talk to in the press?"

"No I won't," he said quickly. "I'm never talking to any of them again, Clay. Things didn't get better, did they?"

"Well, no," agreed Clay slowly.

"Then there's no reason to talk to any of them," replied Skyler. "I'll talk with anyone from music television, certain talk show hosts and that's it. I've prepared a list of the talk show hosts I'll talk to."

"I have the list," he said. "I've already given copies to everyone on your publicity staff. I've also got all of the signed agreements from each of your new security men."

"Thank you," he said. "You can leave them on my desk or file them. I'm pretty happy about the new security men. Brent hand picked three of them and the others came with high recommendations from other celebrities all over the country."

"You now officially have the largest security staff known to any celebrity," Gavin said with a smile.

"Well we know why, don't we?" Skyler said in a hard tone.

"Enough of that," said Clay. "There's nothing really pressing to report. Deacon is nearly finished recording. I've set up the meeting you asked for with Bret Shay and Dave Keller."

"That's good," said Skyler. "I don't want Landon to think I've forgotten about him. I haven't at all. Things have just been crazy."

"He saw the news along with everyone else at the school," said Gavin. "We've all had a short discussion about it. You know, safety and all where the press is concerned. After what happened to you we're all aware that members of the press aren't always thinking with any real brains. So I've told them all to be very careful when they see paparazzi anywhere around them. I think they listened well."

"I hope so," Skyler replied. "It's getting more and more dangerous for anyone who lives a life in the spotlight. Those idiots are crazy, and they'll stop at nothing to get what they want. Did you see what they were doing to us?"

"We saw," said Clay. "I trust you've received the names and places of employment of each of those arrested."

"Not yet I haven't," he said. "I'll let legal know when I do."

They broke the meeting up shortly after that. Clay was worried about how aggressive the paparazzi had become lately. He wasn't sure that arresting and suing reporters and cameramen was going to do anything to stop the frenzy but if it made Skyler feel better that's all that mattered. Skyler was one of the highest selling celebrities in the world at that moment, and Clay didn't want him to just shut himself up and never go back to what he loved doing because of crazed paparazzi. If he had to put up with large amounts of security and strange construction around the grounds of Skyler's home he'd do it with a smile. Gavin thought it was all a big misunderstanding but he hadn't been with the company when they'd tried to stop Skyler from leaving the hospital with Preston in Detroit. He hadn't been with the company when Skyler was nearly killed by that photographer either. He just didn't know that Skyler had every reason to fear the press.

Skyler went to each dance rehearsal with almost all of his security. Clay believed that if it hadn't been for the children and Jeff needing security he would have taken every member of the security team to the school with him. As it was they were in the way more often than not. Still it was what was required to keep his client and friend sane so he put up with it. James and Mara both seemed to think it was completely normal for security to be around in huge numbers.

The day of Chad's court appearance dawned with rain and smog. Skyler looked out his bedroom window and sighed. Jeff put a hand on his shoulder and squeezed. They were both worried about what Judge Schear was going to do when Chad faced him later that day. They'd both tried to remain positive around Chad and Darby but privately they were very worried. This latest bout with drug use had not only nearly killed Chad but it would look bad with Judge Schear. Jeff wasn't sure what would happen in court, but he was sure it wouldn't be what Chad or Skyler wanted to happen.

They stopped to collect all five of the children before heading downstairs to breakfast. Darby was dressed in one of her best designs that wasn't over the top. She looked like a wealthy business woman in her black skirt and blazer. The cream blouse looked awesome even with all of its ruffles. She smiled at them as they came into the room and immediately started to help JR with his food. Jeff smiled his thanks when he saw it and turned to put food on Skyler's plate as the man helped PJ with his food. Ashton sat on the other side of Preston with his own plate. The boy hadn't said much since he'd started spending two hours a day with Richard Stark. Jeff was worried about him.

Two hours later the entire family headed for the court house. Jase, Ali and Jason road in one SUV while Jeff, Skyler, Cassie and Kaleb road in another. Ben drove Tabitha in his own vehicle, but each of them stayed tightly inside the convoy of security vehicles all the way to the court house. They made their way to the courtroom and waited for Chad to get there. He arrived just moments later with a clinician and two aids from the rehabilitation center as well as an officer. He smiled weakly at them before he was ushered to the defense table.

Skyler watched his brother like a hawk as they were told to rise. He heard nothing that the bailiff said but he followed everyone else as they stood and then were seated again. The judge called the case and then began to read the complaints against Chad. They were severe but few. Skyler hoped that the judge would just give him some kind of supervision, but he was sure that something more drastic was coming. He waited while Chad talked to the judge.

"I know that what I did was wrong, and I'm very sorry for it all," Chad said, tears ran from his eyes. "I hurt not only myself but my family, friends and most of all my brother. All I can say, Your Honor, is that I have a lot of issues from my past to work through. I've been in rehab the past nine days and started seeing a therapist. I hope you'll let me continue to stay in rehab and see my therapist so that I can get the help I need. I understand that I have to pay for the damages and probably court costs as well."

"Mr. Thomas," said the judge, leaning forward so that the light glared off his bald head and reflected from his glasses. "You will pay restitution in the amount of fifty thousand dollars. Now that includes all court costs. You will remain in rehabilitation for no less than one hundred - twenty days. Seeing that you've spent the last nine days in rehabilitation I'll take those nine days off your sentence. I'll see you back here on April fifteenth and we'll see how you've come along. I warn you, Mr. Thomas, one more step out of line and you will be severely punished."

"Thank you, Your Honor," Chad said softly, emotion plain in his voice.

They went to the hospital when court was over. The entrance was once again a sea of paparazzi, but Skyler's new security rules kept them away from everyone. Chad was in high spirits when they saw him. He smiled and laughed with them, saying that a hundred eleven days of rehab would be all right. He'd be home with them in April and he would never do anything to make them less than proud of him again. Skyler hugged him tight.

"See," he said. "You're saving yourself this time."

"I love you, Sky," Chad said, holding his brother tight.

"I love you, too, kid," replied Skyler. "Just don't scare me like this again, ok?"

"Yeah, I'll leave that to the reporters," he said, chuckling just a bit.

"Freak," Skyler laughed, shoving Chad away. He was laughing at it because Chad had been the one to say it, but if anyone else had said those words to him he'd have likely gone insane with anger. Chad had always had a place in Skyler's heart. He was a kindred spirit in more ways than anyone knew and Skyler loved him like crazy.

On the way home, Skyler was quiet. He kept running things that Chad had said to him since the drug use had started through his head. Why couldn't he ask for help? Why couldn't he lean on anyone? It was all just storms in his life. Chuck, jealousy, drug use, feeling alone and worthless were all storms in his life that just got a little too strong. He could always have asked for help. Everyone needs to be saved now and then, he thought. Then his thoughts changed slightly. He still had Chad on his mind and all of the things he'd said, but now he was putting the words together completely differently and imagining music to go along with them.

When they got home he made sure the children were taken care of, kissed Jeff and hugged Cassie and then locked himself in the office with a pad of paper and a bunch of number two pencils. When he came out of the office for dinner that evening he'd written a song. So far he was calling it "A Song For Chad" though he knew there would have to be a different title. He wanted to sing the song. He wanted no other musicians to touch it. After all he'd only heard piano music in his head and he could play the piano.

"What're you thinking about?" Jeff asked as he handed Skyler a plate of steamed veggies.

"A song," he replied, smiling at Jeff. "I'm thinking about a song."

"A new one?" Jeff asked, smiling back.

"Oh yeah," he replied.

And for the rest of the day he had the song in his head. He let the children play on the living room floor and went to the piano and started to run his fingers over the keys. The tune in his head took a few minutes to normalize enough for him to bring it to life on the piano but when he did the kids stopped playing and watched. Jeff, Cassie and Kaleb watched him. Jase and Ali came out of the dining room to watch along with Jason, Ben and Tabitha. Each had smiles on their faces as Skyler began to hum the harmony of the song as he played. Jeff felt warm all over as he listened. He loved to listen to Skyler play. He loved to hear him sing even more, and though they all hoped that Skyler would treat them by singing this new song he didn't. He stopped playing and looked up at them with a big grin on his face.

"Not yet," he said. "It's almost right, but I need to work a few things out first."

"Will you let us hear it when you do?" asked Tabitha.

"I might," he said, smiling at her. "I might just invite you all to listen to me record it."

He worked on the music for his new song every day for the next few. He informed them that it still wasn't right when he was getting ready to leave for Orlando. He sat Ashton down on the bed while he packed to talk to the boy. He felt wrong for taking off on him like this, but it was only for one night. It was important for him to be there. He needed to show Justin that he was there for him. He hoped that Ashton would understand. Though it was a movie for kids he just didn't think that Ashton was in the right shape to go to this premiere. He didn't want to risk having the boy around paparazzi again so soon either.

"I'm only going to be gone for one night," he said, watching Ashton's face as he spoke. "I'm coming back first thing tomorrow morning. I'll be here some time tomorrow afternoon. I promise."

"Is Jeff staying here?" Ashton asked.

"Yes," replied Skyler. "Ashton, if Jeff and I ever have to go somewhere together we'll take you and the others with us."

"All right," he said. "Is this work?"

"Kind of," replied Skyler. "I promised a friend that I'd be there the day his movie opened."

"So you're keeping a promise?" Ashton asked.

"Exactly," Skyler said, smiling at him.

"Then you have to go," replied the boy. "I don't want you to break any promises. If you do how will you keep the one you made to me?"

Skyler got down on his knees before the boy and took him into his arms. He held him close for a long moment and then leaned back so he could look him in the eye. "Buddy, I'll keep my promise to you because it would hurt me to break it. Do you understand?"

"I think so," Ashton said, hugging him again. "Thank you for bringing me to live with you."

"Oh, Buddy, you're so welcome," Skyler said, hugging tighter. "If you want to talk to me while I'm gone you just tell Jeff. He can call me, all right?"

"You're going to be there for your friend," replied Ashton. "You go keep your promise and I'll be OK."

All the way to Orlando he thought about what Ashton had said to him about keeping his promise. That kid had found his way into Skyler's heart faster than Skyler had thought possible. He loved him like a son already, and there was no way he was ever letting anyone come between them. He had to adopt him. That was all there was to it. It just had to happen. He wondered just how long Mary thought they needed to live together before she'd give her support to the idea. Perhaps it was time to talk to her again.

Chip and Christian met him at the airport. Skyler was a little disappointed that Justin wasn't with them. He hugged them both and followed them to their vehicle, stopping long enough for his Orlando security to meet up with them. Christian raised an eyebrow but neither of them said anything about it.. They made their way to Skyler's estate where Chip and Christian were staying while Skyler was in Los Angeles without talking about security or paparazzi. Instead they talked about Christian's new movie and Chip's technical job on the set.

"It's nice to be able to work with this one for a change," chuckled Chip when Christian told Skyler how excited he was about the job. "I got tired of watching him board planes and fly away from me."

"I hear that," sighed Skyler. "Jeff is finally going to be able to go on tour with me and stay from start to finish. That means all of the munchkins will be with us. It's going to be awesome."

At the estate, Skyler changed into his most expensive Dior suit and they had drinks in the living room until it was time to go to the theater. Justin hugged him and thanked him for coming. He was happy for Justin and excited to see the finished product. Jase and Ali were probably already at the theater. He laughed as he thought about it.

"We saw your latest run in with the press on television," Chip said as they were getting back into the vehicles to head for the theater. "What's going to happen now?"

"Now I wait for the detectives to give me a full list of each one they arrested as well as which rag they work for and I sue the shit out of them," he replied. "They seriously traumatized Ashton."

"How's he doing?" Christian asked as they pulled through the gates.

"He's coping, but it isn't easy," replied Skyler. "I've hired a child therapist who can also tour with us when the time comes to help him. He seems to be getting into it with him pretty well. We've had a few days of silence. That makes me worry, but I know he needs the therapy."

"Therapy really helped Justin when his mom died," Chip said, smiling at his son. "It'll help Ashton too."

"I can't wait to get to LA to meet this boy," said Christian. "I better do it soon or you'll have taken him off to London or something."

"Madonna has called at least a hundred times since the day we brought him home to demand that we move to London immediately," he sighed. "I keep telling her we're looking at properties over there, but I don't know how much longer she'll accept that."

"Are you seriously thinking of moving to London?" Chip asked.

"I'm not sure right now," he replied. "Jeff and I haven't really discussed it. He just paid to have a fabulous house built for us and we've only spent a few nights in it so far, and I have to stay in LA if I want to adopt Ashton."

"You're planning to adopt him?" Christian asked, leaning forward.

"Of course," he replied. "I love him just as much as the others. There's no way I'm letting them take him from me now."

"I hope that goes well for you, Skyler," Chip said, nodding at him.

"Thanks, Chip," he said, smiling. "I think it will. I don't see any reason why they wouldn't let me adopt him."

"Well when you do I fully expect a tour of this fabulous new house you keep rubbing my face in," Christian said, grinning at him.

"That's right," he sighed. "I keep forgetting that you two haven't actually seen it yet."

"Funny considering we actually live in Orlando," laughed Chip.

"Well when we got back from Australia things were a bit strange," replied Skyler. He thought of Chad again and the song started running through his head.

"How is Chad anyway?" Christian asked.

"He's doing as well as can be expected," replied Skyler. "I was happy that the judge didn't make an example of him like he'd threatened to."

"We heard about his rehab sentence," said Chip. "Wasn't he already in rehab though?"

"Yeah," replied Skyler, nodding. "The judge took days off for time spent in the facility already."

When they arrived at the theater, Skyler followed his security straight inside. He didn't wait for Chip, Christian and Justin. Justin deserved his time in the spotlight anyway. Skyler quickly found Jase when he got inside and the two stood with Ali while they waited for the trio to make their way inside. Once they did they found seats and chatted about nothing important until the movie started. Once it did, Skyler was enthralled. It was an amazing movie. He laughed and nearly cried as he watched it. He was only dimly aware of Justin's excited movements beside him.

"Wasn't it great?" cried Justin as they were making their way back out of the theater.

"It sure was," laughed Skyler. He caught sight of the reporters out of the corner of his eye and Brent put his hand on his arm. "You go talk to your press and I'll go hide out in the car."

"Love you, Uncle Skyler," Justin said, hugging him.

"I love you, too, Kiddo," he said, returning the hug.

He was dead on his feet the next morning at the airport. They boarded his jet and waited for their turn to taxi down the runway while Skyler yawned and lounged back in his seat. Before he knew it, Brent was shaking him awake as the jet landed in Chicago to refuel. He couldn't believe he'd fallen asleep or that he'd slept so comfortably in the seat. It was so much more comfortable than commercial flying. He got up and made himself a drink just before Eli announced that it was time to return to the seats and buckle up for take off.

Everyone was very happy to see him when he arrived in Los Angeles. They employed the new security protocols for the ride home and then Skyler was with the children on the floor in the living room to play. Jeff joined him as soon as he came out of the bathroom. They kissed their hello and then got back to playing with the children. Skyler noticed that Ashton was watching them closely. He'd decided he wouldn't hide his relationship with Jeff from Ashton. He was just waiting for the boy to start asking questions.

Two days after he'd returned from Orlando, the detectives made good on their promise to provide him with a list. He contacted Sky High's legal department and gave them the list. Over the next two days he and Jeff met with two lawyers from the company and they strategized about how to best file the lawsuit. Skyler was still very set on filing it no matter what they advised. He was happy when they told him they believed he had a strong case and then it was just deciding when to file. They were all still going to court over the city charges, so Skyler agreed to await the outcome of those trials before he filed his lawsuit.

Then he was gathering the entire family tightly into the tech booth of the studio behind the house so that he could record. He sat down at the piano and began to play. Then he stopped playing and nodded at Jase to start recording.

"Come on, come on. You have got to move on. This is not the you I know," he sang acapella before he started to play. "This isn't real. It's just all you can feel, and that's the way that feelings go. And whether or not it's right or wrong, you'll do what you will do.

"But when the cloud in the sky starts to pour and your life is just a storm you're braving, well don't tell yourself you can't lean on someone else, 'cause we all need saving sometimes," he sang and then played for a bit before he started to sing again.

"Say what you will, but the time that we fill while we're on the Earth should not be alone. We were meant to be known, and you make me what I'm worth. But I can't keep you from yourself. You'll do what you will do.

"And when the cloud in the sky starts to pour and your life is just a storm you're braving, well don't tell yourself you can't lean on someone else, 'cause we all need saving.

"And I don't know why it has to be this way. And I don't know the cure. But please believe someone else has felt this before," he sang a bit louder.

"And when the cloud in the sky starts to pour and your life is just a storm you're braving, well don't tell yourself you can't lean on someone else, 'cause we all need saving sometimes. We all need saving sometimes," he sang and stopped playing.

"Sometimes," he sang softly and then nodded for Jase to stop the recording.


We All Need Saving is a song by Jon McLaughlin.
This chapter is a bit long, but many things have to happen before we reach Chapter 100.
The next chapter will be posted soon.


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