Soldier Down by KeepThisSecret
Past Featured StorySummary: All Nick wanted was one secret; one harmless guilty pleasure that the other guys didn’t know about. Of course, nothing is ever simple when it comes to secrets and when a series of mysterious accidents begin to occur while the boys are on tour Nick soon realizes that his one and only well-kept secret may hold the key to his friends’ recent misfortune. With everyone’s lives on the line, will Nick reveal his embarrassing secret and endure the ridicule, or will he try to be the hero and resolve the situation on his own?
Categories: Fanfiction > Backstreet Boys Characters: Group
Genres: Drama, Suspense
Warnings: Death, Sexual Content, Violence
Challenges:
Series: None
Chapters: 33 Completed: Yes Word count: 65586 Read: 40110 Published: 02/20/15 Updated: 08/29/15

1. Chapter 1: Online Erotica by KeepThisSecret

2. Chapter 2: The Living Germ by KeepThisSecret

3. Chapter 3: Body Slam by KeepThisSecret

4. Chapter 4: Green Tea by KeepThisSecret

5. Chapter 5: Double Gulp by KeepThisSecret

6. Chapter 6: But Who? by KeepThisSecret

7. Chapter 7: Guilty as Charged by KeepThisSecret

8. Chapter 8: Publix by KeepThisSecret

9. Chapter 9: Peer Pressure by KeepThisSecret

10. Chapter 10: Late Night TV by KeepThisSecret

11. Chapter 11:Dirty Little Secrets by KeepThisSecret

12. Chapter 12: It's Raining ... Metal? by KeepThisSecret

13. Chapter 13: The Blueberry Thing by KeepThisSecret

14. Chapter 14: The Backcountry Moonshine Brewer by KeepThisSecret

15. Chapter 15: Starbucks by KeepThisSecret

16. Chapter 16: Any Relation to Lance Bass? by KeepThisSecret

17. Chapter 17: Dancing Blueberries by KeepThisSecret

18. Chapter 18: Selfish by KeepThisSecret

19. Chapter 19: Predicting the Future by KeepThisSecret

20. Chapter 20: Reality Bites by KeepThisSecret

21. Chapter 21: Stolen by KeepThisSecret

22. Chapter 22: The Show Must Go On by KeepThisSecret

23. Chapter 23: Back On Your Leash by KeepThisSecret

24. Chapter 24: Pickles by KeepThisSecret

25. Chapter 25: I Missed You by KeepThisSecret

26. Chapter 26: The Loser by KeepThisSecret

27. Chapter 27: Bad Connection by KeepThisSecret

28. Chapter 28: What Had We Done? by KeepThisSecret

29. Chapter 29: Did You See Him? by KeepThisSecret

30. Chapter 30: Truth, Lies, and Revenge by KeepThisSecret

31. Chapter 31: Last Chances by KeepThisSecret

32. Chapter 32: I Hear You by KeepThisSecret

33. Epilogue by KeepThisSecret

Chapter 1: Online Erotica by KeepThisSecret
** NICK **

“What are you doing?”

I literally jumped at the sound of Howie’s voice, my fingers slipping as I struggled to maintain my grip on the smooth surface of the tablet. “You scared the shit outta me! Why are you creeping up on me like that?”

Howie raised one eyebrow in suspicion. “I’ve been standing over there for more than ten minutes.” He waved his hand in the direction of the nearby magazine kiosk and dropped down next to me into one of the hard, plastic chairs. “You were clearly too involved in whatever it was that you were doing to notice me.”

“I was just looking at some sports stuff.” The lie slipped easily off of my tongue as I quickly closed the open Internet tab and erased my browsing history. I casually slid my finger across the top of the iPad and turned it off, setting the device on the small table in front of us. “How are you feeling?”

Howie continued to stare at me; ignoring my question. “What were you really looking at?”

I made a massive show of rolling my eyes and leaned back in my chair. “I told you. I was just checking the scores.”

“I bet he was looking at porn.”

I flinched again at AJ’s raspy intrusion. Why did everyone keep sneaking up on me?

“It looked like he was reading.” Howie shook his head. “Or else I would have already called him out for being a pig.”

“Maybe he was reading an erotic novel.” Brian strolled over and planted himself in one of the grey chairs across from the ones on which Howie and I were sitting. He took a massive bite out of the Granny Smith apple that he was holding in his hand and chewed noisily. “There are a ton of those online.”

The heat was starting to creep up my neck. “I wasn’t reading an erotic novel! I was looking at baseball stats.”

“Why would you want to read porn when you can watch it?” AJ took a seat in the available chair next to Brian and gave me a strange look. “It’s not like reading about people doing it is going to improve your vocabulary.”

Brian snorted, banging on his chest as he almost choked. “We are talking about Nick’s vocabulary. Any additional words would be an improvement.”

I narrowed my eyes at Brian, willing desperately for him to drop the subject. I shouldn’t have fooled myself into thinking that it would be okay to access the website in a public place. I should have known that the chances of getting caught were too high. Thank God that Howie hadn’t actually seen the website. The reality of what I had been doing was a lot worse than the guys thinking that I was watching porn in the middle of LAX.

“You seem to know an awful lot about online erotica.” I took a jab at Brian. “Is there something that you would like to share?”

Brian shrugged and flashed me a sideways grin, bits of apple stuck between his teeth. “Sometimes reading it is better than watching it.”

It was my turn to choke. “What the fuck are you …”

“Did you guys not hear our boarding call?” Kevin interrupted. He had materialized next to AJ; carry-on in hand and a look of annoyance on his face. “They’ve announced it twice already.”

AJ shook his head. “We were too busy discussing Brian’s and Nick’s porn habits.”

“You – you were doing what?” Kevin flipped his eyes back and forth between me and his cousin. His massive eyebrows were practically overtaking his entire forehead. “Why were you having that kind of a discussion in a public place?”

“Relax, Kev.” I stood up and hastily stuffed the iPad and my phone into my carry-on bag. “AJ’s just messing with you.”

“After hearing the results of the conversation, I really wish that I was.” AJ screwed his face up into a disheartened look and laid his hand gently on Brian’s shoulder. “If you’re looking for some new material, all you need to do is ask. You don’t have to resort to reading.”

Brian swallowed the last bite of his apple and tossed the core towards the nearby garbage can. He watched in satisfaction as the core sailed directly into the middle of the bin before turning to AJ. “Some of it is surprisingly well-written. I can recommend one or two titles for you if you like.”

AJ stared hard into Brian’s face. “I seriously don’t know if you’re joking right now.”

The corners of Brian’s mouth twitched as he struggled to maintain a serious expression. “I know. I bet it’s killing you.”

“Why?” Kevin ran a hand down his face and rolled his eyes towards the ceiling.

“‘Why’ what?” I asked; falling into step next to the oldest member of our group as the five of us began to make our way towards the gate.

“Just ‘why’.” Kevin sighed. “Just ‘why’.”

I resisted the urge to issue a snide response as I pulled my boarding pass out of my pocket. We were less than halfway through the tour, and there was no point in rattling Kevin’s cage this early. I had learned the hard way that giving Kevin a rough time was best done during the final few dates of a long tour; just before we all went our separate ways.

“How are you feeling?” Kevin turned his attention to Howie, asking him the same question that I had earlier.

“Better.” Howie shrugged. He coughed loudly into his arm and offered Kevin a sheepish looking smile. “Okay, so I’m not really feeling that much better.”

Kevin pursed his lips. He handed his boarding pass to the woman behind the counter, but he kept his eyes locked on Howie. “I really think that you should sit the next show out. You don’t look so hot.”

“You don’t look so fabulous yourself, at the moment.” Howie quipped, eliciting a laugh from both AJ and Brian and a snort of approval from me.

Once again, Kevin rolled his eyes towards the ceiling. “Why, God? Why do you do this to me?”

“Because you make it so easy!” I pressed myself in-between Brian and AJ as the words left my mouth, shooting Kevin a massive gin over my shoulder. He glared back at me, but his barely cinched eyebrows betrayed the fact that he was only pretending to be upset.

The five of us shuffled on to the plane and AJ and Brian immediately sat down next to each other. Howie and I positioned ourselves in the seats directly behind them, and Kevin chose a window seat two rows back and to the right of the rest of us. Five minutes after takeoff, Howie was dead to the world beside me; his mouth slightly open as he snored softly through his congestion. A quick look around confirmed that AJ and Brian were hunched over a series of papers, and that Kevin was deeply involved in the latest Dan Brown novel.

I stole another glance at Howie before pulling my iPad out of my backpack. I knew that I had no reason to be worried; Howie could sleep through anything, including a fire alarm, a herd of bleating goats, and a mild hurricane. Nevertheless, I was feeling more than a little paranoid as a result of almost being caught in the airport. Satisfied that Howie was sufficiently passed out, I called up the pages that I had saved to the tablet’s offline browser. There was no Wi-Fi available on the flight, but I had more than enough material to keep me entertained until the snack cart appeared. Settling back in my seat, I dropped my eyes to the screen and allowed my mind to wander back into the alternate reality of the text.

I knew that what I was doing was more than a little strange, but I just couldn’t bring myself to stop. I had stumbled across the website by accident a little over a year ago and ever since then I had been hooked. It was an escape, a way for me to put my real-life problems aside and to engage in a bit of harmless fun. The only thing that I had to worry about was the risk of someone finding out. If anyone were to figure out my secret, I would never be able to live it down. That’s why I was always so careful; nobody could ever know the source of my biggest guilty pleasure.
Chapter 2: The Living Germ by KeepThisSecret
** BRIAN **

“I know that you want to come out and join us, but now is really not the best time.” I found myself holding my breath as I waited for my wife’s response. I knew that it wasn’t going to be positive.

“Why not?!” Leighanne was undeniably pissed off. “You told Baylee that he would be able to perform during the second leg of the North American tour. You’re now more than halfway through the American tour dates and we’re still sitting at home!”

“I know.” I pinched the bridge of my nose as I struggled to come up with the right words. “The timing’s just not right. None of the other guys have their wives and kids here at the moment …”

“Since when does that matter?” Leighanne demanded.

“It’s just – It’s nothing personal, honey.” I was stalling, tripping over my words as I tried to hide the fact that I was enjoying the solitude.

It had been a long time since the five of us had been alone on the road. For the first time in over a decade, I was free to do what I wanted, when I wanted. Aside from showing up to perform, I had virtually no other responsibilities, and I would have to lie in order to say that I wasn’t enjoying it.

“It seems pretty personal to me.” Leighanne huffed. “What am I supposed to tell Baylee?”

“Tell him – Tell him that Howie is sick and that he shouldn’t be on the road with us until he’s feeling better. I wouldn’t want either one of you to get sick.” I knew that the excuse was lame, but it was the best that I could come up with.

“That’s it? That’s your excuse!? You don’t want to see your family because Howie has a cold?” Leighanne was beginning to sound irate. “Why don’t you tell me what’s really going on, Brian?”

“It’s more than just a cold.” I continued on with my ridiculous excuse, dropping my hand from my nose and staring off into the vast amount of empty seats. “He’s really sick. He’s probably highly contagious.”

The arena lights were dimmed, casting a series of malformed shadows across the stage and over the folding chairs that had been set up along the floor. Even after twenty-one years of performing, I was still amazed at how quickly seemingly cavernous arenas could be transformed into brilliantly lit spaces holding mobs of shrieking fans.

“You’re pathetic.” Leighanne announced. “Do you hear me? You’re pa-the-tic.”

I walked over to the edge of the stage and peered down into the ‘fan pit’ space that would eventually hold approximately two hundred of our most insane – err dedicated – fans. I couldn’t help but shake my head as I half-listened to Leighanne continue to berate me for refusing to give in. Some of the stuff that went on in the pit was intense, and I always wondered why so many women were willing to put themselves through the experience.

“Are you listening to me?”

“Mmmmhmmm ...” I nodded needlessly and pulled my eyes back up to the rows of empty seats. “I’m listening.”

Truthfully, I hadn’t heard a word since she had called me pathetic. My mind was elsewhere; debating about whether or not the guys and I had time to escape for dinner before the show. With Leighanne’s voice nattering in my ear and my mind on dinner, I didn’t hear the footsteps coming up behind me. The man’s hands were heavy on my shoulders and the gentle shove was enough to make me lose my balance and pitch forward towards the ground below.

“Shit!” AJ’s voice boomed in my ear as he wrapped an arm around my waist and yanked me backwards. “I didn’t think that I hit you that hard!”

I swayed unsteadily on my feet, twisting slightly and grabbing frantically for AJ’s arm. The phone slipped from my ear, but I miraculously managed to prevent it from crashing to the floor; my fingers pressing on the screen and creating a series of loud beeps. My heart was throbbing noisily in my chest as I struggled to regain my balance. AJ had legitimately scared the breath right out of me.

“Brian?” Leighanne’s voice continued to drift through the line. “What are you doing? What’s going on over there? We were in the middle of an important conversation!”

“Sorry, Leighanne!” AJ yelled, lowering his face towards the phone that I was still clutching in my right hand. “I didn’t mean to hit him so hard!”

“What?!” Leighanne screeched. “Brian, what is going on? Are you all right?”

“I’m fine.” I promised. Having finally regained my balance, I shoved AJ away from me and turned to give him a warning look before redirecting my attention to the phone. “I should get going ... we have sound-check in less than an hour.”

“So, the discussion is over?” Leighanne sounded beside herself with anger. Clearly, she had forgotten that she was supposed to be concerned for my wellbeing. “We’re not joining you on tour?”

I was trying desperately to keep my mind on the conversation, but AJ was busy cracking an imaginary whip and puckering his lips in my direction. Knowing that letting out a spiel of laughter would only make things worse; I bit my lip and dropped my eyes to the stage floor before delivering my answer.

“Not right now. Like I said, Howie’s sick.”

“Fine.” The line went dead with Leighanne’s final statement; the dial tone overly loud in my ear.

“I seriously wasn’t trying to kill you.” AJ stopped flapping his hands in the air and turned serious as soon as I disconnected the call. “I thought that you had heard me coming up behind you.”

I snorted. Any anger that I had initially felt towards the younger man was already gone. “I was too busy listening to my wife call me pathetic to hear anything else.”

AJ frowned. “Ro didn’t take the idea of staying home too well either. Although, she stopped short of calling me names.”

“It’s only for another couple of months.” I sighed. “I don’t see why it’s such a big deal.”

“She misses you?” AJ offered. “Or she’s worried that you’re gonna cheat on her.”

I snorted again. “How come you phrased the first suggestion as a question and the second as a statement?”

AJ grinned. “I know how your wife thinks.”

“Judging by our conversation, I still have no idea how she thinks.” I rolled my eyes and stuffed my phone into my back pocket before falling into step next to AJ. “What did you want?”

“Nothing.” AJ shrugged. “Justin and I came back from shopping and you just happened to be the first person that I saw.”

“So, you’re saying that you almost gave me severe head trauma because you were bored?” I shot AJ a sideways glance.

AJ’s grin widened as we made our way into the backstage lounge. “Pretty much.”

I resisted the urge to roll my eyes for the second time. It wasn’t as if AJ’s behaviour surprised me. “You’re an ass.”

“It’s nice to see you, too.”

“I was talking to AJ.” I addressed my cousin while crossing the room to pull a bottle of water out of the fridge. “He damn near killed me no less than five minutes ago.”

Kevin barely batted an eye as he dropped his gaze back to the parenting magazine in his lap. “Do you think that we should take Max’s blanket away from him? The thing is a living germ at this point.”

“Speaking of a living germ …” AJ nodded towards the far end of the room. “Howie looks like shit.”

Howie was practically passed out on one of the well-worn brown couches. He had propped himself up with three massive throw-pillows, a Kleenex box was perched precariously on his stomach, and an assortment of used tissues littered the floor around the sofa. His eyes were closed, and he was emitting a painful wheezing sound with every breath.

“I can hear you.” Howie’s sounded like he was speaking through a mouthful of cotton. “Thanks for pointing out the obvious.”

“Maybe you should see a doctor.” I twisted the cap off of my bottle of water and took a long swig. “I don’t think that I’ve ever seen you this sick.”

“I’m fine.” Howie winced as he forced the words out. “I just need some more green tea.”

“What you need is rest.” Kevin looked up from his magazine and turned to AJ and me for support. “Please tell him that he cannot and will not perform tonight.”

“You cannot and will not perform tonight.” AJ and I parroted Kevin’s words back at Howie in perfect unison, grinning wildly at each other as we watched Kevin shake his head in frustration.

“I can do it.” Howie protested before lapsing into a round of agonizing coughs. “I just need someone to bring me more tea.”

“You’re going back to the hotel.” I declared. “Room service will bring you all of the tea that you want while you’re in bed.”

Howie didn’t even bother to open his eyes. “I have to perform …”

“Stop fussing.” AJ stepped around me and pulled his own bottle of water from the fridge. “Nick will cover your parts, and we’ll apologize to the fans. Everything will be fine.”

“Where is Nick?” I quickly scanned the room at the mention of his name. “I haven’t seen him in at least an hour.”

“The last time that I saw him he was slinking around with his iPad.” Kevin had returned to reading his magazine, and he didn’t even make an attempt to pull his eyes away from the page as he spoke. “Someone should probably find him before sound-check starts.”

“I guess I’ll do that.” AJ downed the remainder of his water in one long chug and dropped the bottle in the recycling bin before nodding in my direction. “You make sure that sicko over there gets a ride back to the hotel.”

I looked over at Howie who was in the middle of blowing his nose. Tears were streaming down his face, and he was clearly on the verge of another coughing fit. All of the green tea in the world wasn’t going to be enough to cure him at this point. He needed to see a doctor.

“Let’s go, buddy.” I shot AJ a look that clearly said ‘thanks for nothing’ as I cautiously made my way towards the living germ that was once Howie. “Let’s get you back to the hotel.”
Chapter 3: Body Slam by KeepThisSecret
** AJ **

“Nick … Niick … Niiick?”

My voice echoed off of the bare walls, but I was still met with no response. I trudged deeper into the maze of rooms that made up the backstage area of the venue and sighed. Where was he? Sound-check was scheduled to start in less than twenty minutes, and I was in no mood to listen to one of Kevin’s lectures on the importance of punctuality.

I peeked into the next open door on my left and the smell of salami invaded my nostrils. Three members of the venue’s maintenance crew were clustered around a small card table cramming sandwiches into their mouths and laughing obnoxiously.

“Sorry to interrupt.” I apologized as the laughter ground to a halt and all three of the men turned to stare at me. “Have you guys seen Nick?”

One of the men raised an eyebrow and tried to contain his smirk. “We got no clue which one of you Backdoor Boys is Nick.”

I gritted my teeth and struggled to keep my voice sounding pleasant. As if I hadn’t heard that ‘Backdoor’ comment more than a million times throughout the course of our career. “Nick is the tall blonde one.”

“Down the hall.” The largest of the three men answered. He took a massive bite of his sandwich; his teeth tearing at the meat and sending bits of bread scattering across the table. “In the smaller lounge.”

“Thanks.” I offered, even though I received only condescending smirks in return.

I backed out of the doorway as quickly as possible and headed off in the direction that the man had indicated. The laughter started up again almost as soon as I left the room, and I had a pretty strong feeling that the men were now sharing a private joke at my expense. Still working hard to maintain my composure, I ploughed into the room marked ‘Lounge B’ with the intent of informing Nick that it was time for him to get his ass in gear.

Despite the fact that I entered the room with enough force to raise someone from the dead, Nick didn’t even look up to acknowledge my arrival. He was stretched out on a massive leather couch, his face wrinkled in concentration as he stared intently at his iPad. A slow smile spread across my face as I crept towards him and he continued to remain oblivious to my presence. This would teach him for trying to seek out some peace and quiet.

I could feel my smile stretching even wider as I positioned myself next to the couch on which Nick was lounging. When Nick still didn’t look up from the iPad, I angled my left elbow at his chest and delivered the only 1990's wrestling move that I was good at; the body slam.

Nick’s eyes opened wide as my weight connected squarely with his chest. He let out a noise that was a cross between a groan and a squeal of terror as the two of us toppled off of the couch and onto the floor in a mess of arms and legs. We scuffled across the carpet, each of us fighting for the upper hand; Nick’s cursing interspersed with my laughter.

Despite the fact that Nick overpowered me in both height and weight, I easily managed to pin him to the ground. I pushed his shoulders into the carpet and swung my legs across him in order to straddle his chest. “What-cha readin’?”

Nick glared up at me while simultaneously whipping the iPad along the carpet to the other end of the room. “I’m going to have a wicked bruise you asshole!”

Still laughing, I released my grip on Nick’s shoulders and allowed him to pull his t-shirt away from his body in order to inspect his chest for signs of bruising.

“Do I even want to know what the two of you are doing?”

Nick wrenched his face out of his t-shirt. He allowed the material to fall back against his skin as he slowly scanned the feet that had appeared just to the left of his head.

Our eyes locked as I, too, took in the pair of expensive shoes. I would recognize those leather clad, tapping feet anywhere. “Hey, Kev.”

“What are you two doing?” Kevin repeated his earlier question; his voice a full octave lower than it had been only thirty seconds before. He reached down to retrieve the iPad from the floor. “We’re going to be late for sound-check.”

“Give me that!”

Without warning, Nick shot his arms out and smacked me square in the chest. I toppled backwards, bouncing roughly on the carpet as my legs swung up into the air and my tailbone absorbed most of the fall. Kevin quickly stepped out of the way, laughing loudly at both my misfortune and Nick’s overreaction.

“Give me the iPad!”

“What’s your deal?” Kevin continued to chuckle. He moved the tablet just out of Nick’s reach as Nick hauled himself to his feet and stared at him in what could only be described as pure panic. “What don’t you want us to see?”

“Nothing!” Nick whined. “It’s mine, so give it back.”

“Give it back!” I copied Nick’s whiney tone and gingerly pulled myself into a sitting position. I didn’t want Nick to know it, but he had really done a number on my back.

“Kev, don’t be a dick!” Nick stepped forward and managed to swipe the device from Kevin’s hand. He immediately began tapping at the screen in desperation. “Did you look at anything?”

“No, I didn’t look at anything.” Kevin rolled his eyes, clearly fed up with the entire situation. “At what point did you morph back into a fourteen year old?”

Nick stopped his furious tapping long enough to narrow his eyes at Kevin. “AJ started it. I was minding my own business and he fucking tackled me to the ground!”

I pulled myself to my feet, using the couch as leverage and wincing as I straightened my back. “You shouldn’t have disappeared so close to sound-check. It’s your own fault.” I argued.

“I wasn’t bothering anyone.” Nick countered. His eyes softened as he took me in. “Did I hurt you?”

“No.” I shook my head despite the fact that my lower back felt as if it was on fire. I wasn’t about to give Nick the satisfaction of knowing that he had managed to overpower me. “I’m fine.”

“Wonderful.” Kevin stole a quick glance at his watch and a look of pure annoyance flashed across his face. “We’re now officially late for sound-check. Brian better not have decided to get things started on his own.”

“Brian’s on his own? What happened to Howie?” Nick stepped up beside me and the two of us began trailing after Kevin like a couple of delinquent children.

“Howie’s too sick to perform.” Kevin filled Nick in; his long strides increasing the distance between us at a rapid rate. “He’s gone back to the hotel.”

“He has?” Nick looked to me for confirmation. “Who’s gonna sing his parts?”

“We’ll trade off.” I shrugged. “You would have known all of this if you hadn’t disappeared for the better part of the afternoon.” I nodded in the direction of the iPad that Nick was holding protectively in the hand farthest away from me. “What were you really doing?”

“Just – looking – reading – this game stuff.” Nick mumbled. “Nothing important.”

“You’re full of shit!” I took in the blush that was slowly creeping up Nick’s face. “Is it that bad?”

“It’s nothing.” Nick insisted. He dropped his eyes to the floor in order to avoid having to look me in the face. “I was just reading some World of Warcraft hints.”

“Do you smell that?” I made a big show of sniffing loudly as the three of us reached the side of the stage.

Nick shook his head. “I don’t smell anything.”

“It smells like shit!” I announced. “And it’s coming from you.”

“Are you guys done?” Kevin interrupted. He thrust a microphone at my chest and gave me his best ‘older brother’ look of disdain. “Leave Nick alone.”

I yanked the microphone out of Kevin’s hand and resisted the urge to mimic his final statement. Even though we were all grown men, Kevin would always step in to defend Nick. The five of us would be sitting in a nursing home and Kevin would probably tell me to stop making fun of Nick’s false teeth. Nick was the baby of the group, and being the youngest clearly came with special privileges as far as Kevin was concerned.

“There you guys are!” Brian seemingly appeared out of nowhere and bounded up to the rest of us. “I was beginning to think that I was gonna have to go at it alone.” He grinned and directed his attention towards Nick. “Where have you been?”

“He’s here now.” Kevin snapped. “Can we all please just leave Nick alone?”

“Okayyyyyyy …” Brian drew his eyes up to my face as Kevin stalked off towards the centre of the stage amidst a series of screams from the waiting crowd. “Is there something that I need to know?”

“Sadly, no.” I sighed. “Everything is exactly the way that it always is.”
Chapter 4: Green Tea by KeepThisSecret
** HOWIE **

“You legitimately still look like shit.”

I raised my eyes from the steaming mug of green tea and glared at Kevin. The fact that my eyes were watering uncontrollably made it difficult to focus on his face. “Thanks, tips.”

“You need to go back to bed.” Kevin continued to deliver his unwanted and glaringly obvious advice.

“No shit.” My throat felt like it was lined with thousands of tiny needles. There was no way that I was going to be hitting any of my high notes tonight.

“Did you see the way that the fans were avoiding you at sound-check?” Nick grinned “I think that I actually saw a few of them use Purel after they shook your hand.”

I turned my watery eyes towards Nick. “If the fans knew what was good for them, they would always use Purel after touching you.”

“Ouch!” AJ nodded at me in appreciation. “Nice one, D!”

Nick huffed. “Maybe you should go back to bed.”

“I can’t.” I coughed viciously, my voice practically giving out. “It’s too late to cancel the show.”

“We can run it as a foursome again.” Brian looked tentatively at the others. “It worked pretty well last night.”

I shook my head in defiance. “I’m fine.”

“Can you even sing?” Kevin’s eyebrows cinched together into one massive tuft of hair. “If you can prove to us that you can hit your notes, I won’t say anything more about you needing to rest.”

I opened my mouth and immediately closed it again before collapsing into a hysterical coughing fit. Tears were streaming down my face as I struggled to regain my composure.

“Drink this!” AJ shoved an open bottle of water into my hands and tilted it towards my face. “You’re not doing the show.”

I took a long drink of water and wiped at my chin. My eyes continued to run as I set the water on the table and took a series of stretched, deep breaths. “We’ll use a backing track. I’ll just mouth the words.”

The others exchanged guarded glances. All of us hated using a backing track; it gave the critics something to pick apart when they wrote their reviews. The last thing that we needed was another hoity-toity reporter claiming that the five of us couldn’t actually sing.

“We can cover your parts like we did last night.” The words were flowing out of Nick’s mouth seemingly before he could even make sense of them. “Brian, AJ, and I will trade off for your solos and you can just run the dance routines.”

“I dunno …” Kevin shook his head gently. “That’s probably not the best idea.”

“I can do it, Kev.” Brian insisted. “You guys are always so quick to count me out, but I can do it. My voice – my voice is fine.”

“It’s our second night in Pittsburgh.” The apprehension was evident in AJ’s voice. “I think that we should just shut it down. The crowd will understand.”

“Nick’s right.” I could barely get the words out. “You guys can sing my parts. I’ll just run the choreography.”

AJ looked to Kevin for support before turning to back to me. “D, you don’t look like you have enough strength to lift your head. How are you going to dance for more than two hours straight?”

“I can do it.” I guzzled my tea; wincing as the hot liquid connected with the rawness of my throat. “I have to. I can’t miss back-to-back shows at the same venue.”

“You don’t have to. We can pull the show right now.” Kevin looked at his watch. “We have five minutes before they start letting people in.”

I set my empty mug down on the table. “I’ll make it through.”

Forty-five minutes later, I was seriously regretting my decision to ‘tough it out’. The stage lights were so hot and so bright; too hot and too bright. Sweat was trickling down my face and stinging my already watery eyes. My clothes felt as if they were glued to my body. We were only halfway through the set; with the majority of our up-tempo routines left to go. At this rate, I didn’t know if I was going to make it to the end of the show.

I forced myself to walk over to the spot where the others had already gathered for the acoustic portion of the show. Nick was speaking to the crowd, and the platinum VIP holders were filling the stands behind us. My vision blurred as I groped frantically for my seat; finally managing to sit down roughly on the stool and pick up my guitar. The crowd looked like a colourful swirl of faceless blobs. The shrieks and squeals from the fans were ricocheting around in my head, seemingly bouncing off of the interior walls of my skull. I had definitely made the wrong decision when I had insisted that I would be able to perform. I desperately needed to lie down.

I could sense Nick eyeing me as I mindlessly began plucking at the opening cords of ‘10,000 Promises’. I couldn’t actually check to see if Nick was in fact watching me because I was afraid that I would pitch forward off of the stool if I even made so much as an attempt to turn my head. I couldn’t remember if I had ever before experienced such an intense wave of dizziness; not even when I had been falling down drunk had I felt like this.

We were in the middle of ‘Madeline’ now. Nick’s voice was swirling around me, filling the empty reaches of my skull and dulling the slow ache generated by the screaming crowd. I knew that my hands were moving, but I had no idea whether or not I was playing the right chords. I hadn’t even been aware of the fact that we had finished the first song.

The arena plunged into darkness at the end of ‘Quit Playing Games’ and I somehow managed to stagger to my feet. Nick’s hand was gripping my arm, pulling me towards the side of the stage. My younger friend was screaming something in my ear, but I couldn’t make sense of anything that he was saying. Nick’s voice sounded muffled; like he was trying to speak to me while underwater.

I simply nodded and plastered a smile on my face. “I’m fine!” The lie rolled off of my tongue with ease. The dizziness had miraculously passed.

“You can’t go back out there!” Nick was shaking me now, holding me roughly by the shoulders. “You look like you’re going to pass out!”

“I’m fine.” I insisted, accepting the bottle of water that somebody shoved into my hands and downing the entire thing. “We’re already halfway through the show.”

“Backstreet, thirty seconds!”

Nick was still peering at me in concern. “You can sit out ‘Larger Than Life’. You can come back on stage when we slow things down again.”

“Fifteen seconds!”

I shook my head. “I said that I’m fine. I can do the routine.”

Nick looked helpless. The rest of the guys were already hustling into position. The crowd was roaring on the other side of the curtain.

“Five seconds!”

Nick and I finally scrambled into our positions as the opening notes of ‘Larger Than Life’ filled the venue. I took a deep breath, trying to suck in as much oxygen as possible, and launched into the choreography with as much effort as I could muster. I felt as though I were on autopilot; my body was working without the help of my brain.

The dizziness was returning. I had no idea where I was on the stage, the music was thumping around me, and I could hear the other guys’ voices ringing in my earpiece. Brian was covering my part of the song; his voice reaching and hitting all of my high notes. Even in my near delirious state I could tell that Brian’s voice sounded strong, and my heart surged with pride. He was having a 'good night'.

My happiness was short lived as my body began to fail. My throat was burning, and my lungs felt as though they were shrinking in my chest. I couldn’t get enough air; I could hear myself gasping as I forced my body into a turn. I knew that I looked sluggish; I knew that I was off the beat. Worst of all, I didn’t care.

The faintness had returned worse than before and I realized, in horror, that I was unable to focus my vision. All I could make out were shapes, and colours, and flashes of light. I knew that my legs were giving out. I could sense myself starting to collapse, but I couldn’t do anything about it. I had a vague sense that my body was connecting with the floor; a dull feeling of pain was spreading through the left side of my body. I knew that I should be concerned about the pain, about the fact that I was lying on the ground, but none of that mattered to me; all I wanted to do was close my eyes and go to sleep.

“Howie! Holy shit, Howie!”

Nick’s voice sounded muffled and unbelievable far away, but I knew that he was directly in front of my face. A blonde blob was invading my field of blurry vision, competing for space with a bigger, darker blob. The lights were continuing to flash in my face and I wanted nothing more than to shut my eyes, but it was as if my body wouldn’t respond to my instructions. My eyelids were heavy, painfully heavy, but no matter how hard I tried I just couldn’t force myself to squeeze my eyes shut. It was as if I were paralyzed, as if my brain had completely shut down.
Chapter 5: Double Gulp by KeepThisSecret
** KEVIN **

“What the fuck happened?” AJ’s voice boomed throughout the arena, his curses amplified by his headset.

AJ and Brian had been on the other side of the stage when Howie had collapsed. If it hadn’t been for the gasps and shrieks of horror from the crowd, the two of them probably wouldn’t even have noticed that anything was wrong.

“I told him that he was too sick to perform. I told him!” I raged, dropping to my knees and peering into Howie’s unresponsive face. “Where the fuck is the medical staff?”

Howie’s eyes were open but unfocused. He was staring directly into my face, but I knew that he couldn’t really see me. His pupils were dilated and the whites of his eyes were ringed with red. His face had taken on an eerily hallow, empty quality. It was almost as if his mind had vacated his body; like I was staring down into an empty shell.

“He fell! He just collapsed!” Nick’s voice was shaky with panic; his fear filling the arena as he screamed into his microphone.

“Howie!” Brian had now dropped down next to me on the stage. “What’s wrong with him? Why is he just staring into space like that? Kevin, what the fuck is the matter with him?!”

The audience let out a series of short, surprised gasps at Brian’s use of profanity, and I dared a quick glance behind me. The venue lights had come on giving everyone in the audience a clear view of what we were doing on stage. I could make out the faces of some of the women in the first few rows and they were all projecting nearly identical expressions; a mixture of shock, fear, and intense concern.

“Microphones off!” Eddie came sprinting out of the wings in a waft of cologne. “You should all have your headsets off! What the fuck is the matter with you? Do you really think it’s a good idea for you all to be dropping f-bombs at top volume?!”

As soon as the words were out of Eddie’s mouth, I ripped my headset off of my head and tossed it to the floor. The other guys quickly followed my lead; ignoring the bangs and squeals that reverberated through the silence that had descended upon the arena as their microphones connected with the stage.

In my haste to see if Howie was okay, I hadn’t even thought about removing my headset. Of course, Eddie was right; broadcasting our feelings to the crowd wasn’t going to make things better. Still, at that moment, I didn’t care about the fans listening to us curse. All I cared about was Howie.

I returned my attention to Howie’s face. He appeared to be getting paler by the minute, but his eyes were still open. The vacant expression on his face was quickly becoming too much for me to handle. He seemed to be paralyzed; his face frozen into the expression that he had been sporting when he had hit the floor.

“Move back, please!”

The medical team arrived on the stage at the exact moment that Eddie began to address the crowd. I could hear him telling the fans that they had to start making their way out of the building as I shuffled out of the way of the paramedics, dragging Brian along with me. My cousin looked at me in uncertainty, curling his icy fingers around my upper arm as the two of us slid over next to AJ.

“We can’t just leave him!” Brian’s voice was strained with panic. “We have to go with him to the hospital! What if he’s dead, Kev? What if he’s dead!?”

“We will go with him to the hospital.” I was failing miserably to keep the panic out of my own voice. “We have to let the paramedics do their job.”

“This is bad, this is bad, this is so bad.” Nick was pacing nervously back and forth; his fingers tangled in his hair. “I told him to sit out Larger Than Life. I told him to wait until we slowed things back down. Why didn’t he just fucking listen to me?”

The paramedics had cut open Howie’s shirt and were busy checking his vitals. The two men were hurling medical jargon back and forth at such a rapid rate that it was making my head spin. I had absolutely no clue what they were saying, but their faces said it all; Howie was not in good shape.

“Is he on any medication?” One of the paramedics yelled in our direction as he helped his partner manoeuvre Howie onto a backboard.

“He’s been sick.” AJ spoke before the rest of us even had a chance to open our mouths. “He might have been taking Tylenol, but nothing by prescription.”

“What about an illegal substance ... marijuana, cocaine, heroin … ?” The paramedic tried again as another member of our medical team arrived on the stage with a stretcher.

“No.” I shook my head. “Not Howie – he never – just no.”

“We’re taking him to Emergency.” The same paramedic informed us as Howie was loaded onto the stretcher. “One of you can ride with him if you want.”

The four of us looked at each other. It was clear that we all wanted to go, but I gently nodded at Nick. As much as it was killing me not to simply declare that I would be the one to go, I knew that Howie would want Nick to be there if he happened to wake up during the ride to the hospital.

“You go, Nick. We’ll meet you guys there as soon as we can.”

Nick’s mouth fell open; partially from fear and partially from surprise. He looked to AJ and Brian first, who both nodded in encouragement, before turning to me. “You guys promise that you’ll meet me there?”

I nodded and motioned for Nick to hurry up and follow the paramedics who were already in the process of wheeling Howie off of the stage. “You go. We’ll be right behind you.”

“Okay …” Nick gave the rest of us one last fleeting glance before hurrying off to follow Howie and his entourage of medical staff.

“We need to find a car.” I hauled myself to my feet and began turning blindly in a circle.

My eyes settled on Eddie who was still standing at the edge of the stage, pleading with the crowd to begin exiting the building. I had been so preoccupied with Howie that I hadn’t even realized that the fans were still packed into the venue. The crowd was still staring at us in horrified silence; nobody had moved.

“Do you still have access to your rental car?” I hurried over to Eddie and interrupted his useless pleading. “If you do, I need the keys.”

“Here.” Eddie reached into his pocket and shoved a set of keys into my hand. He placed his other hand over the top of his microphone and nodded his head in the direction of the crowd. “Any thoughts as to how I’m supposed to get them all to leave?”

Once again, I looked out at all of the panicked, tear streaked faces in the audience. Our fans were stubborn and determined to say the least. I had absolutely no idea what to tell them about Howie, nor did I have any thoughts as to how to encourage them all to go home.

“You’re on your own.” I patted Eddie roughly on the shoulder and began backing away towards Brian and AJ who were now waiting off to the side of the stage, just out of view of the crowd. “I gotta go. I’ll call you as soon as I have any news on Howie’s condition.”

Eddie nodded; his face giving away his anxiety. “Tell Howie that the whole crew is thinking about him.”

I gave Eddie one last forced smile before turning around and jogging back towards AJ and Brian. As much as it pained me to do so, I ignored the screams from the crowd and the pleas for information. I had no information to give, nor did I have time to spare.

“Let’s go!” I jingled the keys for emphasis and motioned for Brian and AJ to follow me as I hurried down the steps that butted up against the side of the stage. “We promised Nick that we would be right behind him.”

The drive to the hospital was overly long and silent. In reality, the trip probably took less than fifteen minutes, but it seemed much longer as I pushed the gas and flew through as many yellow lights as possible. Neither Brian nor AJ said anything during the entire drive. Brian simply stared out of the passenger window and AJ chain-smoked in the backseat; blowing puffs of smoke out of the open window and tossing his butts onto the street. I was so worried about Howie that I didn’t even bother to tell him off for polluting the world with his nasty habit.

The three of us tumbled into the Emergency Room in a rush of pent up energy. Everyone in the waiting room turned to stare at us as we hurried towards the check-in desk; simultaneously taking in our performance attire and our worried expressions. I knew that we probably looked ridiculous, but I didn’t care.

“We’re looking for Howard Dorough.” I informed the bored looking nurse behind the desk. “He was brought in by an ambulance a little while ago.”

“And you are?” The nurse raised her eyebrows and took a long pull from the massive Double Gulp soda that was taking up the majority of her small desk.

“Kevin.” I hurried. “Kevin Richardson.”

“Uh-huh.” The nurse continued to look thoroughly unimpressed. “Y’all are gonna have to take a seat.”

I started, my mouth falling open in the process. Had this woman really just told me to take a seat? Didn’t she see that this was an emergency? We were in the Emergency Room for Christ’s sake!

“I don’t think that you understand!” AJ pushed his way in front of me and glared down at the sullen hospital employee. “We need to see our friend. He just collapsed in the middle of our show! You have to tell us where he is. We’re the Backstreet Boys for fuck’s sake!”

The heavy-set nurse raised her other eyebrow. “The Backstreet-who-in-the-what-now? Listen, honey, I don’t care if you’re Justin freakin’ Timberlake. I can’t tell you where your friend is; it’s hospital policy. So, you’re gonna have to sit your boney butt down and wait, just like everyone else.”

“Justin – Justin Timberlake?!” AJ was on the verge of losing it. “Do I look like I want to be fucking Justin Timberlake?!”

The nurse took another long sip of her soda. “I don’t really know what to make of you boys at the moment. You come tearin’ in here lookin’ like y’all just stepped out of a Michael Jackson video and start makin’ demands? If y’all don’t wanna take a seat then I’m gonna have to call security.”

“We’ll sit.” Brian stepped in front of AJ and shot him a look that clearly told him that he needed to be quiet. “There’s no need to call security.”

“Well, okay then.” The woman rolled her eyes and turned her attention back to her computer. “At least one of y’all has a brain.”

“Sit?!” I grabbed Brian’s arm and pulled him roughly away from the desk. “I don’t want to sit and wait! I want to find Howie!”

“Screaming at the nurse is not going to …” Brian cut himself off mid-sentence; his eyes landing on something behind my back.

“Brian!” Nick’s tear-soaked voice rang out through the waiting room. “AJ! Kev!”

I whipped around to face Nick, forgetting that I was still holding onto Brian’s arm and practically pulling him over in the process. Nick looked ragged. His hair was sticking up at awkward angles and tears were streaming down his face. Needless to say, now he was the one who was causing a scene.

“How – How – Howie is …” Nick hiccupped through his tears. “They said that he’s been – that he’s been poisoned!”
Chapter 6: But Who? by KeepThisSecret
** NICK **

I didn’t like the way that Kevin was staring at me. His expression was a mixture of astonishment, anger, and intense worry. It was almost as if he was blaming me for the words that had just left my mouth. Just because I had been the one to deliver the news didn’t mean that I was the one who was responsible for Howie’s condition.

“Is that what the doctor told you?” Brian wrenched his arm out of his cousin’s grip and closed the short distance between us. “Is he – Is he – Where is he?”

“They rushed him into a room to have his stomach pumped.” I was sobbing uncontrollably now; my whole body was shaking with the effort. I probably looked pathetic. “They wouldn’t let me go with him.”

Brian blinked rapidly and quickly swiped his hand across his face. I could tell by his expression that he wanted to ask me more questions, but that he was holding back because he felt that I couldn’t handle it. It was at times like these that I was grateful for the fact that Brian was still able to read me so well. I didn’t want to talk about what the doctor had told me. All I wanted to do was fall into someone’s arms and cry. The idea that someone had purposefully set out to hurt Howie was too much for me to digest.

As if reading my mind, Brian reached out and pulled me into a tight hug. I practically fell into him; twisting my arms around his back and squeezing my eyes shut. He didn’t say anything, but I could feel his shoulders shaking softly beneath my grip. Apparently the notion of Howie being intentionally harmed was too much for Brian as well.

“Poisoned?! What kind of fucking bullshit is that? Are you serious? The doctor actually told you that he had been poisoned?!”

I lifted my head off of Brian’s shoulder as AJ’s rant began to pick up steam. He was clenching and unclenching his fists in rapid succession and his face was turning an ugly shade of red. He was easily on the verge of a full-scale breakdown.

“If some doctor has the nerve to tell you that Howie has been poisoned then that same doctor better have the nerve to say it to my face!” AJ turned his attention to the nurse behind the check-in desk. “Hey, Double Gulp, put down your fucking soda and tell me where I can find the doctor who’s in charge of my friend!”

“Excuuuuuuuse me?!” The nurse slammed her cup down on the desk and gave AJ a menacing stare. “Boy, don’t even think that you can talk to me like that and get away with it! I’m gonna call security to boot your scrawny ass to the curb!”

“The only place that my scrawny ass is going is upstairs to find out what is going on with my friend!” AJ roared. He whipped around to face the people in the waiting room; all of whom were staring at the four of us as if we had lost our minds. “Does anybody here have a problem with that?”

Brian and I disentangled ourselves from each other and exchanged a quick glance. One of us had to reel AJ in before he did something stupid. Two elderly individuals in the waiting room were actually cowering in fear at this point.

“I don’t know about these people, but we sure as hell have a problem with you uttering threats.”

Two uniformed police officers strolled through the automatic doors that led out to the parking lot just in time to catch the tail end of AJ’s rant. The older of the two stepped up next to AJ and gave him a hard stare. “What are the chances that you are somehow involved with the situation involving Mr. Howard Dorough?”

“Pretty damn good.” AJ shot back. He folded his arms across his chest and stared at the officer in defiance. “Do you have some information for me? That bitch behind the counter apparently isn’t going to get off her ass to find out what it is that I need to know.”

I pressed my lips together to hold in my groan of dismay. Why did AJ always have to say exactly what he was thinking? Why couldn’t he learn to keep his mouth shut when the situation called for it?

“No, sir, we don’t have any information for you.” The second officer rolled his eyes. He quickly swivelled his head to take in the rest of us and our matching outfits. “I’m assuming that the four of you are all here for Mr. Dorough? According to dispatch, you all belong to the same band.”

“The Backstreet something-or-others!” The check-in nurse shouted from behind the safety of her desk. “This bitch may be stubborn, but she has ears! Flat ass over there was all proud of the fact that he and his boys are part of some performance act.”

“Thank you, ma’am.” The older officer looked as though he didn’t know what to make of the entire situation. “We’re going to need to speak to you gentlemen.”

“You can speak to us all you want once we find out what’s happening with Howie.” AJ stated. “If you’re not going to give us any information, then we’re not going to give you any information.”

“Then, I’ll have you arrested.” The officer shot back. He looked at each of us in turn. “All of you.”

“AJ, let’s just talk to them.” I was trying unsuccessfully to disguise the tremor in my voice. I couldn’t afford to be arrested again; my rap sheet was already pretty full. “The doctor promised to fill me in once Howie was in recovery.”

The older of the two officers was now giving me his full attention. “Are you in some way related to Mr. Dorough?”

I shook my head. “I just rode with him to the hospital. The doctor told me that he had been poisoned.”

“What happened to not giving them any information?!” AJ threw his hands in the air in frustration. “Way to go, Nick!”

“You’re the only one who wants to be stubborn.” Kevin narrowed his eyes at AJ. “If you want to have yourself arrested then go right ahead.”

“Nobody is getting arrested.” Brian piped up from his position next to me. “AJ’s just upset. He’s not thinking clearly.” He looked pointedly at AJ. “Right?”

I sucked in my breath as I watched the silent exchange between Brian and AJ. If anyone had a chance of talking AJ down, it was Brian. Whoever had come up with the nickname ‘ARok’ had been spot on; sometimes I could swear that the two of them were able to read each other’s minds.

“Fine.” AJ eventually relented. “Let’s talk.”

As soon as AJ gave in, the police nodded knowingly at the check-in nurse and quickly led us down the hallway to a small conference room outfitted with one long table and several chairs. It was obvious that both officers had been there before as they moved quickly throughout the room; turning on lights and motioning swiftly for us all to take a seat.

I sat down heavily in the middle of Brian and Kevin and stared at the uniformed men in trepidation. My heart was beating a mile a minute and I could feel myself beginning to sweat. I rubbed my palms against the arms of the chair and exchanged one last fitful glance with Brian. He gave me the best look of encouragement that he could muster given the circumstances, and I felt my stomach drop. Brian was just as nervous as I was. For some reason, that realization was enough to triple my anxiety.

“I’m Officer Barry and this is Officer Russell.” The older police officer took a seat directly across from me at the table and gestured towards his partner who was pulling a recording device out of his breast pocket. “Can you all state your full names, please?”

I looked warily at the recorder before shooting my eyes up to Kevin’s face. It was strangely comforting to see that Brian and AJ were also looking to Kevin for guidance. The situation felt like an interrogation and, if that was the case, we were definitely entitled to some kind of legal representation.

“Why are we being recorded?” Kevin evaded Officer Barry’s question with forced confidence. “Are we being investigated?”

“Not at all Mr. …” Officer Russell shook his head and issued all of us a slow smile. “We’re just looking for some background information on the situation.”

“It’s Richardson.” Kevin frowned. “Kevin Richardson. And I’m afraid that we don’t know anything about the situation.”

“You mentioned that Doctor Harrison told you that Mr. Dorough had been poisoned.” Officer Barry’s blue-gray eyes flipped to me. “Did that information surprise you?”

“Was – Was I surprised?” I curled my sweaty fingers around the arms of the chair and sat up as straight as possible. “Of course I was fucking surprised! What kind of a question is that?”

“There’s no need to get defensive, Mr. …” Officer Barry looked at me expectantly. “Like my partner said, we’re just trying to get a handle on the situation. Whenever we receive a call from the hospital about a potential homicide, we like to start at the beginning.”

“Nick – Carter – Nick Carter.” I stammered out my name. I could taste the sweat on my lips. “Did you just say ‘homicide’?”

Officer Russell nodded. “Or we may be looking at an attempted suicide. We haven’t yet ruled that out.”

“Howie wouldn’t try to kill himself.” I looked to Brian for support and he nodded his head to back me up. “If he’s really been poisoned, then somebody did it to him.”

Both officers leaned back in their chairs and pressed their fingers together. They exchanged an unreadable look before redirecting their attention to me. “But who would want to poison him, Mr. Carter? That’s what we need to find out.”
Chapter 7: Guilty as Charged by KeepThisSecret
** BRIAN **

There were too many things going on in my mind. My thoughts were competing with each other; pushing and shoving and bashing into each other as they jostled for position at the front of my brain. The day had started off just like every other day, and now we were sitting at the hospital being interrogated by the police and waiting to hear if whoever had tried to kill Howie had been successful. The situation was rapidly becoming too much for me to handle. I could feel the pressure building against the walls of my chest; testing the surgery that had saved my life all of those years ago.

There was a soft knock on the door and a young woman wearing pink scrubs stepped into the doorway. “Sorry for interrupting.” She was clutching a manila file folder and her eyes swept nervously around the room, finally settling on the two police officers. “Dr. Harrison told me to deliver this file to you.” She held out the folder to Officer Russell. “I was told that it was urgent.”

“Yes, thank you.” Officer Russell accepted the folder with a terse smile and immediately flipped open the cover.

The woman at the door hesitated for a brief second before hastily backing out of the room. “Dr. Harrison will be down in a little while to provide you with more details.”

Officer Russell’s face contorted in concentration as he scanned the first page of the file. His partner leaned over to see the information and his face immediately adopted the same expression. I was sweating profusely now from the sheer act of waiting, and I tried to subtly copy Nick’s lead by wiping my palms against the arms of the chair. Unfortunately, my movement was enough to capture the attention of Officer Barry.

“Is everything alright, Mr. …?”

“Littrell – Brian.” I offered. “What does it say in the file?”

“It says that your friend has ingested a startling amount of arsenic.” Officer Barry deadpanned. “It looks as though the hospital was right; we’re looking at an attempted homicide.”

“Attempted!” AJ practically leapt out of his chair. “You said ‘attempted homicide’. That means that Howie is okay!”

Officer Barry actually rolled his eyes at AJ’s emotional outburst. “He’s alive, but he’s far from okay.”

“What?” AJ shot me a desperate look. His eyes were searching my face as if I somehow had additional knowledge of Howie’s condition. “What does that mean?”

“Arsenic is, for lack of a better term, a slow-moving substance. It’s tasteless, odourless, and the symptoms come on gradually. That’s why we’re now certain that this wasn’t a suicide attempt. Anyone trying to kill themselves wouldn’t use arsenic. They would use something quick and relatively painless. Arsenic is the exact opposite.”

“So, you’re saying that Howie is in pain?” I clarified. “But Nick said that he had his stomach pumped …”

“Mr. Littrell, your friend is lucky that he’s still able to move. The fact that he’s in pain is actually a good thing. It means that he will likely be able to make a full recovery.” Officer Russell picked up the conversation. “When ingested in large quantities, arsenic has a numbing effect on the senses and the limbs. It’s likely that Mr. Dorough was conscious throughout the entire episode. He probably went through something similar to an out-of-body experience in which he was watching everything that was happening to him while being unable to respond. He really is tremendously lucky to be alive at this point.”

I opened my mouth, but immediately shut it again; my breath catching in my throat and creating a puckering sound. I didn’t know what to say. My thoughts were still fighting for space in my brain and I was on the verge of developing a massive headache.

“I don’t understand.” Kevin’s voice drifted out from somewhere beyond Nick’s profile. “Where did the poison come from? How did he ingest so much of it?”

“That’s what we’d like to ask the four of you.” Officer Russell’s face hardened and the atmosphere in the room changed almost immediately. “You’re all currently travelling together. Is that right?”

“You think that one of us did it?” AJ sounded as if he were getting ready to pounce. “Is that what you’re insinuating with that comment?”

“You’re the one who’s putting words in my mouth.” Officer Russell shot back. He may have said the right words, but the officer’s body language betrayed him. He definitely thought that one of us was guilty.

“None of us would ever hurt Howie!” AJ was on his feet and leaning across the table before the rest of us had time to react. He swung his hand out and grabbed Officer Russell by the collar of his shirt; the veins in his neck popping with anger. “How dare you accuse us of something like that!”

Shit! AJ had snapped. I propelled myself out of the chair and secured my hand around AJ’s wrist in an attempt to pull him away from Officer Russell. AJ refused to lessen his grip; his knuckles turning white as he dug his fingers into the fabric of Officer Russell’s shirt. The anger in his eyes was borderline terrifying. At that moment, I didn’t quite know what AJ was capable of doing and I sure as hell didn’t want to find out.

“AJ, let go!”

I clamped my other hand down on top of AJ’s and began trying to wedge my fingers underneath his. Officer Russell sputtered and choked at my movements as he was forced to rise from his seat. The poor man was practically lying across the table at this point. His face was turning a sickening shade of purple and his eyes were widening at an alarming rate. AJ wasn’t letting go and I was starting to panic. I was pretty sure that chocking a police officer to death came with some pretty hefty jail time.

“Let him go or I will shoot you both!” In the midst of all the commotion, Officer Barry had managed to extricate himself from his seat and withdraw his gun. He now had his weapon trained on me and AJ with expert practice. “Do you understand?”

“AJ, please, for the love of God, just let go!” I was pleading with him now, but I didn’t care. Officer Russell looked as though he were on the verge of passing out and Officer Barry looked more than ready to shoot us both in the head. “We’re not going to be of any use to Howie if we’re dead!”

Apparently, that was all it took for AJ to see sense. He released his grip on Officer Russell, who immediately began gasping for air as he dropped back into his seat. The colour was beginning to creep back into his face, but he still looked dangerously close to passing out. My fingers were still wrapped around AJ’s arm, and I could feel him shaking with rage and adrenaline as the two of us stared at a wheezing Officer Russell.

“Get on the ground!” Officer Barry still had his gun pointed at me and AJ, and he motioned frantically for us to lower ourselves to the floor. “You’re both under arrest for assaulting a police officer!”

“What?!” I let go of AJ’s arm and took a small step backwards. “I didn’t assault anyone! I was helping!”

“You’re not arresting me!” AJ was screaming above my pitiful cries. “If anything, I’m going to have you charged with making unfair accusations and interrogating us without giving us the right to a lawyer!”

“I think that everyone just needs to calm down!” Kevin was now on his feet with his hands in the air. “Everyone is clearly just a bit upset …”

“Upset?! Upset?!” AJ whipped around to face Kevin. “They just accused us of trying to murder Howie! Do you understand that, Kev? They think that we tried to kill him!”

What is going on in here?”

The booming voice made everyone pause. Kevin lowered his hands to his sides, AJ stopped spraying spittle across the room, Officer Russell stopped wheezing, I stopped whining, Officer Barry lowered his weapon, and Nick stopped looking at everyone else in terror.

“Officer Barry, what are you doing?

The burly man stepped farther into the room. Beads of sweat were rolling down his bald head and his already squinty eyes were narrowed into slits. It was a miracle that the man was even able to see what was going on.

“Officer Barry, I asked you a question.”

“These men assaulted Officer Russell.” Officer Barry spat out his response. “I thought that they were going to kill him.”

“Is that so?” The heavy-set man crossed his arms over his chest and stared directly at me and AJ. “Do you two have anything that you would like to add to that explanation?”

“We were provoked!” AJ shouted. “He accused us of attempting to murder one of our best friends.” He jabbed his finger in Officer Russell’s direction. “And he interrogated us without offering us legal counsel.”

I nodded my agreement, deciding that I was probably better off not offering up my explanation of only trying to help. The additional information would probably just complicate things even further.

“I see.” The large man spoke again. He studied me and AJ for a few more seconds before turning to Officer Barry and Officer Russell. “I’ll take things from here boys. Thanks for holding down the fort.”

“What?” Officer Barry dejectedly lowered his weapon. “I was just about to arrest them.”

“That won’t be necessary.” The bigger man motioned for the two police officers to follow him outside. “They won’t be any good to me if they’re incarcerated.”

Officer Russell simply got to his feet and turned to leave. He didn’t look any of us in the eye as he exited the room. He simply massaged his neck and kept his eyes downcast. Officer Barry, on the other hand, shot us all looks of extreme distaste as he reluctantly re-holstered his gun and stalked out of the room.

“Excuse us for just a minute.” The mysterious man issued us a sincere smile as he wrapped his beefy palm around the doorknob. “I’ll be back in a little bit to introduce myself properly.”

“What the fuck just happened?” Kevin hissed as soon as the door closed. “AJ, have you lost your fucking mind? You just assaulted a police officer!”

I sank back down in my chair, ignoring the whispered shouting match that was currently taking place between AJ and Kevin. I felt as though I were in a state of shock. Howie had been poisoned, AJ had just tried to kill someone, and I had just had a gun pointed at my head. The whole string of events could have easily been lifted from a movie script. This kind of stuff wasn’t supposed to happen to us. We were in a boyband for Christ’s sake!

“Are you alright?”

I looked up at the sound of Nick’s voice. He was peering at me with a mixture of fear and concern. He looked so sad and wounded that I debated about lying and delivering a perfunctory ‘I’m okay’ in response to his question.

“No.” I shook my head. “I don’t know what I am at the moment, but I’m definitely not alright.”

Nick cast a quick glance at AJ and Kevin who were still heavily involved in their argument. “AJ’s right, isn’t he? They think that one of us did it. They think that one of us tried to kill Howie.”

I resisted the urge to close my eyes, to block out the sadness in Nick’s voice and the desperation in his eyes. “They wouldn’t have tried to interrogate us if they didn’t think that one of us was responsible.”

Nick’s face fell even farther. He opened his mouth to ask me what was likely going to be another soul-destroying question, but he stopped short as my phone began pinging loudly in my pocket. I stared down at the front of my blue suit pants in confusion. When had I grabbed my phone? I must have picked it up as Kevin, AJ, and I had been leaving the venue, but I couldn’t remember actually grabbing it.

“When did you have time to pick up your phone?” Nick voiced my question for me as I slowly withdrew the device from my pocket.

“I don’t remember.” I shook my head as I looked at the display. Of course, my wife had decided that now would be an appropriate time to send me a less-than-positive text message.

“Leighanne?” Nick deduced. “Let me guess, she saw something about us shutting down the show on the news?”

“Close.” I spun the phone around so that Nick could read the screen.

‘Husband – I’m being ravaged on Twitter because you guys stopped in the middle of a show?!?! Mind telling me what’s going on over there?? FYI - I would already know what was going on if you hadn’t made me stay home!’

Nick snorted; half in amusement and half clearly out of pity. “Nice. It’s good to know that she’s concerned about whether or not Howie is okay.”

I sighed and bit my lip to keep myself from spewing the nasty name that I was itching to call my wife. I had more important things to think about at the moment. I had no time for her theatrics. Knowing that the action would come back to haunt me later on, I did the only thing that I could think to do at that moment; I turned my phone off and stuffed it back into my pocket just as the sweaty, bald man stepped back into the room.
Chapter 8: Publix by KeepThisSecret
** AJ **

“Sorry about all of that, gentlemen.” The mystery man pulled the door closed behind him and sat down in the chair that had initially been occupied by Officer Russell. “I’m Agent Adams, but you can call me ‘Dave’.”

“So, what’s your deal, Dave?” I knew that I sounded obnoxious, but I didn’t care. “Are you also here to make unfair accusations?”

Agent Adams turned his squinty eyes in my direction and cracked a small smile; the corners of his mouth dragging upwards ever so slowly. “Not at all, Mr. McLean. I’m with the FBI. I don’t make accusations until I have the facts that I need to back them up.”

“The FBI?” Kevin raised his massive eyebrows. “How did you manage to get here so quickly?”

“I was in town wrapping up another investigation when I received a call concerning the situation involving Mr. Dorough.” Dave reached into his breast pocket and withdrew a package of cherry flavoured Halls. He popped one in his mouth and moved the medicated lozenge noisily between his teeth. “I came as soon as I had finished my paperwork.”

“How do you already know who we are?” Kevin challenged. “We never introduced ourselves.”

“I have a thirty-two year old daughter, Mr. Richardson. I would have to be deaf, dumb, and blind not to know who the Backstreet Boys are.” Dave chuckled. “You can rest assured that I will handle this case with the sensitivity that it requires. I’m based out of Los Angeles and I seem to spend an inordinate amount of time working on cases that involve celebrities … most of them who are much more famous than the five of you.”

“And dumb and dumber showed up because …?” I trailed off and looked at the swollen man in expectation.

“Officer Barry and Officer Russell were dispatched simply to ensure that the four of you didn’t leave before I arrived.” Dave leaned back in his chair and put the package of Halls back into his pocket. “I didn’t know that the two of them were going to try and play detective.”

“All we want to do is see Howie.” Kevin interrupted. “Are we going to be able to do that?”

“Of course.” Dave nodded. “I just need some information from you all first.” He looked at each of us in turn. “Do you all feel comfortable answering some questions without a lawyer being present?”

I instinctively turned my head to look at Kevin, and I was instantly reassured by the fact that Brian and Nick had done the same. Kevin was always trying to protect us when we didn’t need him to. Ever since his return, he had been trying desperately to hold on to his ‘big brother’ title. Now, it was time for him to see what it was actually like to be the ‘big brother’ to three full-grown men.

“Uhhhh …” Kevin hesitated when he saw that we were all looking at him. He tried to catch my eye, but I quickly averted my gaze. There was no way that I was letting him off the hook when it came to this decision. “What do ya’ll think?”

“It’s up to you, cuz.” Brian whispered. “Whatever you think is best.”

“Fine.” Kevin forced a sense of finality into his voice. “We’ll answer the questions. We don’t need a lawyer.”

I saw the remaining colour drain from Nick’s already pale face as I turned back towards Agent Adams. It was clear that the baby of the group felt as though his ‘guardian’ had made the wrong choice.

“I’ll get straight to the point.” Dave leaned forward and withdrew a manila file folder from the inside of his jacket. He flipped it open and studied the top page before pulling a pen out of the same pocket and clicking it into position. “Who gave Mr. Dorough the green tea?”

“What?” I shook my head in confusion. “You’re asking us about tea?”

Agent Adams nodded. “The initial blood test results have led the attending physician to believe that Mr. Dorough drank green tea that was laced with arsenic. Apparently, green tea and arsenic were the only two substances that were present in his system when he was brought in.”

“He – He hasn’t been eating.” Nick stammered. “He’s been sick for days.”

Dave nodded and made a quick note on the paper. “That would explain why there was such a high concentration of arsenic. It’s likely that Mr. Dorough has been ingesting the substance in small doses for the past several days. So, now the question remains, where did he get the tea?”

“Room service.” I shrugged and looked at the others. “And he probably brought some with him. He always has some with him when we go on tour; in case he gets sick.”

Brian and Kevin nodded their agreement, but Nick appeared to be frozen to the spot. He swallowed loudly and made a face as if he was about to be sick.

“Is there something that you would like to add, Mr. Carter?” Dave had also picked up on Nick’s anxious behaviour.

“He – he – he ran out.” Nick stammered. “He had only brought a couple of tea bags with him, so he bought a new box a couple of days ago.”

“I see.” Agent Adams pressed his fingers together and peered into Nick’s face. “Did Mr. Dorough purchase the new box on his own?”

Nick shook his head and once again swallowed unnecessarily loudly. “He was too sick to go shopping. I – I went out and bought the box of tea for him.”

“Did you go alone?” Dave pressed. “Where did you buy the box of tea, Mr. Carter? On what day did you go shopping?”

“He bought it from Publix two days ago.” Brian’s face had gone as pale as Nick’s and the two of them exchanged a knowing look. “I was with him when he bought it.”

“Did anyone else go with you to the store?” Dave looked back and forth between Nick and Brian.

Brian shook his head. I could practically feel him shaking in the chair next to me. “It was only the two of us.”

“What about security?” Kevin interjected. “Didn’t Justin go with you?”

Nick still looked as though he wanted to vomit. “We went on our own. It was a short trip … we decided not to bother Justin … there was nobody around … it was early in the morning.”

I was getting a heavy feeling in the pit of my stomach. I didn’t like the way that Agent Adams was looking at Brian and Nick. I didn’t like the fact that he was busy scribbling a whole bunch of notes on the paper in front of him. I didn’t like anything about the entire situation.

“Mr. McLean and Mr. Richardson, you two are free to go and visit with Mr. Dorough. The nurse at the desk just outside of the door will be able to tell you where to find him.” Agent Adams smiled tersely at me and Kevin. “I’d like to speak with Mr. Littrell and Mr. Carter for just a little bit longer.”

“I don’t know if that’s …” I cut myself off when I saw that Kevin was already in the process of standing up. “Kevin? Where are you going?”

“Let’s go and see how Howie’s doing.” Kevin gave me a look that I wasn’t able to decipher. “Brian and Nick will be able to join us when they’re done.”

I stared at Nick and Brian, well aware of the fact that my mouth was hanging open in confusion. Why was Kevin so eager to leave? Why wasn’t he screaming in a fit of rage over the fact that Nick and Brian were clearly being treated like a couple of criminals? Why wasn’t he doing something?

“We’re fine, AJ.” Brian forced the words from his mouth. Now he looked like he wanted to vomit. “We’ll see you guys in a little bit.”

“What the fuck just happened in there?!” I tore into Kevin as soon as the two of us were alone in the hallway. “Why are we leaving Brian and Nick to be interrogated for something that they didn’t do?!”

“Because they didn’t do it.” Kevin answered simply, striding towards the nurses’ station. He spoke briefly to the young nurse behind the desk before returning his attention to me. “Howie is on the third floor, room 302.”

“Are you even processing what’s going on?” I hustled after Kevin as his long legs crossed the short distance to the elevator in a matter of steps. I could feel the anger threatening to seep out of my pores at any moment. “We shouldn’t have left them!”

“Listen …” Kevin ran a hand down his face as the two of us stepped into the waiting elevator. He hit the button for the third floor before he continued. “If the two of us had refused to leave, it would have made the situation worse. Brian and Nick have nothing to hide. All they have to do is answer the questions honestly and they’ll be fine. The two of them are more than capable of doing that without us breathing down their necks.”

I stared at Kevin; dumbfounded. It wasn’t until the elevator doors slid open on the third floor that the realization finally hit me. “You’re scared.” I challenged. “You had no idea how to handle the situation down there, so you chose to walk away. You’re always going on and on about how you need to protect us and when a situation finally arises in which we actually need protecting you can’t handle it!”

“They’re grown men, AJ!” Kevin paused just outside of Howie’s room, his eyes flashing as he stared down at me. It was obvious that I had struck a nerve. “The rest of you are always telling me that I need to stand down, that I need to keep my distance from your problems, so that’s what I’ve done. I’ve left Nick and Brian to sort this mess out on their own.”

I shook my head. Kevin wasn’t admitting to everything that was going on in his head, and I didn’t like where my own mind was going. I could barely bring myself to utter the words, but I knew that I had to ask. I had to know if my suspicions were correct.

“Kev, please tell me that you don’t think that they did it. Tell me that you know that there’s no way that Brian and Nick are involved.”

“Let’s see how Howie’s feeling.” Kevin dropped his hand to the doorknob. He wouldn’t look me in the face. “I bet that he’ll be happy to see us.”
Chapter 9: Peer Pressure by KeepThisSecret
** HOWIE **

I didn’t know what to say when Kevin and AJ walked into the room. Kevin looked defeated and AJ looked, well, distraught. My stomach was already unsettled, and I could feel it churning once again at the sight of the two of them. Something was wrong; very wrong.

“Hi, Howie.” AJ paused at the foot of the bed, looking beyond uncomfortable. “How are you feeling?”

“Shitty.”

My throat was so raw that I could barely get the word out. The doctor had mentioned that I would experience some minor discomfort as a result of having my stomach pumped, but the pain was almost unbearable. If this was ‘minor’, then I definitely wouldn’t want to experience what the doctor would refer to as ‘severe’ pain.

“Can you talk?” Kevin issued me a small, half-smile and took a seat in one of the chairs positioned just to the left of the bed. He pulled it as close to the bed as possible and gave my arm a reassuring squeeze. “It’s okay if you’re not feeling up to it.”

“I can talk.” I nodded slowly. “A little bit.”

“Did the doctor tell you what happened?” Kevin asked the question carefully.

“They told me that I was – that somebody – that someone poisoned my tea.” I stuttered through my response, partially because of the pain in my throat and partially because it was hard to say the words. The notion that someone had done this to me on purpose was nearly impossible for me to digest. Why would someone want to hurt me? I had never done anything negative to anyone.

“Ahhh.” Kevin’s face fell even farther. “Do you have any idea who …”

I cut him off, shaking my head. “I already told the special agent – the pudgy guy – that I have no idea who could have done it.”

“We talked to him downstairs.” AJ rolled his eyes. “He seems useless.”

“He’s not useless.” Kevin pulled his hand away from my arm and leaned back in the chair. He gave AJ a withering look. “He’s just getting started. What do you expect? For him to know who the culprit is right away without asking any questions?”

“I’m sure that he has a theory.” AJ shot back. “After all, you already have your own theory. Don’t you, Kev? Why don’t you go ahead and tell Howie who you think is responsible for the fact that he’s lying in a fucking hospital bed!”

I swallowed hard despite the pain in my throat and looked back and forth between AJ and Kevin. Their little exchange was clearly a continuation to whatever discussion they had been having before they had entered the room. As much as I wanted to be brought up to speed, I was terrified to open my mouth.

“Where are Brian and Nick?” I croaked; hoping to change the topic. I had decided that I really didn’t want to hear Kevin’s theory. “Did they stay behind at the venue?”

“Ask Kevin where they are.” AJ challenged. “I’m sure you’ll be interested to hear his response.”

I flipped my eyes to Kevin. He looked slightly guilty and more than ready to rip AJ’s head off. “They’re still downstairs with Dave – Agent Adams.”

“Why?” I choked on the question and groped blindly for the cup of water that the nurse had placed on the small table next to my bed.

I must have looked pitiful because AJ quickly vacated his spot at the end of the bed and came to my rescue. He picked up the plastic cup and tilted the straw towards my mouth with such an overwhelming sense of compassion that I actually had to check to make sure that it was AJ and not Kevin who was holding the cup. Having a little girl had noticeably changed AJ for the better. I accepted the straw and greedily pulled the cool liquid into my mouth, only slightly embarrassed by the fact that I had been unable to perform the simple task by myself.

“Better?” AJ asked. He waited until I nodded in the affirmative before setting the cup back down on the table, making sure to place it as close to the edge of the bed as possible. “Dave wanted to ask Brian and Nick some more questions.” AJ paused and glared at Kevin. “Some people seem to be under the impression that they may have tampered with the tea that you’ve been drinking lately.”

“The police think that …” I pulled my eyes away from AJ’s rigid expression and widened my eyes at Kevin. “You think that …”

I couldn’t even bring myself to finish asking the question. Nick and Brian would never hurt me. They were my friends. They were my brothers. We had been a family for twenty-one years. My stomach heaved at the notion that it could have been them. The bile was rising up my already ravaged throat. It couldn’t have been Nick and Brian!

“Oh shit!”

AJ grabbed a bucket off of the table and thrust it under my face just as the remaining contents of my stomach reached the surface. I hunched over the container as I retched, the tears streaming down my face from the painful burning in my throat. I could feel AJ rubbing my back; trying to console me, but it wasn’t working. Why was this happening to me?

“Howie?” Nick’s voice was tentative, halting.

I swiped the back of my hand across my mouth and fell back against the pillows. AJ placed the bucket on the ground and kicked it across the room, as far away from the bed as possible, before pushing the cup of water into my now shaking hands. I accepted the drink and took a long swallow as I lifted my eyes towards the doorway. Nick and Brian were both standing just inside the room looking suitably uncomfortable.

“We didn’t do it.” Nick continued. He rubbed at his bloodshot eyes and scratched anxiously at his face. “The guy – Dave – said that he just needed to rule us out.”

“We would never …” Brian shook his head and lowered his gaze to the floor. “We heard what AJ insinuated about what Kevin thinks, but it’s not true Howie.” Brian’s eyes finally settled on my face. “Like Nick said, the police have ruled us out.”

“How did – How did they manage to do that so fast?” Kevin voiced the question before I could even open my mouth.

I turned to the oldest member of our group in distaste. Why was he pushing the issue? Did he want to think that Brian and Nick were responsible?

“You guys bought the wrong type of tea.” I whispered, the relief washing over me as I made the connection.

Nick nodded. He looked even more relieved than I felt. “The police have already been to your hotel room. They found the package of tea that Brian and I bought for you, but it was unopened.”

“You bought me green tea with pear by mistake.” I whispered. “I hate pears.”

“There was another box of tea in your room though.” Brian jumped in. “Where did you get it?”

“I ordered it from room service.” My head was swimming as I answered the question. “I kept ordering cups of tea, so I eventually just told them to bring me a whole box.”

“Oh, God.” Nick sank down into the chair closest to the door and cupped his face in his hands. “This is actually happening. Someone actually tried to poison you, Howie.”

I watched helplessly as Nick broke down; silent sobs racking his body. Brian moved closer to Nick and snaked one of his arms across the blonde’s hunched shoulders, but his eyes never left my face.

“I’m glad that you’re okay.” Brian tightened his grip on Nick’s shoulders. “We both are. It’s just that – it’s just been a lot for us to take in. Everything came at us so fast.”

“We’re fucking overwhelmed.” AJ admitted. “We don’t know what to think at this point.”

“Neither do I.” I took another long, slow sip of water and looked around at the dejected faces of my brothers. “Neither do I.”

“The most important thing is that you’re okay.” Kevin stated. He leaned forward and gave my arm another reassuring squeeze before standing up. “We’ll worry about everything else later.”

“That’s easier said than done, Mr. Richardson.”

I resisted the urge to frown as Agent Adams appeared in the doorway. I knew that the man was just trying to do his job, but he could have at least knocked before coming into the room. Couldn’t he see that the five of us needed some time to regroup, to come to terms with what had just happened?

“I’m afraid that I can’t just let the five of you walk out of here.” Dave shook his head. He wiped at his sweaty forehead before he continued. “Mr. Dorough will obviously be staying overnight in the hospital for observation, but the rest of you cannot return to your current hotel. Other arrangements are being made for you as we speak. Then, with the cancellation of the tour, arrangements will have to be made for when each of you return home …”

“We’re cancelling the tour?” I projected my voice as much as possible in order to interrupt Dave’s ramblings. “When was that decided?”

“It wasn’t.” AJ narrowed his eyes at Dave. “At least not as far as I know.”

“It hasn’t been decided, but it makes sense.” Kevin interjected. “Someone just tried to kill Howie. I think that’s a pretty good reason to cancel. We don’t know who this person is or if they’re going to come after him again.”

“I don’t want to cancel the rest of the tour.” I deadpanned. “I need to keep going as if everything is normal.”

The idea that the tour might come to an end was almost more than I could handle. I needed the routine and the normalcy to continue because, without it, I would fall apart. I couldn’t go home to my family and feel like a prisoner in my own house. It was inevitable that I would be terrified to venture off of my property. Then, there was the fact that I would be putting Leigh and the boys in danger if I returned to Florida. No, the tour had to continue. There was no question about it.

“There’s a chance that Mr. Dorough isn’t the only target.” Dave was clearly becoming increasingly agitated. “All of you could be in danger. The most sensible thing for the five of you to do would be to go home and …”

“If Howie wants to continue with the tour then we’ll stay on the road.” Nick wiped away the remainder of his tears and issued me a small smile. “I’ll do whatever Howie wants to do.”

“Me too.” AJ nodded his head solemnly in agreement. “This one’s up to Howie.”

I watched as Brian and Kevin exchanged a look. Kevin’s expression was guarded, but Brian looked as though he was ready to cave. I bit my lip to hold back my smile as Kevin wiggled his eyebrows in a silent attempt to convince his cousin to take his side. I knew what was coming.

“I’m willing to stay on the road.” Brian admitted. “It’s probably better if we all stick together anyways.”

“Ugh!” Kevin let out a disgruntled snort and looked around at the four of us. “This is the wrong decision.”

Nick shook his head. “It’s not the wrong decision. It’s Howie’s decision, and I’m sticking with it.”

My heart swelled as I watched the exchange between Nick and Kevin. It was nice to know that someone had my back, to know that I wasn’t fighting this battle all by myself.

“I’ll contact the appropriate people so that the tour can continue.” Agent Adams hung his head in defeat. “Although, I have to agree with Mr. Richardson; you boys are making the wrong choice.”
Chapter 10: Late Night TV by KeepThisSecret
** KEVIN **

Why is it that when you close your eyes all you tend to see are the things that haunt you the most? I couldn’t sleep. Every time that I tried to close my eyes, all I could envision was Howie convulsing on the stage; the life slowly seeping out of him as I tried unsuccessfully to bring him back.

My eyes snapped open and I let out a heavy sigh before rolling over and punching at the pillow. The light from the partially open bathroom door was spilling out into the room, casting a series of long, malformed shadows across the wall. I had left the light on because I didn’t want the room to be completely dark, but now I was seriously second guessing my decision. The shadows were starting to give me the creeps. I could practically see the spindly fingers shooting out from the walls and grabbing me around the throat.

“Pull it together.” I mumbled. “Nobody is coming to get you.”

Of course, I had no idea whether or not that statement was true. For all I knew, someone was waiting on the other side of the door to get me right at that very moment. Sure, we had called in extra members of our security team and two very intimidating looking men were currently guarding the elevator, but how did I know if they were still there? What if they had already been bludgeoned to death by the person, or people, who had tried to murder Howie?

I was in the middle of mentally berating myself for thinking like Mason when a knock at the door nearly sent me toppling out of the bed. I sat straight up and grabbed at my chest. My heart was beating a mile a minute and my breath was coming out in short, noisy puffs. Who was at the door? What did they want? I looked at the clock; 3:00 A.M. Nothing good could possibly come from someone knocking at my door so early in the morning.

“Kevin?” Nick’s voice drifted through the heavy wood. “Kev, can you hear me?”

Jesus Christ! Of course it was Nick. No matter what else happened in my life, I was absolutely sure of the fact that Nick Carter would eventually end up being the death of me.

I swung my feet to the floor and moved quickly towards the door. The light from the bathroom made my trip easier and I yanked open the door just as Nick was raising his fist to knock again.

“You scared the shit out of me.” I admitted.

“Sorry.” Nick mumbled. He ran a hand through his already dishevelled hair and shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other. “Can I come in?”

“What’s going on?” I stepped back and let Nick into the room, peering down the hallway as I did so. The two men were still sitting by the elevator, playing a game of cards. “Why aren’t you asleep?”

“I couldn’t sleep.” Nick walked by the brightly lit bathroom and took a seat on the bed. “I’m too sc… – I’m too worried about Howie.”

I watched as Nick’s purposefully avoided my gaze, fiddling with the string on his plaid pyjama pants. Despite the fact that a thirty-four year old man was sitting on the bed, all my mind would allow me to see was a thirteen year old kid. It was like Nick the man wasn’t even there. He had been consumed by the floppy haired, fresh faced, high-pitched version of himself that I had viciously loved and despised all at the same time.

“Do you want me to go?” The deepness in Nick’s voice brought me back to reality. “I’m sure that you were already asleep.”

“No.” I shook my head. “I haven’t been able to sleep either.”

I sank down onto the bed so that I was facing the current Nick; the one with the grown-up voice and the wrinkles around his eyes. This man had a better hair cut and a sense of maturity that only those who have hit rock bottom and managed to bounce back can possess, but he was still scared. His eyes gave him away. No matter how much he aged, Nick would always be a little boy in his eyes. He had never been very good at hiding his feelings and that quality hadn’t changed as he’d grown older. His emotions were easy to see, even in the semi-darkness.

“I keep thinking that someone is coming to get me.” Nick revealed with his eyes still locked on his pyjama pants. “I should have taken that sleeping pill from Brian.”

“Brian is taking sleeping pills?” I asked the question with more anger and surprise than I had intended and Nick flinched at my reaction.

“Not all the time or anything.” Nick whipped his head up; his all-revealing eyes were laced with guilt at having betrayed Brian’s trust. “Just sometimes, you know, when things get rough or whatever.”

“I’m scared too.” I decided to change the course of the conversation and let Nick off the hook. I would talk to Brian about his little pill-popping situation in the morning.

“Yeah?” The guilt left Nick’s eyes and was replaced quickly by surprise. “Of what?”

“Of the same things that you are.” I sighed and propped myself up against the headboard. “Do you think that I like being in this situation?”

“Of course not!” Nick paused. “But you never say that you’re scared. I was counting on you to be the calm one.”

“You’re out of luck this time, buddy.” I couldn’t resist smiling as I turned on the television. “You want to kill the next few hours with me by watching some mind-numbing late night TV?”

“Sure.” Nick manoeuvred himself so that he was leaning against the headboard on the other side of the bed. “As long as you promise not to use the word ‘kill’ for the rest of the time that I’m here.”

I pulled my phone off of the nightstand and brought it to my ear just to silence the horrendous ringing. I really had no desire to speak to whoever was on the other end. My mouth felt dry and pasty, as if I hadn’t had anything to drink for days.

“Hello? Kevin? Kevin, are you there? It’s Briaaaan.”

I rubbed the sleep from my eyes as my cousin’s voice filled my ear. He had drawn out his name; a clear indication that he was anxious. I knew that I should probably respond, but my mouth was too dry. I let out a grunt to indicate that I was alive and propped myself up to locate the bottle of water that I was sure that I had left next to the bed.

The television was still blaring and Nick was sprawled out across the other half of the bed. His mouth was open and he was snoring softly, his arms curled tightly around a pillow. I chugged some water and dropped my eyes to the clock. It was after eleven o’clock in the morning. The two of us must have eventually fallen asleep sometime during the Jimmy Fallon rerun.

“Were you sleeping?” Brian demanded. “Have you seen Nick? AJ and I can’t find him!”

“Nick is here.” I reassured my cousin. I finished the rest of the water in another long pull and crushed the bottle between my fingers. “And, yes, for your information, I was sleeping.”

“Seriouslyyyyyy? It’s almost noon.” Brian pointed out the obvious in his still overly enhanced southern drawl.

“What’s got you all worked up?” I rubbed the sleep from my eyes and reached across Nick’s body to grab the remote.

“Who says that I’m worked up?” Brian challenged.

I could hear AJ’s voice drifting through the line as I silenced the television. He was clearly asking Brian if I had seen Nick and my cousin was doing a pretty good job at ignoring him.

“You sound like a Beverly Hillbilly.” I deadpanned. “You get southern when you’re upset.”

“I aaaammm southern.” Brian drawled. “Just like you, remember?”

“Are you and AJ on your way over?” I glanced over at Nick who was still dead to the world beside me. It almost hurt me to know that I was going to have to wake him up. “Or do you want me and Nick to meet you somewhere in a little bit?”

“We’re at your door right now.” Brian’s response came with a loud knock on the door. “Are you gonna let us in, or what?”

I disconnected the call with a swift swipe of my thumb and sighed heavily. Still being careful not to wake Nick, I hauled myself off of the bed and moved, somewhat reluctantly, to open the door. I could have easily done with another few hours of sleep.

“How come we weren’t invited to the slumber party?” AJ boomed as soon as he and Brian stepped into the room. “I packed my pink nightie in anticipation.”

“Sadly, that wouldn’t surprise me.” I shook my head as I closed the door.

The first image that had sprung into my mind was one of AJ lying naked on a bed in a pair of high heels, his bare ass on display. To this day, AJ did and said things that I would never understand. That picture was definitely a prime example of the side of AJ McLean that I did not want, or need, to know anything more about.

“What time is it?” Nick’s sleep-filled voice thankfully sliced through my mental image of AJ’s naked ass. “What are you all doing here?”

“It’s almost lunch time.” Brian supplied. “And we’re here because we were looking for you.”

“I couldn’t sleep.” Nick sat up and rubbed roughly at his face. He looked more than a little disoriented. “Kev let me stay to watch some TV.”

“We – we thought that something might have happened to you.” AJ’s face flushed needlessly in embarrassment. “Brian was all but ready to send out a search party.”

“You act like you weren’t on board with the idea.” Brian flopped down on the bed next to Nick and shot AJ a patronizing look. “I’m not the only one who’s a little on edge.”

“We have to pull ourselves together before Howie gets back.” I dropped down into one of the wing chairs that were positioned near the foot of the bed and tried to hide the fact that I was exhausted. “We can’t let him – we don’t want to cause him any more stress.”

“How are we supposed to do that?” AJ demanded. “What are we supposed to say to him? It’s okay, Howie. Just forget about the fact that someone tried to kill you. It’s cool because, you know, you managed to survive and all.”

“I just meant that we should try to act as normally as possible.” I resisted the urge to slam my head back against the chair. “Howie was adamant that we should continue with the tour, so we should at least try to carry on as though everything is fine.”

“But everything isn’t fine!” Brian spat. “Someone is clearly trying to kill Howie and the same person could be trying to kill every one of us as we speak.”

“Do you think that’s true?” Nick directed his question at Brian. “Do you think that we’re all a target?”

“Truthfully?” Brian studied Nick’s face. I could tell that he was having a hard time shattering the protective bubble that the rest of us tended to place around our youngest member. “Yeah. Yeah, I think that we’re all in some pretty serious trouble.”

“I think that’s the first time in my life that you haven’t tried to sugar-coat the truth.” Nick hung his head in dismay. “I’m not sure what to think about that.”

“You should probably be worried.” The words slipped from my lips without thought. “You should be very, very worried.”
Chapter 11:Dirty Little Secrets by KeepThisSecret
** NICK **

My anxiety had transformed itself into heartburn; a persistent, nagging, burning sensation that simmered in my stomach and blazed all the way up my oesophagus. The painful feeling had appeared at the exact moment that Howie had been released from the hospital and it hadn’t waned since. Even though Howie was feeling noticeably better, and the five of us had performed the previous night without incident, I still couldn’t shake the uneasy feeling that had become a regular part of my waking hours.

We were hounded by security twenty-four seven; being escorted to and from the venue, supervised while eating every meal, and guarded while we slept at night. The constant protection was a flashback to the height of our career. Only now, the threat of being groped by fourteen year old girls had been replaced by the threat of being shot dead by a psychopath.

Agent Adams had brought in a team of specialists from the FBI to handle our case, and the four of them were now following us around like a pack of rabid dogs. I couldn’t help feeling like our actions were being scrutinized beyond what was necessary, and I had a sickening suspicion that the FBI now knew more about my background than I did. Despite the depth of the supposed investigation, Agent Adams and his team still had no solid leads. The best that they had been able to drum up so far was an employee at our original Pittsburgh hotel with a less than stellar criminal record.

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah.” I forced a smile onto my face as Brian flipped back the covers on his bed. “I’m good.”

“You’re a shitty liar.” Brian fluffed the already overstuffed pillows and crammed two of them behind his back so that he was propped up enough to look at me. “You want to talk about it?”

“There’s nothing to say.” I shrugged. “I’m worried … just like you are.”

Brian smirked. “This whole being roommates thing brings back memories, huh?”

“I’m surprised that you agreed.” I returned the smirk. “Considering all of the shit that I put you through when we were younger.”

“We had a good time.” Brian’s face adopted a kind of faraway expression. “We were inseparable back then.”

My mind was running at full speed, playing back all of the moments that Brian and I had spent together. He was right; the two of us had been inseparable for the longest time. We had gone everywhere and done everything together. He had looked out for me even when I had tried my hardest to distance myself from him. Eventually, he had simply stopped trying and walked away. It was like he had given up, as if he had decided that our friendship just didn’t matter to him anymore. In the end, he had broken my heart.

I had never told him, but the years that we had spent barely speaking to one another had been some of the hardest years of my life. Sure, my addictions and my personal demons had probably played a big part in sending my life down the toilet, but the absence of Brian’s presence had also contributed to those difficult times. He had been a constant force in my life for so many years and I had been lost without him.

I pulled my mind out of the past and focused on the modern-day Brian, the one who was looking at me now. He was older and a bit hardened, but he still had that same impish grin and the same crinkly eyes that had gotten the two of us into trouble countless times over the years. Brian would be forty next year; a milestone that still seemed too far away for me to fathom, even though I was only six years away from reaching it myself. As far as I was concerned, Brian would never be an ‘old man’. He would always be my partner in crime.

“Kevin offered … to room with me.” I admitted. “Agent Adams let Kevin know in advance that we would no longer be able to have single rooms, but I overheard the conversation.”

Brian snorted in amusement. “I was wondering why Kevin didn’t look too surprised when the announcement was made. I should have known that he had already spoken with Dave; so typical.”

“I went up to Dave afterwards and told him that the room assignments should be the way that they used to be; AJ and Howie, you and me, and Kevin living the life of luxury on his own.”

“That explains why Kevin didn’t look so smug at the end of the discussion. Of course, he’s not exactly living the high life rooming with Eddie.” Brian laughed. “So, why did you want to room with me?”

“Cause you’re my best friend.” I said the words as carefully as possible, watching Brian’s face the entire time. “If anyone were to murder us in the middle of the night, I would rather die beside you than anyone else.”

Brian’s body began to shake with silent laughter. “That’s so morbid that I don’t even know what to say!”

“Which part?” I forced a laugh, but inside my heartburn had increased by about tenfold. What if Brian was laughing at the first part of my comment? What if the two of us hadn’t really turned the corner?

After our now infamous fight; the one in which I had called him a dick and blasted him for his vocal problems, the two of us had finally forced ourselves to have a real conversation. When I had told him that I ‘missed his voice’ what I had really meant was that I missed him; I missed my best friend. It had been hard for me to say the words; nearly impossible for me to swallow my pride and my anger and to admit that I was having difficulty accepting the fact that we had both let all of our issues create a wall between us.

I could remember that initial fight as if it had happened yesterday. I could still see the hurt in Brian’s eyes and hear the crack in his voice as he told me that I had to ‘take the good with the bad’. At the time, I had felt that Brian was being a hypocrite. Had he really taken all of my good with all of my bad? No; he had abandoned me and turned to AJ for support.

It wasn’t until we had aired all of our dirty laundry in the form of a shouting match, which had almost turned physical, that Brian had finally found the strength to come clean. He had broken down; the tears streaming down his face as he told me that it had simply been too much for him to watch me self-destruct. He knew that he had been selfish and, to use my words; ‘a dick’. He had abandoned our friendship because he didn’t know how to fix it, because he was afraid of being influenced by my bad behaviour. At the same time that I was dealing with my ‘daemons’, Brian was dealing with his own struggles. He was losing his voice and questioning his faith in God as a result. He admitted that he had considered joining me on my path to self-destruction. He had seen me numbing my pain with alcohol and drugs and he had thought about doing the same. The thoughts had scared him and, as a result, he had decided to turn his back on me and my behaviour.

I wished that he had told me sooner. If I had known the reasoning behind his actions, it would have helped me to turn myself around that much faster. All he had ever had to do was tell me that he didn’t hate me, to let me know that he still loved me like the little brother that he never had. Even though it had taken way too long, I was happy that we had finally managed to work things out. The process had been slow, but we were ‘brothers’ again. At least I hoped that we were.

“The second part.” Brian’s face turned serious. “Did you really have to ask?”

I lowered my head so that Brian couldn’t see the massive grin that had overtaken my face. “Are you going to sleep now?”

“Yeah.” Brian pressed his head down into the pillows and adjusted the blankets. He raised his voice into the highest pitch that it would reach and made a huge production out of emitting a contented sounding sigh. “G’night bestie.”

“Shut up!” I grabbed one of the extra pillows off of my bed and whipped it at Brian’s body, missing by a long shot. “This is why I don’t ever say serious stuff.”

Brian stifled a laugh into his pillow. “G’night, Nick.”

“G’night, Bri.”

I flipped off the bedside lamp, rearranged my own pillows, and slipped under the covers. Within minutes, I heard Brian’s breathing becoming regular, and I couldn’t help but wonder if he had taken another one of those sleeping pills. Even though he and Kevin had all but come to blows over the prescription medication, I had a suspicion that Brian no longer put a lot of clout into what his cousin had to say. I didn’t see the bottle on the nightstand, but he could have easily taken one while he was in the bathroom. Although Kevin hadn’t said that it was me who had told him about the pills, I knew that Brian had been able to connect the dots. It wasn’t hard to fathom that Brian was now keeping his habit a secret from me as well.

It only took a few more minutes of staring into the darkness for me to give up. I pushed myself back up into a sitting position and pulled my iPad off of the nightstand. I flipped on the tablet and was immediately comforted by the soft glow of the screen that partially illuminated the room. I wasn’t scared of the dark, but I wasn’t exactly a fan of it at the moment either. Bad things happened in the dark.

Knowing that an hour or so of reading would likely make me more than ready for bed, I quickly punched in the address for streetfics.com. I navigated to the site and logged in with my username: ‘nacho_the_pug’. I was immediately greeted with the news that I had new replies to my most recent reviews. I skimmed through the comments quickly before clicking on the ‘most recent’ page. My heart actually picked up speed when I saw that one of my favourite authors had updated her most recent submission. It was a suspense story that had all the makings of an instant classic, and I hurriedly jabbed my finger at screen to get the page to load. I would never admit it to anyone, but my dirty little secret was fan fiction; Backstreet Boys fan fiction.

I knew that my desire to read about myself and the rest of the guys fighting our way through life-threatening situations was a bit weird. It was actually downright strange, but I didn’t care. I only ever read the stories that were labelled as ‘action’ or ‘suspense’. I never read any of the romance stories because they were practically all centred around me, and I found it a bit awkward to read about myself having mind-blowing fantasy sex with multitudes of different women. I also figured that if Lauren ever found out about my strange habit that I would have a pretty hard time explaining why I enjoyed reading online erotica about myself. So, to make things easier, I stuck with action and suspense.

‘Dancing_Blueberry’ had uploaded not one, but two, new chapters. I had been so worried about Howie that I hadn’t even thought to check the site for the past couple of days. One chapter had been online since the evening of Howie’s accident and the second chapter had just been posted a few hours ago. This girl, whoever she was, had talent. Her stories had a way of pulling me in, of making me question whether or not the events that she was describing had actually happened in real life. Sometimes I had to remind myself that I was reading a work of fiction. She portrayed the five of us so accurately that it was often hard for me to tell where reality ended and where the story began.

I stifled a laugh as I began devouring the most recent chapter. In the story, the five of us had just embarked on the second leg of the ‘In a World like This’ tour, and Brian had just finished telling Leighanne that she needed to return home because the presence of the Wylee trailer was driving him insane. Fictional Brian had actually stood up to his fictional wife, and the notion was so un-Brian-like that my body was shaking with silent laughter. Real-life Brian would never tell real-life Leighanne to take a hike, unless he was in the mood to be castrated.

It wasn’t until I moved on to the next paragraph that I realized that real-life Leighanne had yet to materialize. I wasn’t entirely sure, but I could vaguely remember Brian mentioning that Leighanne and Baylee were supposed to have joined us by now. I would have to remind myself to ask him about their whereabouts in the morning.

Pushing my thoughts of Leighanne aside, I refocused my attention on the text. Half a page later, I was gripping the tablet so hard that my knuckles were turning white. I could feel the sweat saturating my fingers and the base of my neck. This wasn’t happening. There was no way that she could have known that Howie had been poisoned. We had played off his collapse as a bad case of food poisoning. We had been more than careful not to divulge any sensitive information.

In the story, fictional Howie had just collapsed on stage during the middle of a show. Fictional Howie had been poisoned as a result of consuming too much of the green tea on our fictional catering roster. Fictional Howie was fighting for his life in the hospital while the rest of us pushed through the next fictional concert without him. The chapter was littered with heavy description and internal monologues, but I skimmed through all of it as I hastily clicked ‘next’. I had to see what happened. I had to see if the next chapter continued to parallel our lives in such an eerily similar way.

The next chapter appeared on the screen and it was all I could do not to vomit all over the tablet. In the scene, the four of us were running through the motions of performing for a sold-out crowd in Maryland, but all of our minds were on Howie. The four of us were getting ready to start a new set with ‘We’ve Got It Goin’ On’. We were on top of the risers at the rear of the stage. The crowd was screaming its approval, but we were still focused on Howie. We were so consumed with wondering about whether or not Howie was going to be okay that none of us noticed that one of the stage risers was no longer secure. The four of us were completely oblivious until AJ went crashing through the scaffolding; until his cries of pain echoed through the arena.
Chapter 12: It's Raining ... Metal? by KeepThisSecret
** AJ **

“I really don’t think that we should do the show tonight.”

“Give it a rest, Nick.” I couldn’t help but give the blonde a look of annoyance as I bent my back into a deep stretch. My lower back felt as though it was on fire, and it was all Nick’s fault. If he hadn’t shoved me into the floor during our little scuffle a few days ago than I wouldn’t be walking around feeling like an eighty year old man. “What’s gotten into you? You’ve been acting weird all day.”

“I haven’t been acting weird.”

“A few minutes ago you suggested that we should remove all of our up-tempo numbers from the set list and perform a completely acoustic show.” I raised my eyebrows. “You don’t see anything weird with that statement?”

“I just thought that it might be a nice change.” Nick shrugged. “I was thinking about Howie’s recovery. Besides, you clearly look like you could use a night of sitting down.”

“I’m fine!” I shot back. “You’re the one who currently needs medical attention.”

“Are you suggesting that there’s something mentally wrong with me?” Nick’s eyes narrowed. “I was just trying to be a good friend.”

I opened my mouth, but ended up closing it again within a matter of seconds. There was no reasoning with Nick when he got himself into one of these moods. There was definitely something wrong; it was written all over his face, but he was clearly not about to give me any hints as to what was bothering him. I had never seen him be so adamant about cancelling a show, and I had no idea why he was being so insistent. We had already performed one show since Howie’s ‘incident’, and it had gone relatively well given the circumstances and the quality of his voice. If anything, Nick should have been feeling more confident about the whole situation.

I, for one, was starting to feel a bit more relaxed. It had been several days since the attack on Howie and there had been no additional signs of foul play. We were walking around in a bubble of security, and the FBI had brought in a team of investigators who had enough high-tech equipment to convince even a blind monkey that they knew what they were doing. All in all, I didn’t think that we could ask for much more than we had already been given.

“There’s still enough time to cancel. They haven’t even let anyone in yet.”

“We’ve already gone through sound-check.” I resisted the urge to roll my eyes. Nick was clearly just feeling overwhelmed. “It’s way too late to cancel the show. Besides, Howie’s fine. I’m fine.”

“I just have a bad feeling …” Nick cut himself off as Brian entered the room; his phone glued to his ear.

“How am I supposed to know where the box of parsley printed fabric is?” Brian paused and made a big show out of pointing an imaginary gun to his head as he practically threw himself onto the couch. “Sorry, I don’t know where the box of paisley printed fabric is.” Brian paused again and pulled the trigger on his imaginary gun. “Yes, I’m aware that parsley is an herb and not a flower pattern.”

I snorted so hard that it sent a tremor through my entire body, and I immediately pressed my hands into my lower back to help manage the spasm. I was getting old. Laughing at my friend’s misfortune should not be enough to double me over in pain.

Brian shot me a concerned look as he lowered his hand from his hand. He looked as though he were about to ask me a question, but something that Leighanne said must have trumped my look of discomfort.

“No, I’m not going to fly to Georgia to help you look for it!” Brian looked as though he wanted to shoot his hands through the phone and strangle his wife. “I told you that I’m not coming home during the break because we have promotional stuff to do.”

I snorted again, only less violently this time. Agent Adams and his team had given us explicit instructions not to tell our family members about the attack on Howie and the subsequent investigation. Everyone was concerned about the media getting wind of the story and blowing it out of proportion. In order to comply with the FBI’s request, we had all gone along with the food poisoning cover story and had manufactured an excuse about needing to stay on the road in order to do promotional work during our upcoming three day break. It was a straightforward, simple, and believable lie that all of our wives had accepted. Well, that all of our wives with the exception of Leighanne had accepted.

“You know ... promotional stuff, like marketing meetings and ... stuff.” Brian was becoming more flustered by the second. “I don’t know for what exactly.”

Nick and I exchanged a knowing glance. It was time for Brian to get off the phone and fast. If he continued to dig himself into a hole, there was a pretty good chance that he would never get himself out of it.

“Brian!” I yelled. “You should be dressed already. What the hell are you doing?!”

“Brian!” Nick joined in, making sure to make his voice extra high and whiney. “Have you seen my tie? You know the one that I need right? With the stripes …”

Brian shot us both a look of gratitude and mouthed ‘thank you’ before turning his attention back to the phone. “Honey, listen, the guys are looking for me. I gotta go.”

“Bri, Kevin is seriously gonna shit a brick if you’re not ready to go!” I added the last line for good measure as Brian continued to issue a series of hurried goodbyes into the phone.

“Why am I going to shit a brick?” Kevin strolled into the room just as Brian disconnected the call.

“No reason.” I slung my arm around Howie’s shoulders as he stepped out from behind Kevin’s tall frame. “Nick and I were just creating a little bit of a diversion for Brian.”

“Do I want to know?” Howie eyed me suspiciously. “Or is it better if I just don’t ask any questions?”

“Do you know the difference between parsley and paisley?” Brian muttered.

“Yes …” Howie issued his response after a moment’s hesitation. He now looked thoroughly confused.

“Then it’s better if you don’t ask any more questions.” Brian hauled himself off of the couch and looked around at the four of us. “Are we getting ready for the show, or what?”

“About the show …” Nick started, but I immediately cut him off.

“We’re doing the show, Nick. Dancing and all.”

“What?” Howie nudged me in the ribs. “What are you talking about? Why wouldn’t we do the show?”

“No more questions, D.” I gave Howie’s shoulders a final squeeze. “It really is better if you don’t ask.”

Halfway through the show, I was seriously beginning to regret not agreeing to Nick’s suggestion of putting on an entirely acoustic performance. My back was on fire; the flames shooting out in all directions, tightening my muscles and sending spasms of pain up into my shoulders. I had barely been able to straighten back up after bending down to touch hands with the girls in the front row. To make matters worse, we were about to launch into a string of up-tempo songs; ‘We’ve Got It Goin’ On’ was next.

“Are you okay?” Howie gulped down a full bottle of water and mopped his face with a towel as we hurried backstage. “You look like the hunchback of Notre Dame.”

I shot Howie a look that I hoped made it seem as though I thought that he was overreacting. “I’m fine. I just tweaked my back.”

“We don’t have to do the choreography.” Nick jumped in. He had clearly heard Howie’s comment, and he was now staring at me with wide, panic stricken eyes. “We don’t have to get on the risers. We can just jump around or, you know, do whatever.”

“Risers in five seconds!” A member of our stage crew barked as he hustled past the three of us. “You guys don’t have time to stand around!”

“For fuck’s sake, Nick …” I forced myself to stand up straight as I pushed past Nick and Howie and planted my feet firmly on the ladder that would take me up to the top of the raised platform at the back of the stage. “… just drop it!”

I climbed the rungs two at a time, ignoring the dull ache in my lower back, and scrambled into position just as the opening notes of the song began to play. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Nick and Howie sliding hastily into their respective positions. I could feel Nick’s gaze burning into the side of my face as the lights went up and we launched into the first few steps of the routine. I still had no idea what had gotten into the blonde’s head, but his behaviour was starting to freak me out.

Focused on Nick’s unnerving stare, I didn’t even notice the fact that the platform was shaking more than usual. It wasn’t until I heard the crack that I knew that something was wrong. Of course, by that time, it was too late. The metal scaffolding gave way beneath my feet and before I could really process what was happening, I was falling; hurtling downwards in a mess of tubing and metal pieces.

The whole fall probably lasted about thirty seconds, but it felt much longer. It was as if everything was happening in slow motion. I felt like a dead bug as I hit the ground; landing flat on my back and bouncing off of the stage floor with my arms and legs in the air. I let out a rush of air as the force of the impact rocked my body. There was nothing that I could do to protect myself as pieces of the stage rained down on top of me, pelting me in the legs, chest, and face before bouncing away haphazardly in all directions.

Once the metal stopped raining from the sky, I was surrounded by total chaos. Every single member of our stage crew converged on me at the exact same moment. Men were flinging debris in every direction and screaming at each other while making wild hand gestures. I knew that people were screaming my name, but I didn’t have the breath or the energy to respond. My body felt numb. I was pretty sure that there should be pain, excruciating pain, but I felt nothing.

“AJ!” Howie’s face appeared before my eyes. He let out a long stream of heavily accented Spanish and screamed my name again. “AJ!”

I knew that I should say something in order to get the frantic Latino out of my face, but I just couldn’t get my voice to cooperate. I opened my mouth and gasped for air. I tasted blood.

“Don’t move him! Don’t move him!” Kevin’s voice drifted through the commotion. He was outside of my field of vision, but I could tell by the way that he was shouting that he was desperately trying to take control of the situation. “Will someone please support his neck to make sure that he doesn’t move it?! Does everyone want him to be fucking paralyzed?! Where are the paramedics?!”

Paralyzed? Why had Kevin used that word? Now I was really panicking. Why couldn’t I speak? Why couldn’t I force my body to move? Why didn’t I feel any pain? The terrifying thoughts began to rush through my mind as a pair of arms suddenly pressed against the sides of my face. Brian’s face leaned down into mine as he got into position, his elbows resting securely on the floor.

“You’re a’right.” Brian’s accent was thick and heavy. “I’m just doin’ this so Kev’ll stop yellin’.”

Even though Brian’s country-bumpkin accent gave away his nerves, his words seemed to have a calming impact on my entire body. The warmth of his skin radiated through my cheeks, and I could slowly start to feel my body working its way out of its shocked state. The pain began to invade my senses and I let out a low groan. It had been better when I couldn’t feel anything at all.
Chapter 13: The Blueberry Thing by KeepThisSecret
** BRIAN **

I hate hospitals. I know a lot of people say that, but I really do hate them. They remind me of the fact that I was a sick kid; that I was, and still am, different from everyone else.

“Bri, do you have anything to add?”

I shook my head at the mention of my name, pulling my eyes away from the grey specks in the worn linoleum floor. Everyone was looking at me rather expectantly, but I hadn’t been following the conversation. Agent Adams had been grilling us about the moments leading up to AJ’s fall, but I hadn’t noticed anything unusual. I had been too preoccupied with the fact that I sang lead for a good portion of ‘We’ve Got It Goin’ On’ to pay attention to anyone but myself. It was no secret that I was struggling vocally and our older songs tended to give me waves of anxiety.

“I didn’t see anything.” I responded so generically that Agent Adams actually raised his eyebrows. “I was focused on – on trying not to sound like shit.”

Kevin ran a hand across his face and learned his head back against the wall. He looked rough. Even his monstrous eyebrows were dishevelled. “This wasn’t an accident.”

Nick visibly paled at Kevin’s statement. “Don’t say that, Kev.”

“It’s- It’s true.” AJ’s slurred intrusion brought me fully back to the present. His head lolled to the side as he spoke; he was pumped full of enough pain killers to sedate a full-grown horse. “Somebody tried to kill me, bro.”

I hid my smile at AJ’s use of the term ‘bro’. He was seriously doped out of his mind. While I was immensely glad that he wasn’t in pain, or paralyzed, or dead, I was somewhat worried about the lasting impact that the drugs would have on his physical and mental state. Given AJ’s history, I was always a bit wary whenever I found out that he was on any kind of prescription medication.

“I – I just – I need a minute.” Nick stood up from his seat in a rush of sweat and cologne. He practically threw himself through the door without giving any of us a second glance.

“Was it something I said?” AJ let out a peal of morphine-induced laughter and rolled his head around on the pillow. “I can smell myself. I don’t smell good. Nobody in this room smells good.”

“Jesus …” Howie shook his head at AJ’s comment. “Maybe he needs a little bit less morphine.”

“I’m sorry, Howie.” AJ blinked rapidly in an attempt to focus his medicated eyes on Howie’s face. “Don’t be sad. You smell good. It’s everyone else who stinks.”

“I’m going to go check on Nick.” I stood up from my seat and cast a quick look at Howie and Kevin, who both nodded in agreement, before turning to AJ. “Bro, you need to have a nap.”

“Did you guys hear that?” AJ’s cackle followed me into the hallway. “Brian just called me ‘bro’!”

A preliminary scan of the corridor confirmed that Nick was no longer in the hallway. Well aware of the fact that I was being tailed by a silent, but huge, new member of our security team, I hurried towards the elevator. I had noticed a small courtyard off to the side of the main entrance of the hospital, and I was pretty sure that was where Nick was hiding.

My suspicions were confirmed as soon as I stepped out into the muggy night. I could see Nick sitting on the bench closest to the small fountain; his shoulders turned inwards, his head in his hands. The bodyguard who had accompanied him was standing several feet away, attempting to offer Nick some privacy while still keeping him in sight. I gave the man, whose name I couldn’t remember, a small smile as I passed. He nodded in return, stepping even farther back into the shadows to join his buddy who had accompanied me downstairs.

I didn’t say anything as I slid onto the bench. I just sat there, listening to Nick cry and watching the water splash and bubble up into the fountain. After a few agonizing minutes, Nick sat up and leaned back, sticking his long legs straight out in front of him. His shoulder rested against mine; his skin was sticky from the night that was heavy with humidity. He made no effort to wipe away the tears that were still rolling down his cheeks.

“This is my fault.”

“The doctor already said that the minor injury that AJ suffered when you knocked him to the floor had no impact on the injuries that he sustained during …”

“Not that.” Nick cut me off, his eyes focused on the water in the fountain. “It’s my fault that AJ fell. I knew that it was going to happen and I didn’t do anything to stop it.”

I opened my mouth and let out a small squeak as I struggled to figure out what to say. Nick’s comment had caught me off guard. What was he talking about?

“What do you mean you knew that AJ was going to fall?”

“It was right there in the story and I didn’t say anything.” Nick sniffed loudly and finally wiped at his wet cheeks. He was still refusing to look at me. “They’re going to go after Kevin next.”

“Who’s going to come after Kevin? What story?” I could hear the agitation and the anxiety in my voice and I tried to suppress them both. Nick wasn’t making any sense.

The story! I don’t know how she’s doing it, but she’s predicting everything that’s going to happen to us. I read the chapter about AJ falling before it happened and I didn’t say anything. I didn’t want you guys to know that I was reading fan fiction!”

“Fan fiction …” I paused and stared at the pennies that lined the bottom of the fountain.

Nick was clearly suffering from some unique form of post-traumatic stress. AJ’s fall hadn’t been easy to watch. I could still see the look of terror on his face, see his mouth forming a large ‘O’ of surprise as the scaffolding had given away beneath his feet. The sound of his body hitting the ground would live with me forever. The crunch had been so loud that I had heard it over the music. I shuddered; I would never be able to perform ‘We’ve Got It Goin’ On’ again.

“Here.” Nick hastily pulled his phone out of his pocket and navigated to a website. He thrust the device into my hands and resumed his hunched over, head in his hands position. “See for yourself. I’m a fuck up.”

I dropped my eyes to the screen and began to scroll quickly through the information. Nick had called up a fan fiction website that was littered with stories starring the five of us. I squirmed uncomfortably in my seat. I had just noticed my name next to a ‘graphic sexual content warning’. My mind was working overtime as my finger hovered over the screen. What was I supposed to click on?

“Look at the most recent story by ‘Dancing_Blueberry’.” Nick mumbled as if reading my mind.

“Nick, this is – this is – well, this is a bit strange.” I jabbed at the link and waited for the page to load. I was trying to tread cautiously. I didn’t want to tell Nick that I thought that he was bat shit crazy if he was legitimately suffering from some kind of serious mental trauma. “How do you even know about this website?”

“Steetfics.net is, like, the most popular site.” Nick lifted his head and looked at me as if I were the one who was crazy. “You’ve never heard of it?”

“Brian! Nick!” Kevin’s overly tired voice cut through the thickness of the air. “We’re going back to the hotel.”

I let out a low sigh and got to my feet. My cousin had impeccable timing. I handed Nick his phone as he, too, got begrudgingly to his feet. I hated the fact that he was beating himself up over something that was clearly not his fault, but I had no idea what to say to him.

“Brian …” Nick caught my arm as I turned to head back towards the entrance to the hospital where Howie and Kevin were waiting. “…you have to read it.”

“You want me to read the blueberry thing?” I could hear the doubt in my voice. “You’re serious about this?”

Nick’s eyes captured mine with such intensity that I had to force myself not to look away. He looked haunted, tortured by guilt. “If it were anyone but you, I would have kept this to myself.” Nick’s face flushed. “I need you to be on my side, Bri. I need you to at least promise me that you’ll read the story.”

I couldn’t say ‘no’. I had never been able to say ‘no’ to Nick. “Okay, Nick.”

I read it as soon as we got back to the hotel. I read all seventeen chapters in one sitting. I read every single one of the 43,724 words that ‘Dancing_Blueberry’ had penned about our fictional lives. I read about fictional Howie being poisoned, about fictional AJ crashing through the stage, about fictional Nick breaking down, about fictional me struggling with my fictional marriage. The final chapter that had been posted ended with fictional Kevin being tailed by an unknown assailant; clearly about to be attacked in some gruesome, painful fashion.

The realism was both haunting and strangely comforting at the same time. This girl was writing as if she knew us, as if she had been watching us interact with one another for her entire life. The thoughts and feelings that she had identified and brought to the surface were beyond believable; they were downright true for the most part.

“Did you finish it?”

I lowered the iPad to my lap and rubbed at my bleary eyes. The bedside clock confirmed that I had been reading for over two hours.

“What do you think?”

What did I think? What did I think? I knew what I thought, but I was too scared to say it out loud. I didn’t want to tell Nick that I thought that he might be on to something. The events in the story were too close to the events that were happening in real life. Too close.

“Do you guys really hate all the Wylee stuff?”

“Come on, Bri.” Nick shifted on his bed so that he was able to look into my face. “I need to know what you think.”

I frowned. I had kind of wanted Nick to answer my question. “I think – I think that I have a lot of question as to why you were even reading fan fiction in the first place.”

Nick’s face fell. Even in the semi-darkness I could see that he was blushing.

“I also think that you may be on to something.” I slid the iPad onto the bedside table and sank down under the covers. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to sleep; my mind was currently working overtime. But, at the same time, I wanted to avoid the impending conversation until I had narrowed down my thoughts. There were too many things to consider at the moment. “We’ll talk about it in the morning.”

“Sure.” Nick switched off his phone, plunging the room into darkness. He rustled with his own covers for a few seconds before speaking again. “Brian?”

“Yeah, Nick?”

“Thanks for not being a dick.”
Chapter 14: The Backcountry Moonshine Brewer by KeepThisSecret
** HOWIE **

“Are you awake?”

I rolled over to face the other bed. I had been awake for hours, probably since the night before. Every time I closed my eyes, I was haunted by the vision of AJ plummeting to the ground in a heap of twisted metal. I didn’t think that I would ever be able to sleep again.

“Yeah, Kev, I’m awake.”

It felt weird to see Kevin in the other bed. That was supposed to be AJ’s bed. When we had first started out, AJ and I had always roomed together. So, when the decision had been made that we would have to start sharing rooms in order to increase our security there had never been any doubt in my mind that AJ and I would end up together. Even though AJ and Brian seemed to have developed an intense bond – a connection that the fans had dubbed ‘ARok’ – I had known that Nick would immediately claim Brian for himself and leave AJ for me. Some things never changed.

The fact that Kevin was now occupying AJ’s space in the room was disconcerting and comforting all at the same time. Comforting because I had been terrified to spend the night alone and disconcerting because I felt like I was betraying AJ by allowing Kevin to move in. As different as AJ and I were, the two of us had developed a sense of familiarity with each other that nobody but Brian had been able to rival. Without AJ, it was like a part of me was missing.

“We have to cancel tonight’s show.”

I resisted the urge to sigh. Why was it so hard for Kevin to say what he was really thinking? Why did he always have to hide his feelings behind the ‘business of Backstreet’?

“I know we do, Kev.”

“We have to hold some kind of press conference. At the very least, we have to make some sort of statement about AJ.”

“I know we do, Kev.”

“We have to convince Rochelle that it’s not a good idea for her to fly out here and see AJ.”

“I know we do, Kev.”

“We have to get up.”

This time I allowed myself to sigh. “I know we do, Kev.”

Forty-five minutes later, Kevin had disappeared to speak to Eddie about the logistics of organizing a press conference and cancelling our show at the last minute. In the same amount of time, I had managed to drag myself out of bed, shower, phone the hospital to get an update on AJ, and consume exactly two and a half extra large cups of coffee.

The remaining half of my third extra large coffee was burning my fingers as I waited for Nick or Brian to open the door to their room. I gingerly transferred the takeout cup to my other hand as I waited. I should have remembered to pick up one of those protective cardboard sleeves. The guy who had invented those things was a genius.

“G’mornin’.” Brian finally yanked open the door. He yawned widely and motioned for me to come into the room. “Did ya sleep at’ll?”

I took note of Brian’s voice as I stepped inside and deposited my cup on the nearest table. His accent was thicker than it had been last night. That meant that he had probably spent the whole night worrying as opposed to sleeping.

“Not really. Did you?”

I watched as Brian grabbed a t-shirt off of the back of the couch and pulled it over his head. He had been looking skinnier lately; almost too thin in my opinion. I wasn’t about to say anything, but I wondered how much of his weight loss had to do with Leighanne’s prodding and how much of it had to do with stress.

“Not really.” Brian shook his head as Nick emerged from the bathroom. “Where’s Kevin?”

“He went to talk to Eddie about cancelling tonight’s show and about setting up a press conference.” I lowered myself down onto the edge of the bed and rubbed at my overly tired eyes. “He said that he would meet us at the hospital.”

“Kevin went somewhere by himself?!” Nick looked positively panic stricken. “Why would he do that?!”

“Security is with him.” I pointed out; confused by Nick’s overwhelming sense of concern. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah, I’m fine. It’s just …” Nick trailed off and looked at Brian who shook his head ever-so-slightly. “I’m just worried about AJ.”

I looked back and forth between Nick and Brian. The two of them were hiding something and, whatever the secret was, it was big. I had known them for too long. We had spent too much time together. I knew when something was amiss.

“What are you two not telling me?”

“We ain’t hidin’ not’in.” Brian drawled. His face flushed as he realized the extent of his own accent. “We’re just anxious to go and see AJ that’s all.”

“Guys, I really don’t have the patience for this.” I rubbed at my temples as I spoke. I could feel a massive headache beginning to set in. “If you two know something … hell, even if you think that you might know something then you need to say so.”

“We don’t know anything.” Nick exchanged another tell-tale look with Brian. His eyes were wild, refusing to settle on my face. “Right, Bri?”

Brian nodded vigorously. “Mmm hmm.”

Brian’s refusal to say actual words was making me even more anxious. He and I both knew that he would give himself away when he started talking like a backcountry moonshine brewer. Brian was, and always had been, a horrible liar. His voice always gave him away.

“This is not the time for any of us to be withholding …”

I was cut-off by the sound of my own phone ringing in my pocket. Scowling at the poor timing, I pulled the device out of my jeans and glared at the display. Rochelle’s smiling face stared back at me, and I let out a soft string of curses. Why hadn’t she called Brian? I didn’t want to be the one to handle this phone call.

“Howie?” Rochelle skipped all of the usual pleasantries. “I just tried to speak to AJ. Why does he sound like he’s drugged out of his mind?”

“Well, he’s on some pretty intense painkillers …”

“I asked to speak to his doctor and some bitch of a nurse informed me that Dr. Whatever-his-name-is doesn’t take phone calls! Can you believe that!?” Rochelle ploughed ahead. “I’ve tried calling Brian twice for an update, but his phone keeps going directly to voicemail. What the hell is going on over there? Have they figured out why AJ fell through the stage in the first place? Have they mentioned anything about his recovery? I’m looking into booking a flight as we speak …”

“NO!” I cut Rochelle off at her mention of the word ‘flight’. “I mean, I don’t think that you really need to come here.”

“I don’t need to come?” Rochelle repeated. “What does that mean? Are you trying to keep me away on purpose?”

Oh God, this was not going to end well. I squeezed my eyes shut as I desperately tried to think of an excuse. The FBI had been very clear about the fact that we were not supposed to involve our families in any way. So far, none of our wives and kids had been hurt, and the five of us desperately wanted to keep it that way. The less our wives knew about the situation the better.

“AJ was pretty adamant about you staying home.” I began to stumble through a response. “He doesn’t want you or Ava to see him lying in the hospital. We’re going to cancel the show tonight and then we’re already scheduled to have a three day break. He was hoping that you would be able to come out and visit him after he’s been released and isn’t on so many pain killers. He doesn’t want Ava to be scared of him.”

“Oh.” Rochelle’s voice softened marginally. “I’m under contract starting next week, so I won’t be able to come out for at least two weeks. Are you sure that he said that he doesn’t want me to come? He didn’t sound like he was capable of making any kind of informed decision when I tried to talk to him earlier.”

I said a silent prayer of relief. It looked like I had managed to buy us and the FBI some much needed time. “That’s definitely what he said.” I continued with the lie. “He’s really worried about Ava thinking that he looks like a monster.”

“Okay …”

Rochelle still sounded a bit sceptical, but I could tell that she was buying my excuse. Typical parent; all I had to do was mention the well-being of her kid and Rochelle was folding faster than Nick during a poker game.

“I’ll have AJ call you as soon as he’s not so heavily medicated.” I promised. “We’re just about to head over to the hospital now.”

“Fine.” Rochelle conceded. “But I expect someone to call me if anything changes in terms of AJ’s condition. I don’t like not being there …”

“We’ll keep you updated.” I opened my eyes and narrowed them at Brian. “I’ll even tell Brian to turn his phone on.”

Brian gave me a rather sheepish looking smile and pulled his phone out of his pocket. I could see his thumb moving over the power button. “Sorry.” He mouthed.

“I mean it, Howie.” Rochelle continued. “I expect a phone call the minute that you find out how and why AJ fell through that stage.”

“I promise, Ro.” I stopped glaring at Brian and returned my attention to AJ’s wife. “We’ll take good care of him.”

Upon arriving at the hospital, I was seriously regretting having answered my phone in the first place. AJ was still looped out of his mind on pain medication, Nick and Brian were still acting strangely, and Agent Adams had informed us that the stage had indeed been tampered with. I massaged my temples for the second time that day as I listened to Agent Adams yammer on about strategic cuts and loosened footings. None of the details mattered. The only thing that mattered was that AJ’s fall hadn’t been an accident; someone had wanted him to fall, someone had wanted him to die. Just like someone had wanted me to die.

“At this point, the five of you need to be under constant surveillance.” Agent Adams was still speaking. His bald head was glistening under the fluorescent lights of the hospital and sweat stains had already formed around the underarms of his dress shirt. He popped yet another Halls into his mouth and smacked his lips. “We now know for sure that we’re dealing with someone who is out to harm you. We can’t afford to take any more chances …” He paused as his phone rang.

I stopped massaging the sides of my head at the look on the plump man’s face. Despite the fact that he had already been perspiring, I could actually see him break out in a cold sweat.

“What do you mean that he’s missing?” Agent Adams’s sausage fingers tightened around his phone. “I don’t care whose fault you think it is! Someone better find Richardson before it’s too fucking late!”
Chapter 15: Starbucks by KeepThisSecret
** KEVIN **

Must find coffee …

The thought of gulping down no less than a gallon of caffeine was the only thing keeping me coherent at the moment. I hadn’t slept at all the night before, and I had just used the last ounce of concentration that I possessed to film a short statement regarding AJ’s accident. Normally, I wouldn’t have gone ahead without input from the others, but Eddie had been insistent; claiming that the fans were frantic, that we didn’t have time to put together something as a group. In the end, I had succumbed to Eddie’s pestering. The two of us had composed a generic statement video that he was probably uploading to our website that very second. Our tour production team was now handling the logistical nightmare of cancelling tonight’s show, and I was on the hunt for coffee.

In hindsight, I should have just ordered coffee from the hotel, but I desperately wanted a Starbucks latte. The craving had hit me as soon as I had finished recording the video, and I hadn’t been able to shake it. Regular coffee simply would not suffice at this point.

Even though it was a weekday, the street on which the hotel was situated was all but deserted. The few people that I did pass appeared to be in a daze; their heads down, their fingers flying over their phone screens. I rounded a corner and finally saw the welcoming lights and glowing green sign of my desired destination. There were more people on this street; early commuters in business attire, clutching take-out cups and travel mugs as they hurried towards the entrance to the subway.

Nobody paid me any attention as I weaved my way towards the beckoning lights of the coffee shop. The smell of freshly ground coffee beans was suddenly everywhere and I breathed it in. My mind was so busy crafting my order that I didn’t see him until it was too late. Our shoulders connected with enough force to send me reeling backwards, and I focused my eyes just in time to see the man’s take-out cup fall to the ground; coffee splashing against the cement and across what I knew to be very expensive leather shoes.

“I’m so sorry!” I drew my eyes up to the man’s face. “I wasn’t paying attention.”

The man slowly attempted to shake off the offending drops of coffee from his shoe before pulling his eyes up to meet mine. A flash of angry recognition crossed his face. “You’re in that boy band ...”

I cringed. I was pretty sure that no self-respecting forty-something would enjoy being referred to as a member of a boy band. “Yes, I’m in the Backstreet Boys.”

“So you have enough money to replace my shoes ...” The man continued to glare at me. “... and my suit.”

I started at the man’s directness. “Y-Yes. Of – Of course.” I turned to reach for my wallet, but stopped when I felt a strong hand curl around the upper part of my arm.

“How ya’ doin’, Kevin?”

“What is this?” I could hear the tremor in my own voice. My heart was beating intently in my chest. “What’s going on?”

I had been set up.

This wasn’t going to end well.

These men were going to try and take me somewhere.

I should have stayed at the hotel.

The thoughts were racing through my mind as the man in the suit and the expensive shoes calmly turned and began walking towards a Suburban that was parked a few feet away. The man holding my arm jerked me roughly in the same direction; urging me to follow his partner.

My feet dragged against the sidewalk and I stumbled forward. The few people on the street remained oblivious to my presence as I allowed myself to be forced towards the waiting car. The early commuters were too tired, too consumed with their online worlds to notice what was happening to me. I debated yelling for help, but I knew that my cries would be futile. Nobody would have the time or courage to come to my rescue. If I was going to escape, I had to do it on my own.

Knowing that I would only have one chance, I faked another stumble and pitched forward. The mystery man lessened his grip in surprise and I seized my opportunity; twisting my arm out of his crushing hold and spinning my body around so that I was facing the way that I had come. I didn’t even take the time to look at his face as I took off in the direction of the hotel.

My feet slapped against the sidewalk creating an urgent, steady rhythm as I sprinted back the way that I had come. Just as I had suspected, nobody on the street paid me any notice. Apparently, it was a normal sight for a practically middle-aged man to be running full-speed down the street first thing in the morning.

Pivoting sharply to my right, I began to tear down the alley that would take me to the hotel. All I had to do was make it to the front doors and I would be safe. My breathing was becoming laboured and I silently cursed myself for being out of shape. I should never have taken that hiatus. Hell, I should never have come back to the group. If I hadn’t returned then I wouldn’t even be in this position in the first place.

“Too slow, old man!”

The mystery man overtook me as I rounded the corner. His hands wrapped around my waist and the two of us crashed to the ground. My knees hit the cement with damaging force. I could feel my skin tearing as my pants ripped. Small stones embedded themselves into my flesh as the man skilfully flipped me over onto my back.

This was not happening; I wasn’t going down without a fight. “Help!” My voice came out weaker than I could have ever anticipated. The man was sitting on my chest, obstructing my breathing. Still, I tried again. “Help!”

“No one is going to help you.”

The man’s fist connected with the side of my face and the metallic taste of blood invaded my mouth. My cheek was throbbing from the impact and my mind was reeling from the suddenness of the violent attack. I hadn’t been expecting the situation to escalate so quickly.

“Help!” I summoned all of the strength that I possessed and I cried out again; my voice a little stronger this time.

Encouraged by the small victory of being able to raise my voice, I focused my attention on fighting back. I swung my right fist out in the direction on the man’s head and groaned in satisfaction as my knuckles connected with the rough stubble on his cheek. The force of the blow was enough to send the man tumbling off of my chest, and I began inching backwards along the pavement as soon as his weight left my body.

Unfortunately, the man recovered quickly and he was on me in a matter of seconds; his foot connecting soundly with my rib cage. I gasped frantically as I lost the ability to breathe, quickly realizing that I could do nothing to stop the man’s relentless assault. His foot connected with my body again and again; the pain shooting across my chest and up my sides. I was going to die. I was going to be beaten to death in the middle of downtown Baltimore all because I had wanted an overpriced cup of coffee.

“Hey!”

My eyes flickered open at the sound of another voice. My vision was blurry from the assault, and I blinked rapidly in an attempt to focus on my surroundings. Was it possible that someone had come to save me?

“Stop! I’m calling the police!”

My assailant gave me one final kick before he fled and, as I lay there clutching my battered body, our eyes locked. It was in that instant that my brain was finally able to make the connection. I knew my attacker.

The past came flooding back to me in a tidal wave of emotion; the un-ceremonial way in which he had been dismissed, the look of utter depression on his face, the acknowledgement that he had been cheated out of a life of privilege. I hadn’t thought about him in over twenty years, but it was clear that he had never forgotten about me.

“Buddy, are you alright?”

It was becoming increasingly difficult for me to keep my eyes open. I could feel the blood pounding behind my heavy eyelids as I struggled to focus on the face of the man who had, more than likely, just saved my life. I wanted to say something, anything to let him know who I was, who my attacker was, but I couldn’t convince myself to speak.

“You’re going to be okay. An ambulance is on the way.”

I let out a strangled grunt in response. The distant wail of a siren was the last thing that I heard as I allowed the heaviness in my eyelids to overpower my brain’s desire to remain awake. I slipped into unconsciousness with his face fresh in my mind, and all I could do was hope that the image would still be there when I woke up.
Chapter 16: Any Relation to Lance Bass? by KeepThisSecret
** NICK **

This was not happening. My stomach churned at the look on Agent Adams’s face. How could Kevin be missing? How could the FBI have let this happen? The bile was rising in my throat and I wasn’t sure if it was a result of fear or anger; probably both. I swallowed hard and tried to block out the fact that Brian was breathing rather erratically beside me. Like me, I knew that he was thinking about the most recent chapter of ‘Dancing Blueberry’s’ novel; the one that had ended with Kevin being tailed by some unknown assailant. Once again, I had let the guys down. I had known that Kevin was going to be attacked, and I hadn’t done a single thing to prevent it.

“Nick?” Howie sounded frazzled. “Are you okay?”

I pulled my attention away from Agent Adams and focused on Howie’s face. As I studied the dark circles around his eyes, it finally registered that I was crying. The tears were running down my face at an alarming speed, and I could feel the guilt threatening to explode. I was the reason that Kevin was missing.

“No, I’m not fucking okay!” My shaky voice echoed throughout the room. “How could I possibly be okay?! Someone is trying to kill us and now Kevin is missing! Tell me, Howie, how the fuck am I supposed to be okay when all of this is my fault?!”

Howie looked taken aback. “This isn’t your fault Nick. If anything, it’s the FBI’s fault.” Howie narrowed his eyes and turned towards Agent Adams. “Security should have been following Kevin. You told us that you were going to protect us.” Howie’s voice was rising now; his English was becoming more heavily accented. “Your men didn’t do their God-damn job!”

“Richardson left the hotel without informing anyone that he was leaving. He chose to abandon his security team.” Agent Adams insisted. “This wouldn’t have happened if you had listened to reason and cancelled the tour. The FBI is not a babysitter! The five of you need to smarten up and realize that you’re in real danger.”

“You think that we don’t know that?!” Howie was positively screeching at the detective. He gestured wildly in AJ’s direction. “Do you really think that we were going to carry on after what happened to AJ?! We’re not idiots! Kevin was putting together a press release to inform the fans that we were cancelling tonight’s show when he went missing. He disappeared doing what you and your supposedly highly-skilled team told us to do!”

“Mr. Dorough, questioning the competency of the FBI is not going to help us find your friend.” Agent Adams jammed a Halls into his mouth and began smacking his lips in frustration. “You need to calm down.”

“Calm down! Calm down?” Howie pounded the edge of AJ’s bed in frustration. “I’ll calm down when you’re able to tell us what happened to Kevin.”

I swiped roughly at my face and turned to look at Brian. I couldn’t remember the last time that I had seen Howie this upset. The fact that he was freaking out was making me feel even worse. What would he say if he knew the truth; that I had known about the attacks on both AJ and Kevin in advance?

It took me almost a full minute to realize that Brian was gone. The chair next to mine was empty. I had been so caught up in Howie’s outburst that I hadn’t even noticed that he had gotten up, let alone left the room. My heart rate was increasing by the second. Where was Brian? Had he left to find his cousin on his own?

I looked hastily around the room as I slowly began to extricate myself from my chair. Howie was still screaming at Agent Adams, and AJ was watching the argument in a drug-induced stupor. Nobody was paying any attention to me. Seizing the opportunity, I stood up and slipped into the hallway, pulling the door closed softly behind me.

“Finally! It took you long enough to realize that I had left! We have to tell the FBI about the story.”

I flinched violently and nearly punched Brian in the face as his icy fingers curled around my lower arm. I hadn’t been expecting him to be waiting in the hallway.

“We can’t!” I lowered my voice to a whisper and shook my head fiercely in Brian’s direction. “They wouldn’t believe us anyway.”

“We can show it to them.” Brian dropped his pitch to match mine as his hand left my arm. “How could they not believe us when it’s right there in black and white?”

I shook my head again and began walking towards the stairwell at the end of the hallway. “I have to go.”

“Go?” Brian hissed. “Where are you going?” He caught up to me as I pushed open the door to the stairwell. “Kevin is missing! Do you really think that this is a good time to run off without security?”

“I’m going to talk to her.”

I could hear Brian’s footsteps thundering behind me as I took the stairs two at a time. The plan was ripe in my mind. I already had all of the information that I needed. I was going to redeem myself for not speaking up by solving the case myself.

“Talk to who?” Brian jumped the last five steps and landed next to me on the small landing that marked the first floor. He grabbed my shoulder with enough force to spin me around and then dug his fingers into the excess fabric of my shirt. “You can’t just leave!”

“Watch me!” I wiggled easily out of Brian’s grip and slammed both of my hands against his shoulders. I felt a pang of remorse as I watched him stumble backwards, but my mind was set. “I have to do this on my own. The FBI will just think that I’m crazy if I show them that story.”

“Nick!”

Brian reached for me again, but I quickly sidestepped his advance and pulled open the door to the first floor. The hospital lobby was already fairly crowded for so early in the morning, and I kept my head down as I strode towards the exit. The last thing that I wanted was for someone to recognize me.

“Nick!” Brian was on me again; pulling me backwards by my shirt. “Wait!”

“Are you trying to fuck this up even more?” I whipped around, causing Brian to stumble backwards for the second time. “Do you want to make things even worse? Just let me take care of this!”

Brian’s face quickly shifted from concern to anger. “How are you going to take care of it? Do you know where Kevin is? Why are you shutting me out? I thought that we had finally moved past all of this bullshit! I thought that you could trust me again.”

Tears prickled the corners of my eyes at Brian’s final statement. “I do trust you.”

“So, then tell me where you’re going.” Brian’s face softened ever so slightly. “I won’t – I don’t – I need to know that you’re going to be okay.”

I started walking again; knowing that Brian would follow. “I’m going to see ‘Dancing Blueberry’.”

“You’re going to do what now?” Brian hissed as he trailed after me into the brightness of the late summer morning. “How do you plan to do that? All we need to do is tell Agent Adams about the story and let the FBI look into it. Why are you so intent on handling this on your own?"

“Because it’s my fault that AJ and Kevin ended up getting hurt!” I exploded as the two of us reached the parking lot. “I knew, Brian! Like I told you last night, I knew the entire time that AJ was going to fall and I didn’t say anything. I was too – too embarrassed to open my mouth, and now AJ is hurt and Kevin is missing. I need to fix this. I need to save Kevin!”

“Nick ...” Brian shook his head gently. “What happened is not your fault. You’re just going to make things worse by leaving on your own. What if something happens to you while you’re off trying to be the hero? What if you end up missing like Kevin, or hurt like AJ, or – or something even worse?”

“I’ll risk it.” I was stubborn to a fault. I knew that what Brian was saying made sense, but my mind was made up. “I’ll be fine. I’m just going to talk to her.”

“Fuck.”

I could hear Brian cursing under his breath as I hurried towards the rental car that Eddie had arranged for Howie, Brian, and I that morning. I knew that he was following me, but I didn’t dare to look back as I reached the car and slid into the driver’s seat. If I turned around, there was a chance that Brian could talk me out of my plan and I couldn’t risk that happening.

“How do you even know who ‘Dancing Blueberry’ is?” Brian wrenched open the passenger door and slid into the seat beside me as I got into the car.

“What are you doing?” I ignored Brian’s question as I started the car. I watched in surprise as he slammed his door and began fiddling with his seatbelt.

“I’m buckling up.” Brian paused. “You’re not the best driver.”

“You’re not coming with me.” I dropped my hands from the steering wheel. “What if – what if something happens? You have Baylee and Leighanne ...”

“Just drive, Nick.” Brian shot me a determined look. “If you’re going, then I’m going.”

“Bri ...” I rubbed anxiously at my face. “Are you sure?”

“I’m not letting you go anywhere alone.” Brian’s face was set. “You either take me with you or we both go back upstairs and explain the situation to Agent Adams and the rest of his team.”

“Jesus.” I swore as I eased the car into drive. “You know that there was a time when you just would have let me leave?”

“I know.” Brian turned his eyes towards the window as I pulled out of the parking lot. “I wish that time period never existed, but there’s nothing that I can do about that now.”

We drove in silence for a few minutes; both of us lost in our own thoughts. As much as I had protested, I was glad that Brian had come with me. If nothing else, it was nice just to have him around. It felt like we had stepped back in time in the sense that the two of us were sneaking off to do something without the others. Of course, in the past, Brian and I had snuck off to play basketball or video games. Now, we were tracking down someone who could potential hold the key to our survival.

“So, you never did tell me how you know who ‘Dancing Blueberry’ is.” Brian broke the silence as he turned his face away from the window.

“I paid someone to trace her IP address for me.” I pulled a crumpled piece of paper out of my pocket and handed it to Brian. “This is where we’re going.”

Brian carefully unfolded the paper, smoothing out the wrinkles as he peered at the lines of text. “Who did you pay, exactly?”

My face flushed as I merged onto the expressway. “A private investigator. I found him online. It’s one of those ‘no questions asked’ type of deals.”

“Jesus.” It was Brian’s turn to swear. “Didn’t he recognize you?”

“I paid him a premium to get me the information as soon as possible and to keep his mouth shut.” I could feel my face getting warm. “He knew exactly who I was.”

Brian pressed his lips together and continued to stare at the paper. “He didn’t give you an actual address.”

“He narrowed it down as best as he could. He said that it’s pretty much impossible to determine a specific address, but he was able to tell me the general area based on signal towers or something like that. I didn’t actually listen to what he was saying.” I shrugged. “He also ran some kind of a search on her user name, and he was able to figure out that her real name is Ashley Bass.”

Brian snorted. “Any relation to Lance Bass?”

I laughed. The thought had never even crossed my mind. “I hope not.”

“So, what’s the plan?” Brian’s face turned serious once again. He started punching the intersection into the car’s GPS system. “Are we just going to drive to this approximate location and stand in the middle of the street screaming her name? We don’t even know what she looks like.”

I shrugged again. “I haven’t actually thought that far ahead.”

Brian gave me a look that was eerily similar to the one that he used to give me when we were younger and he didn’t want to tell me that I had just said something incredibly stupid. He glanced at the GPS. “Well, we have exactly thirty-four minutes until we reach Severna Park. We better start thinking.”
Chapter 17: Dancing Blueberries by KeepThisSecret
** BRIAN **

Apparently, neither Nick nor I is clever enough to come up with a legitimate plan in thirty-four minutes. Even the additional seven minutes that it took Nick to successfully parallel park the rental car didn’t help. When the two of us stepped out of the car into the brilliant sunshine washing over downtown Severna Park, we still had no clue how we were going to find Ashley Bass.

“I was kind of hoping that the area would be less busy.” Nick frowned as he looked at the crowds of people going about their business.

“What were you expecting?” I adjusted my baseball cap to better shield my eyes from the sun and peered up into Nick’s disappointed face. “A lone house in the middle of the woods?”

“That would have been nice ...” Nick trailed off in disappointment. “Even a suburban street would have been more manageable. We could have just knocked on every door until we found her.”

I resisted the urge to roll my eyes. I could only imagine the scene that Nick and I would inevitably cause by going door-to-door in the middle of the suburbs. Choosing not to comment, I began to half-heartedly scan the street. We were in an older part of what I assumed was the downtown core. The street was littered with independent stores that were pressed tightly together in a mess of merchandise and colourful signs. Upper apartments occupied the space above the stores and people were milling about in all directions. Finding Ashley was going to be next to impossible.

I was just about to tell Nick that we were better off cutting our losses and getting back in the car when I saw them; two blueberries with gleeful smiles holding hands and skipping. I craned my neck to get a better view of the sign and let out a grunt of disbelief. At the end of the short block, next to a small parkette, was a tiny café – ‘The Dancing Blueberry’.

“You’ve got to be shitting me!” A massive smile overtook Nick’s face as he followed my gaze. “I don’t believe it!”

I continued to stare at the cartoon blueberries; mesmerized by their painted-on smiles and our apparent good fortune. “Do you think she works there? She could have just seen the sign and thought that it was a good idea for a username.”

“Let’s find out.” Nick was already striding confidently towards the café. “I can’t believe that we got this lucky!”

“What do you mean ‘lucky’? We haven’t even found her yet.” I hissed as I followed Nick into the small establishment. “Have you even thought about what you’re going to say to her if we do find her?”

The smell of fresh ground coffee and sugar engulfed us as soon as we stepped inside the door. A large display case housing a variety of lavishly decorated baked goods took up the majority of the space, and my stomach rumbled as I breathed in the mixture of cinnamon and butter cream frosting. Leighanne would berate me for days if she found out that I was even thinking of deviating from my diet.

“What are you thinking?” Nick interrupted my thoughts. He raised his eyebrows in amusement as he caught me eyeing the desserts. “Wifey will never know if you have a cupcake.”

“What’s the plan?” I asked, ignoring both Nick’s comment and the rumbling in my stomach. “Are we just going to ask every woman in here if she’s Ashley?”

There were ten small tables clustered towards the back of the café; nine of which were occupied. I counted seven women sitting at the tables as I tried to inconspicuously check out the patrons. There was also a middle-aged women working behind the counter and two female teenagers standing by the display case and placing their order.

“I suppose.” Nick shrugged. He suddenly looked nervous. “Should we see if she works here first?”

“Sure.” I mimicked Nick’s shrug and stepped up behind the teenage girls who were now paying for their order. “We should probably order something while we’re at it.”

“Like a coffee?” Nick winked. “Or a piece of cake?”

I shot Nick what I hoped was a disparaging look before flashing a friendly smile at the woman behind the counter. Maybe she was Ashley. The thought hit me as I opened my mouth to greet her. I had just assumed that Ashley would be young, but she could just as easily be an older woman.

“What can I get for you boys?” The woman smiled easily back at us. Her expression confirmed that she had no idea who we were.

“We’ll take two large coffees ...”

“And two cupcakes.” Nick interjected. He pushed in front of me and pulled his wallet out of his jeans. “Whatever two flavours are your most popular ... that’s what we want.”

“Sure thing, boys.” The woman maintained her soft, easy smile as she accepted the twenty dollar bill that Nick slid across the counter. She quickly counted back the change and filled two take-out cups with coffee. “Why don’t you two take a seat and I’ll bring the cupcakes over in just a minute. I’ll just check with Ashley to make sure that I bring you our best sellers.” She wiggled her eyebrows in amusement as she pushed the coffee cups towards us.

“You’ll check with Ashley?” Nick’s voice was a full octave higher than normal as he repeated the woman’s statement. His hand was actually shaking as he reached for one of the take-out cups.

“That’s right, dear.” A look of confusion crossed the woman’s face. “Ashley ... the owner ... do you know her?”

“No.” I hastily interrupted before Nick could make the situation any more awkward than it already was. “We’ll just be over there.” I gestured towards the table closest to the counter and practically shoved Nick in that general direction. “Take your time.”

“What do we do now?” Nick threw himself into the chair across from me and took a massive gulp of his coffee, wincing as the hot liquid connected with his tongue. “What do we say to her?”

“I don’t know!” I hissed. “This was your idea, remember?” I dared a quick glance at the counter. The woman who had served us had disappeared into the back. “You better think of something quick. If the owner turns out to be the Ashley that we’re looking for, then she’s going to recognize us right away.”

“This was a bad idea.” Nick’s eyes were darting feverishly between me and the counter. “We’re going to sound like complete ... oh shit!”

I turned as Nick’s eyes widened. A woman in her early-to-mid thirties had just stepped up behind the counter. She was engrossed in a conversation with the older women while simultaneously roping her long brown hair into a messy ponytail. The older woman gestured in our direction and the younger woman turned to face us. Our eyes locked as soon as she turned her head, and it was immediately obvious that she knew exactly who we were. I gave her a small wave, watching intently as her mouth formed a small ‘o’ of surprise.

“Stop staring at her.” Nick whispered. He had dropped his gaze to the well-worn wooden table. “Maybe we should just leave.”

“I’m not staring at her.” I could feel the heat creeping up my neck as I forced myself to look away from Ashley who was now gripping the edge of the counter as if her life depended on it. “We can’t just walk out. She’s seen us!”

“What if she’s the one who’s after us?” Nick voiced this new concern in a hushed whisper. “What if we’ve walked into a trap?”

My stomach lurched at Nick’s suggestion. The notion that the young woman behind the counter wanted to kill us was a long-shot, but it wasn’t impossible. Sure, she looked about as threatening as a puppy with her round eyes and slender figure, but that didn’t mean that she couldn’t be working for someone else; someone bigger and stronger and angrier.

“Are you crazy?” I forced myself to sound confident. “There’s no way that she’s responsible for what’s been happening to us! Look at her!”

“Then how do you explain her story?” Nick continued. “I can’t believe that we came here! Why didn’t you stop me?! She’s probably poisoning our cupcakes as we speak!”

“You’re acting like she somehow knew that you were going to read her story.” I argued. “There’s no way that she could have known that you like to read strange shit about yourself on the Internet.”

“Hi – Sorry – Excuse me?”

Nick and I both started at the sound of her voice. I jerked my head upwards and plastered a smile on my face. Once again, I could feel my neck turning red in embarrassment as I stared into her eyes. This girl was going to think that we were socially inept.

“I brought you some - some cupcakes.” Ashley stammered. She shakily set two plates on the table and took a step backwards. “One chocolate banana and one cookies n’ cream; our most popular flavours.”

“Right. Thanks.” Nick mumbled. He wrapped his fingers around his coffee cup; his knuckles turning white with the effort. “They look ... ummmm ... good.”

“Thanks.” Ashley’s face was also turning red. “Well, ummmm, enjoy.”

“You’re Ashley, right?” The words tumbled out of my mouth. “Ashley Bass? The lady behind the counter said that you’re the owner of this place. That’s pretty impressive.”

Ashley’s eyes were now so wide that I was afraid that they were going to fall out and roll along the floor. “Yeah – Yes – How did you know that? I mean, you are Brian Littrell, right? From the Backstreet Boys?”

“Do you write fan fiction?” Nick blurted. “Under the username ‘Dancing Blueberry’?”

The poor girl looked like she wanted the floor to open up and swallow her whole. Her face was positively flaming in embarrassment, and her expression caused me to shift uncomfortably in my seat. I felt bad for her. Nick really needed to learn how to be more tactful in delicate situations.

“Oh God ...” Ashley squeaked. “How did – I didn’t – Why are you asking me that?”

“Your writing is really good!” I threw out the compliment in the hopes that it would make her feel better. “It’s very – uhhhh – realistic.”

Ashley opened her mouth but the only sound that came out was a cross between a groan of embarrassment and a squeak of disbelief. She still looked absolutely mortified.

“It is you, isn’t it?” Nick prodded. “You’re ‘Dancing Blueberry’.”

“They’re just stories!” Ashley suddenly exploded; her voice shaking. “I’m so sorry! I never thought that you would actually read them! I didn’t mean anything that I wrote. It was just supposed to be for fun.” She swiped hastily at her face and began to back away from the table. “I’ll take the stories down! You guys don’t, like, want to press charges or anything, do you?”

This was not going well. I looked frantically at Nick and then back at Ashley who was still trying to disguise the fact that she was crying. We had clearly approached this in the wrong way.

“Please don’t cry!” I sprang from my seat and thrust a handful of napkins in Ashley’s direction. “We’re not upset. I haven’t even read all of your stories. Well, I’ve read your most recent one, but that’s only because Nick told me to. It’s Nick who likes to read fan fiction.”

Ashley ignored the napkins and blinked at Nick in astonishment. “You like to read fan fiction? I don’t – I don’t understand what’s going on.”

Nick also stood up from the table and took a step towards me and Ashley. The other customers were starting to stare, and he dropped his voice to a whisper. “We need to talk to you about ‘The Chaos Tour’. The stuff that you’ve been writing ...” Nick paused and took another step forward. “... it’s been coming true.”
Chapter 18: Selfish by KeepThisSecret
** AJ **

Howie had been crying for seventeen minutes and thirty-two seconds; not that I was counting. He hadn’t moved from the chair since Agent Adams had given us the news about Brian and Nick. I knew that Howie thought that they had been abducted, but I knew better. I had been watching them the entire morning and I could tell just by the way they had been acting that they had been planning something. I should have opened my mouth and called them on it. Instead, I had kept up my charade about being too doped up on medication to think straight. It had seemed like a good idea at the time; a way of detaching myself from the fear that had settled itself in my stomach. Now, watching Howie suffer in isolation, I felt like a complete asshole.

“Mr. Dorough?”

Howie reluctantly lifted his head at the sound of Agent Adams’s voice. He was clearly still reeling from their argument. “Yeah?”

“The rental car that you used to get here this morning is missing.” Agent Adams cut straight to the chase. “Do you have the keys?”

“No.” Howie shook his head. “Nick has them. He drove us ...” He trailed off as the reality of the situation finally dawned on him. “They left? They left on their own without telling me?”

I wanted to leap out of the bed and wrap my arms around Howie. He looked so betrayed, so crushed. I wanted to tell him that everything was going to be okay, even though I was pretty sure that it wasn’t. When Nick and Brian came back, if they came back, I was going to murder them. How could the two of them have been so selfish? Didn’t they care about Howie? Didn’t they care about me?

I looked at my phone that was lying silently on the table next to the bed. I was sure that Nick and Brian had their reasons for leaving, but I still felt betrayed. Brian could have told me what they were planning. He should have told me. Even though we operated at opposite ends of the spectrum of life, Brian was the one person who I knew would always have my back. Even though I had never officially given him the title, he was my best friend.

“It seems that way.” Agent Adams’s face had settled into a permanent frown. “Do you have any idea where they could have gone?”

Howie let out a massive sigh and wiped away his remaining tears. “I have no idea. They never tell me anything.” He glanced cautiously in my direction. “AJ might know. He and Brian are super close.”

Agent Adams turned to me. He looked more than a little sceptical. “He doesn’t have a clue about what’s going on in this room. I doubt that he knows where Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dumb have run off to.”

“I know exactly what’s going on.” My voice cracked as I pushed myself up into a sitting position. “I know that you’re being a colossal asshole.”

Howie actually smirked. “How long have you been off the morphine?”

I decided not to let Howie in on the fact that I had been faking my stupidity for the last twenty-four hours. It would only make things worse. “Long enough to know that Kevin is missing and that Nick and Brian have disappeared ... probably to find Kevin on their own.”

Agent Adams grunted. “Well, if you have all the answers, can you tell us where your buddies have gone?”

I shook my head, struggling to keep my emotions in check. I was pissed at Nick and betrayed at Brian’s choice to leave me in the dark. “I don’t know. They didn’t say anything to me.”

“Even Brian?” Howie looked surprised. “He didn’t saying anything to you?”

I shook my head for the second time. “He probably thought that I wouldn’t understand ...” I trailed off. “... because of the pain medication.”

As soon as the words left my mouth, I felt better. Of course that’s why Brian hadn’t said anything to me; he thought that I was doped out of my mind. If I hadn’t been so stupid, if I hadn’t pretended to be so heavily influenced by the drugs, then he would have confided in me. He always confided in me.

“What do we do?” Howie settled his bloodshot eyes on my face. “What are we going to do, AJ?”

“I dunno, Howie.”

I gingerly propped myself up on the pillows and resisted the urge to wince. My back felt as though it had been shattered into a thousand pieces. The doctors said that I was lucky that I hadn’t broken anything. One doctor had even gone so far as to call it a ‘miracle’ that I wasn’t paralyzed. Miracle or not, I was just happy to be alive. I would never be able to forget the fall or the aftermath; the look on Brian’s face when he had placed his arms around my neck would haunt me forever.

“I have some other news for you.” Agent Adams started. “We’ve managed to locate Mr. Richardson.”

“You have?!” Howie flew to his feet. “Where is he? How is he? What happened? When can we see him?”

I looked expectantly at the burly man. Howie had asked all of my questions in one long breath.

“He’s here at the hospital.” Agent Adams frowned. “An ambulance brought him in a few minutes ago. I’m sorry to tell you that he’s unconscious at the moment. It seems as though he was subjected to a – to a severe beating.”

“What?” I blinked stupidly. “Someone beat him up?”

Agent Adams nodded. “To the point of unconsciousness.”

“I can’t – I can’t deal with this.” Howie fell back onto the chair. The tears were once again rolling down his face. “I can’t fucking deal with this anymore!”

“I don’t understand.” I was still trying to comprehend the situation. “Do you know who hurt him? What are the chances of him waking up?”

Agent Adams had the decency to look upset. “I don’t have an answer to either of those questions at the moment. The best I can tell you is that your friend is being cared for by a highly skilled medical team as we speak. As soon as I have an update on his condition I will let you know.”

“Great.” I mumbled. “I guess we’ll just sit here and wait then.”

The anger was bubbling up inside me. I didn’t want to sit on my ass and wait to hear if Kevin was going to be okay. What I wanted to do was go and find the person who had hurt him and put him in the ground. Of course, that wasn’t an option in my present condition.

“What about Nick and Brian?” Howie spat. “Is anyone still trying to track them down?”

“My team is on it.” Agent Adams replied; his tone equally chilly. “Again, I’ll let you know what we find out.”

“I really want to punch that guy in the face.” I muttered as soon as Agent Adams had left the room. “He’s acting like all of this is our fault.”

“Some of it is our fault.” Howie sighed. “Kevin, Nick and Brian all chose to go off on their own.”

“We can’t start blaming each other, D.” I argued. “I’m sure that they all had their reasons for leaving ...”

“Cut the crap, AJ!” Howie called me out. “Why are you defending them? Someone tried to kill us and the three of them still chose to do their own thing. What does that say about how they feel about us? We’re supposed to be a team. We’re supposed to stick together, but I don’t see anyone sitting here supporting the two of us.”

I didn’t have a response to Howie’s accusations. I had never been in this situation. Usually, I was the one going off on my own and doing my own thing. Every time that I wasn’t a part of the group it was the result of my own choices. As much as I hated to admit it, being excluded stung more than I could have ever imagined. Was this how Howie felt all the time? How many times had we unintentionally excluded him? How many times had we made him feel like his opinions and his contributions didn’t matter?

“This is bullshit!” I pulled my phone off of the table and tapped furiously at the screen. “I’m going to call Brian. He should know that his cousin is lying in the hospital fighting for his life.”

Howie simply shook his head and turned his eyes to the ceiling. “He’s not going to answer you, AJ. It’s back to the way that it used to be with him and Nick. As long as they’ve got each other no one else matters.”

I pressed my lips together and brought the phone to my ear. My stomach flipped as I waited for Brian to pick up. Howie was wrong. He had to be wrong.
End Notes:
I fully apologize for the lack of updates lately. Life has been getting in the way of my writing. *sigh* I hope that those of you who have been reading this haven't given up on me!!
Chapter 19: Predicting the Future by KeepThisSecret
** NICK **

The expression on Ashley’s face said it all; she thought that I was clinically insane. She was probably thinking about a way to signal for help so that she could escape from the inane gibberish that was spewing out of my mouth. If she belonged to the fanclub, there was no way that she would be renewing her membership after today. She looked like she wanted to run and hide from me and Brian – a look that I was definitely not used to receiving from our fans.

“I’m sorry, what are you saying?” Ashley asked. “What do you mean that my story is coming true?”

“Everything that’s happened in your story has happened in real life.” I insisted. “You post an update and the next day the events that you’ve described come true.”

Ashley blinked once. “Is this some kind of joke? How did you guys figure out who I was? Where I lived?”

“I paid a private investigator to track your IP address.” I paused; Ashley looked stricken. “I was desperate. Kevin – Kevin went missing this morning.”

“You wrote about Howie being poisoned from drinking green tea ...” Brian interrupted. “... that actually happened.”

“And you wrote about AJ falling because the scaffolding on the stage had been tampered with. That also came true.” I added. “The last chapter that you posted ended with Kevin being followed and now he’s missing.”

“Howie was poisoned? You guys tweeted out that he was sick.” Ashley had started to, once again, back away from the two of us. “This is crazy! Listen, if you guys think that I have anything to do with what happened to Howie, or to AJ, or to Kevin then you’re wrong. I – I need to get back to work.”

“Wait!” I grabbed Ashley around the arm and pulled her back towards me with more force than I had intended. “We need to see the story!”

Ashley looked down at my hand that was wrapped securely around her arm. If she had looked afraid before, now she looked positively terrified.

“Please.” I let go of her arm and breathed a sigh of relief when she didn’t immediately turn and run away. “I know that what I’m saying sounds crazy, but we really need to read the rest of your story.”

Ashley swivelled her eyes to Brian. “You guys are being serious?”

“Unfortunately, yes.” Brian confirmed. “It’s like you’re somehow able to predict the future; the horrible future as far as we’re concerned.”

“The story – the story isn’t finished.” Ashley stammered. “Aside from the outline, I haven’t written anything beyond the last update that I posted this morning.”

“You posted something this morning?” My stomach was doing back flips as I pulled out my phone and hurriedly called up the website. “Did you reveal what happens to Kevin?”

Ashley’s face turned unnaturally pale. “He gets beaten up and ends up in the ICU.”

“Oh, God ...” Brian cut himself off as his phone began to ring. He pulled the device out of his pocket and checked the display before turning to me. “It’s AJ.”

“Answer it.” I mumbled; my attention focused on both Ashley’s spoken and written words.

“AJ, listen, I can explain ...” Brian answered the call.

I kept one ear on Brian’s end of the conversation as I quickly scrolled through the update that Ashley had posted only hours ago. Sure enough, the chapter ended with Kevin in the ICU fighting for his life after being beaten up by an unknown assailant. My hands were shaking so badly that I could barely hold on to the phone. My fingers had turned ice cold. Why was this happening?

“He’s in the ICU?” Brian looked about as sick as I felt as he ramped up his end of the conversation with AJ. “What else has Agent Adams said? How are you feeling? When did the drugs wear off?”

Brian was spewing a barrage of questions into the phone, but I was no longer fully paying attention to what he was saying. I had heard all that I needed to hear; Kevin was non-responsive, just like he was in Ashley’s story. The events were too similar to be a coincidence.

Ashley was staring intently into my face. Her complexion was still sickeningly white. “Kevin’s in critical condition?”

“I told you.” My voice was shaky. “I told you that you’ve been predicting the future.”

“AJ’s pissed.” Brian disconnected the call and jammed his phone back into his pocket. “He’s never – he’s never been this mad at me before. He knows that I’m hiding something from him. Maybe we did the wrong thing by coming here. We should have waited, talked to the FBI ...”

“He’ll forgive you.” I brushed Brian’s feelings aside, ignoring the painful look that crossed his face.

Despite the fact that I was worried about Kevin, I felt a flicker of satisfaction. I hated that Brian and AJ had somehow become so close. AJ and I had gone down the same road of addiction and self-destruction, but Brian had never shunned AJ. When I had started using, Brian had abandoned me. He had left me to self-destruct at a time when I had needed him the most. When AJ had entered rehab, Brian had been there for him every step of the way. I would never tell Brian, but I despised his relationship with AJ. I hated that the two of them had bonded over the very thing that had torn the two of us apart. The fact that there was now a small crack in their relationship pleased me to no end. It was time for AJ to step aside; I was clean, I was sober, and Brian and I were on the mend.

“We need to go.” Brian was still talking. “I need to go and see Kevin. We should have been there for him when he was brought in.”

“We’re not leaving until we see the story.” I turned my attention back to Ashley. “We need to see whatever you have written; ideas, an outline, anything!”

“Fine.” Ashley relented. “I’ll show you what I have, but I don’t know what good it’s going to do.”

Ashley turned and motioned for me and Brian to follow her into the back. I could see Brian gazing longingly at the lavish spread of desserts as the three of us moved behind the counter and into the kitchen. Leighanne had the guy on a short leash. I hadn’t seen him eat anything worth eating in ages, aside from the chocolate banana cupcake that he had not-so-subtly inhaled while he was speaking with AJ on the phone.

Ashley led us through the small kitchen and into an even smaller office at the very back of the building. Ignoring the large desktop computer, she sat down at the desk and silently pulled a laptop out of the top drawer. Brian and I wedged ourselves onto the loveseat that occupied the rest of the space and remained equally silent. The skin on Brian’s arm was damp, and I could hear him breathing heavily beside me. He was clearly just as nervous as I was, if not more.

“Here.” Ashley spun the laptop in our direction and leaned back in her chair. “That’s all I have.”

I pulled the small computer off of the desk and placed it on my lap. Brian leaned over so that he could read the screen and the two of us skimmed the information in silence. Ashley hadn’t been lying; the only unfamiliar item on the screen was a brief story outline.

“I’m going to get stabbed?” Brian’s face had turned ashen. “Jesus.”

Ashley shrugged in embarrassment. “It’s nothing personal. Readers tend to like it when the really bad stuff happens to you.”

“It could be worse.” I interrupted. “Apparently, I’m going to get shot.”

“And readers always enjoy it when the really, really, bad stuff happens to Nick.” Ashley finished. “You guys seriously can’t take it personally.”

“I know.” I had read enough fan fiction to understand that the fans loved it when I got maimed, killed, or developed a life-threatening disease. It was a bit twisted, but I had to admit that those plot lines often made for the best stories. “We know that you don’t actually want us to die.”

“But we might!” Brian sounded like he was on the verge of a breakdown. He turned his attention to Ashley. “If you write that one of us dies then it will happen in real life.”

“I – I haven’t killed any of you yet.” Ashley still looked as though she were trying to wrap her head around the situation. “In the next chapter, Kevin is supposed to wake up ...”

“Then, you need to write that chapter right now!” Brian was now officially losing it. His eyes were wide and wild. “If you write that Kevin will be okay, then he will be!”

“And then what?” Ashley challenged. “Even if I write that Kevin wakes up and turns out to be perfectly fine, the two of you will still end up getting hurt. Is that what you want?”

“You don’t have to finish the story.” My mind was formulating the idea as I spoke. “All you have to do is post the chapter about Kevin and then discontinue the story. If you do that, everything will be fine.”

Ashley looked sceptical. “Are you sure?”

I shook my head. “No, but it’s the best idea that I have at the moment.”

“It will work.” Brian was forcing the confidence into his voice. “It has to work.”
Chapter 20: Reality Bites by KeepThisSecret
** HOWIE **

“Come on, Kev, wake up, wake up.”

I studied Kevin’s face to see if my chanting was having the desired effect. Nothing. I let out a sigh, sank back against the hard, plastic chair and rubbed at my swollen eyes. I didn’t know how much more of this I was going to be able to take. All I wanted to do was call Leigh and let her sooth away my fears. Of course, calling my wife and telling her the truth wasn’t an option. All I could do was sit and stare at Kevin’s lifeless form and listen to the steady beep of the machines that were doing their best to keep him alive.

“This blows.”

AJ was slumped back in his wheelchair on the other side of the room. In my misery, I had forgotten that the doctors had even agreed to let him join me. He had been staring at the ceiling for the past two hours; his eyes open but unfocused. To say that he wasn’t being the strong support system that I needed would be an understatement.

“No shit.” My voice was raspy from lack of use. “What do you want me to do about it?”

“Nothing.” AJ shook his head and checked the time on his phone. “Brian and Nick should be back soon.”

“Wonderful.”

I resisted the urge to say what I was really thinking; that it would be better if they didn’t come back. AJ may have chosen to forgive Brian and Nick for taking off, but I wasn’t ready to put aside my anger. The two of them had abandoned us, plain and simple. They didn’t deserve to be forgiven.

“You’ve got to let it go, Howie. Brian apologized. He said that he and Nick would explain ...”

Damn AJ for being able to read my mind. I hated that he knew me so well. Every time that I wanted to hold a grudge, AJ was always the person who was able to convince me otherwise. I swear half of the time he didn’t even know that he had managed to talk me out of it. Well, it wasn’t going to work this time. I was hurt. Nick hadn’t confided in me. For the past three years, Nick had told me everything. Why had he suddenly decided that I wasn’t worth talking to?

“Brian said that he and Nick have some new information ...”

AJ was still talking, but I was barely listening. I knew exactly why Nick had chosen not to confide in me. It was because Brian had suddenly decided that he wanted Nick back in his life. Something must have shifted in Brian’s personal life, because he was suddenly overly invested in re-establishing his relationship with Nick. Of course, Nick had leapt at the opportunity to have his best friend back. Nick had always valued Brian more than Brian had valued him. Unfortunately for Nick, he still didn’t realize that his precious “Frick and Frack” relationship was lopsided. What was it about Brian that made it so easy for both Nick and AJ to continuously take his side? Sometimes their loyalty towards the goofy southerner made me want to slam my head against the wall.

“D, are you even listening to me?”

“Mmmmmhmmmm” I hummed. “I’m listening.”

Maybe I could find out from AJ what had changed in Brian’s life. I figured that it must have something to do with Leighanne, but I wasn’t exactly sure. It was no secret that Brian’s wife was less than fond of Nick and his past behaviour.

“What did I just say?” AJ challenged. “I know that you weren’t paying any attention to me.”

“Sorry, AJ, you’re right I was totally zoned.” I admitted. “What were you saying?”

“Is Kevin awake?!” Nick burst through the door with enough force to wake the dead, cutting AJ off before he could even open his mouth. “Is he okay?!”

“Did it work?!” Brian was only steps behind Nick; his face flushed and his voice equally hopeful. “Is Kev okay?”

I couldn’t help it. I exchanged a ‘what the fuck?’ look with AJ as Nick and Brian practically fell over each other trying to reach the side of Kevin’s bed. The two of them often exhibited bizarre behaviour, but their level of excitement in such a sombre situation was strange even for them.

“Does he look awake?” My comment was biting, and I instantly felt bad as I watched the hope drain from Nick’s face.

“No. I mean – we just – we thought that ...” Brian stammered, his face falling. “It didn’t work!”

“What?” AJ looked baffled. “What didn’t work?”

“I don’t understand. She posted it!” Nick protested. “We saw her post it!”

I was well aware of the fact that my mouth was hanging open in confusion, but I couldn’t bring myself to say anything as I looked back and forth between Brian and Nick. They both looked so disheartened that I was having a hard time holding on to the anger that I had been harbouring only minutes ago. Regardless of what was going on in my head, I hated to see Nick upset. He was my baby brother and I would always feel the need to protect him, to keep him sheltered from the harsh realities of the world.

“I’m sorry, cuz.” Brian reached out and placed his hand over top of Kevin’s. He drew his eyes up to the multitude of beeping monitors and wiped at his cheeks with his free hand. “I really thought that it would work.”

“Hello?” AJ was becoming increasingly agitated. “What the fuck are you two going on about? Did you really think that Kevin was going to magically wake up when you two dumb-shits walked into the room?”

“We thought that we had it all figured out.” Brian answered cryptically. “We thought that Kevin was going to be okay.”

“There’s still a good chance that he will be okay.” I addressed my comment towards Nick who was now crying silently next to Brian. “There’s a really good chance that he’ll be okay.”

“You guys need to tell us where you went.” AJ demanded. “This is not the time for us to be keeping secrets from one another. Someone is clearly out to get us.”

“We went to Severna Park ...” Nick mumbled. “... to meet a fan.”

“I’m sorry, you did what?” I was barely maintaining my composure. The five of us were being hunted by a psychopath and Nick and Brian were running off to meet random fans. Either the stress of the situation was seriously getting to them, or the two of them were more selfish than I could have ever imagined.

“She writes fan fiction. We thought that her story was predicting our future.” Nick’s face was burning as he attempted to explain himself. “Every time that she posts a new chapter, the events actually start to happen in real life. So, we tracked her down and forced her to discontinue her story.”

“The last chapter that she posted was about Kevin waking up.” Brian added. “So, we thought that he would be awake when we got back ...”

My chin was resting on the floor. Nick and Brain looked as though they were being serious, but there was absolutely no way that what they were saying was true. The two of them had officially lost their minds. Maybe they were hopped up on some kind of drug.

“You two are shitting with us!” AJ voiced what I was thinking. “Where did you really go?”

“Her name’s Ashley.” Nick held out his phone to AJ. “This is her story.”

AJ accepted the phone with a loud sigh and reluctantly dropped his eyes to the screen. It was obvious that he was debating about whether or not to release a stream of obscenities in Nick’s general direction.

“Even if you’re not lying, how did you know about her story in the first place?” AJ kept his eyes glued to the screen as he spoke.

“I kinda, you know, like to read fan fiction ... about us.” Nick shrugged as though his admission was perfectly normal. “That’s what I was reading when you cornered me in the dressing room a few days ago.”

“You like to read stories about yourself?” I couldn’t stop the amusement from sneaking into my voice. “Isn’t fan fiction just a bunch of poorly written crap about us having sex with random women?”

“A lot of the writers have real talent!” There was an edge to Nick’s voice. “I don’t read the sex stuff, just the stories where we go on, ummmm, adventures and get stalked and stuff.”

“We go on adventures?” I pulled my chin off of the floor and raised my eyebrows. “You’re serious about this?”

“Okay, maybe ‘adventures’ was the wrong word.” Nick admitted. “What I’m trying to say is ...”

“Howie, she wrote about you being poisoned with green tea!” AJ interrupted. He raised his eyes to me. “Nobody aside from us and the FBI knew about that. How did this girl write about you being poisoned the day before it happened?”

“That’s what I’m saying!” Nick enthused. “This girl, Ashley, has been predicting all of the horrible stuff that has been happening to us.”

I looked over at AJ who was now nodding at Nick as if he agreed with him. Was I the only one who was still firmly rooted in reality?

“What did the two of you take?”

“You think that I’m on drugs?!” Nick turned to me. He looked utterly crushed by my insinuation. “You think that Brian and I made up this entire situation because we’re on some fucking drug-trip?”

“It all seems a bit farfetched ...” I trailed off as I caught sight of AJ shaking his head; clearly letting me know that I had crossed a line.

“I can’t believe that you would have the balls to say something like that ...”

Nick was interrupted by the appearance of Agent Adams. The portly man gave the four of us the once over before stepping fully into the room.

“Sorry to interrupt.” Agent Adams paused to wipe at his forehead. As usual, he was sweating more than the average human being. He pulled a young woman with long, wavy brown hair into the room by her elbow. “This young lady is claiming that she needs to talk to you.” He turned to direct the rest of his commentary towards Nick. “She was able to provide us with your cell phone number, as well as with Mr. Littrell’s.”

“They threatened me!” The young woman burst into tears as she struggled to pull herself out of Agent Adams’s grip. “They said that they would destroy the café and kill my family if I stopped writing! What am I supposed to do now?” She looked tearfully back and forth between Nick and Brian. “This is all your fault! Why did you have to come and find me?!”

I was well aware of the fact that my eyes were bugging out of my head as I watched Brian and Nick exchange a pained look. It was clear that they knew exactly who this woman was and what she was talking about. I couldn’t believe it; they had been telling the truth.

“Let me guess ...” AJ dropped Nick’s phone into his lap and slowly wheeled himself over towards the distraught young woman. He looked up into her eyes and extended his hand in greeting. “... you’re Ashley?”
Chapter 21: Stolen by KeepThisSecret
** BRIAN **

I kept my eyes locked on Nick as AJ moved to greet Ashley. She was right; this was entirely our fault. What had we done?

“You do know her then?” Agent Adams looked at us rather warily. “I can leave her here with you? It seems as though you all have something that you need to sort out.”

“Yeah.” Nick snapped out of his trance before I could. “It’s fine. She’s our friend.”

“She is, is she?” Agent Adams raised his eyebrows. “Is there anything that I should know about?” He turned to Ashley. “Who threatened you?”

“I don’t know!” Ashley wailed. “After they left and I posted the note about discontinuing the story I got an email from someone claiming that they were going to kill my mom and burn down my business if I didn’t keep writing.”

Oh God, oh God, oh God! This was bad; really bad. I needed to sit down. I needed to vomit. I needed a drink.

“Do you still have the email?” Agent Adams asked. “I’m assuming that the threat that you received has something to do with them.” He nodded towards me and Nick.

“It has everything to do with them!” Ashley exploded. “If they hadn’t come to see me this morning then none of this would have happened!”

“We weren’t trying to hurt you.” My voice was shaking. “We just – We really thought that asking you to discontinue the story was the right thing to do.”

“What am I supposed to do now? I’m not going to jeopardize my mom’s life for the sake of some stupid fan fiction!” Ashley was becoming increasingly irate. She thrust her iPhone into Agent Adams’s hand. “The email is on the screen.”

The pudgy detective rubbed at his swollen eyes and sighed. He looked beyond confused. “I’ll see if my team is able to trace the sender. While I do that, which one of you is going to explain exactly how this online threat has anything to do with the five of you and my current investigation?”

“I will.” Nick mumbled. “This whole thing was my idea.”

“Wonderful.” The sarcasm dripped from Agent Adams’s mouth as he motioned for Nick to follow him out of the room. “I have a feeling that I’m going to need a stiff drink after you’re done with your explanation.”

I watched Nick slink out of the room with a heavy heart. Agent Adams was not going to be happy when he discovered what the two of us had done. We had all promised to keep the circumstances surrounding the accidents a secret. Of course, the two of us had also promised Ashley that we would keep her involvement a secret. So much for keeping our promises; we had let everyone down.

“Soooooo ...” AJ let out a low whistle. “I read some of your story ... it’s good.”

“Oh God!” Ashley’s face crumpled as she released a wave of fresh tears. “Could this day get any worse?!”

I hated it when women cried. The way their faces contorted in sadness made my heart ache. It didn’t matter if I knew them or not. So, when Ashley started to cry, I did the only thing that I could think to do; I crossed the room and pulled her into a tight hug.

Ashley responded by dropping her face into the crook of my neck. Her hair spilled across my shoulder and her breath tickled my skin as I held her close. I knew that Leighanne would have a shit-fit if she could see me with my arms around another woman, but I pushed the thought out of my mind as I slowly ran my hands up and down Ashley’s back. I had put her, her family, and her business in jeopardy. The least that I could do was offer her some comfort.

“I have to finish the story.” Ashley hiccupped into my shoulder. “I have no other choice.”

I tightened my grip on her slender frame. “I’m sure that the FBI will be able to figure out who sent the email. You should wait and see what Agent Adams has to say before you make any decisions.”

“My mom could die!” Ashley ripped herself away from me. “Don’t you care?!”

“Of – Of course I care.” I stuttered. “I didn’t mean ...”

“This is a hard time for all of us.” AJ interrupted. “I think I can safely say that Brian doesn’t want anything terrible to happen to your mom, but he also doesn’t want anything else to happen to any of us either. I don’t know how much he and Nick told you but ...”

“They told me that the events in my story have been coming true.” Ashley cut AJ off and shot me an apologetic look. “I can’t even begin to imagine how hard all of this must have been for you guys.”

“It hasn’t been easy.” Howie looked over at Kevin who was still lying motionless on the bed. “Some of us have had it worse than others.”

Ashley followed Howie’s gaze. She looked dangerously close to tears for the third time. “I didn’t mean for any of this to happen! It was just fiction! I mean, everyone writes this kind of stuff about you guys!”

“They do?” AJ raised his eyebrows. “That’s – That’s weird.”

Ashley’s face was positively scarlet. “It’s weird now that you know about it”

“I feel as though I should read what you’ve written.” Howie admitted. “Do you mind?”

“Mind? Why would I mind now?” Ashley shrugged. “Your friends have already read it. Everyone already thinks that I’m a complete psycho.”

“Nobody thinks that you’re a psycho.” I nodded in AJ’s direction so that he would back me up. “Right?”

“”Right.” AJ confirmed. “You’re pretty talented. You should try writing a real book.”

“The only thing that Ms. Bass will be writing in the near future is the rest of her story. Her ... what’s it called? Fan fiction?” Agent Adams re-entered the room. His face was a mixture of exasperation and amusement. “According to Mr. Carter, her story is the key to solving this case.”

“You want me to finish the story?” Ashley looked from me to Nick to Agent Adams and back again. “How is it supposed to end?”

Agent Adams rolled his eyes. He clearly thought that the entire situation was absurd. “End it however you want. I don’t care what happens as long as you put someone else in a dangerous situation and soon.”

Ashley opened her mouth to question Dave’s instructions, but I beat her to it. “How exactly is Ashley continuing to write about us getting maimed going to help us?”

My question elicited another eye roll from the overweight man. “If Mr. Carter is correct in his assumption that whoever is targeting you is reading Ms. Bass’s story and copying the plot then the un-sub will likely continue to carry out whatever gruesome event that Ms. Bass writes next. Only, this time, we will have read the chapter before the un-sub.” Agent Adams explained his theory slowly, as if he were speaking to a room full of toddlers. “Ms. Bass will stay with the group until she finishes the story, or until my team is able to apprehend the un-sub; whichever comes first.” He turned to address Ashley directly as he delivered his final set of instructions. “You will always stay two chapters ahead of what you post on the site and you will always let my team read what you have written before you publish it online. Do you understand?”

“I don’t see why I have to uproot my entire life. I have a business to run and ...”

Agent Adams cut Ashley off before she could finish. “Ms. Bass, we have traced the IP address of the person who sent you that threatening email. It came from your restaurant.”

“It – It came from – from the Blueberry?” Ashley’s face had changed from beat red to sickeningly white. “I don’t understand. How is that possible?”

Noticing that Ashley was looking a bit unsteady on her feet, I shot my hand out and rested it against the small of her back. I had a horrible vision of her crashing to the floor and suffering a life-altering concussion; another terrible thing that I would unintentionally be responsible for.

“Until we figure that out, you will remain under the watchful eye of the FBI.” Agent Adams no longer looked exasperated. His face had turned stony; overly serious. “Do you understand what I’m asking you to do?”

Ashley nodded, her body swaying slightly against my fingers. “How soon do you expect me to have the next chapter written? I haven’t even started ...”

“As soon as possible.” Agent Adams clipped, not bothering to wait for her to finish speaking. “Someone has already been sent to collect your laptop and your personal belongings.” He turned to leave, but quickly changed his mind. “Who is the next target?”

“Excuse me?” Ashley appeared to be in a bit of a daze.

“In the story ...” Agent Adams was back to appearing exasperated. “Who is supposed to be hurt next? Have you thought that far ahead?”

“Oh.” Ashley slowly drew her eyes up to mine. She looked needlessly guilty. “Brian – Brian is the one who gets hurt next.”

“Ahhh ...” Agent Adams turned his attention to me. He didn’t look concerned, merely indifferent. “I figured as much.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?!” Nick charged. His face was turning blotchy; a sure sign that he was getting ready to unleash hell on the moody agent. “You’re supposed to be helping us and your best suggestion is that Ashley continues to write about us being tortured so that some nut-job can make her words come true?! When I told you my theory, I was expecting you to help us, to help Ashley. All you and your fucking team are doing is making everything worse! Do you really expect me to stand here and do nothing when I hear that my best fr – that Brian is about to get hurt? I’m not a selfish prick like you!”

Nick was on a roll. The words were spraying from his mouth in a torrent of anger and frustration, and Agent Adams was doing nothing to calm him down. The pudgy man was simply staring at Nick as though he were a spoiled teenager throwing a tantrum over his curfew. Instead, it was Howie who moved to comfort Nick; his brain sending the signal to his feet to move before mine had even finished processing the idea that I was next on the chopping block.

I caught Howie’s eye as he gently placed his hand on Nick’s shoulder and turned him away from Agent Adams’s expressionless face. It was obvious that Howie had heard Nick’s slip; that Howie knew that he had once again been replaced. The anger that radiated through our split second exchange shouldn’t have been surprising, but it was. It was no secret that Howie resented my presence, both in the group and in Nick’s life. Two decades ago, I had walked into a European recording studio and stolen Howie’s title as lead singer, and now I had just stolen another title from him; a title that probably meant more to him than all the lead vocals in the world. In Howie’s eyes, I had clearly just robbed him of his best friend, and I didn’t doubt that he would never forgive me for it.
Chapter 22: The Show Must Go On by KeepThisSecret
** KEVIN **

Nick was whining, AJ was bitching, Howie was uncharacteristically sullen, and my cousin was being an idiot. It was all enough to make me wish that I hadn’t woken up.

“Are you sure that you don’t remember anything else?” Agent Adams was peering into my face with forced concern. Little balls of sweat were rolling down his temples and dampening the collar of his well-worn striped shirt. He looked as though he wanted to be anywhere but standing next to my hospital bed, and I didn’t blame him.

“I’m sure.” I repeated the statement, trying to make myself sound convincing. Truthfully, I knew that there was something that I was forgetting.

I had gone over the situation again and again, both in my mind and aloud to Agent Adams and the other guys.

I had left the hotel to get coffee.

I had gone out alone even though I had been explicitly instructed not to go anywhere without security.

I had bumped into some guy on the street.

I had spilled coffee on his expensive shoes.

I had been ambushed by another man.

I had tried to run away.

I had seen his face.

I had seen his face. That’s the part that was giving me the most trouble. I knew that I had seen the man’s face, yet I couldn’t remember what he looked like. Every time that I tried to picture my attacker all that I was able to conjure up was a big, grey blob. The worst part was that I knew that I had recognized him. Before I had blacked out, I had known his name. Now, I knew nothing aside from the fact that I had been beaten so badly that I had been in a coma for nearly two days.

“It’s okay, cuz.” Brian gave me a smile that was just as forced as my conviction. “You did good.”

I pushed my head back into my pillow and squeezed my eyes shut. Maybe if I kept my eyes closed they would all just go away. I couldn’t stand the forced cheerfulness, the looks of sympathy, or the unmistakeable exchanges of concern.

“Have you heard from Ashley yet?” Nick’s voice filtered through my closed eyelids. “Has she written the next chapter?”

“I’m expecting to hear from her sometime today.” Agent Adams’s reply was terse, agitated. “I’ll let you guys know.”

I wanted to groan. I wanted to roll my eyes. I wanted to jump out of the bed and slap Nick in his stupid face. The entire Ashley situation was a load of shit. As if some random fan fiction writer was predicting our future! The thing that I still didn’t understand was how Nick had managed to convince the FBI to go along with his ridiculous theory. These people were supposed to be highly trained professionals, but I was beginning to have my doubts. Anyone who blindly followed Nick was an idiot; hence, the reason why I was currently so annoyed with Brian.

“Actually, I was hoping to speak to you all about the plan going forward.” Agent Adams was still speaking. “I know that we had initially tossed around the idea of cancelling the tour ...”

I kept my eyes firmly closed. I was not going to weigh in on this discussion. I was just going to let the other guys decide. I was tired of being the leader, of being the ‘big brother’. If I had managed to keep my opinions on the fan fiction nonsense to myself then I could definitely keep my mouth closed when Agent Adams told us that we had to cancel the tour. That’s what we should have done in the first place, but Howie had convinced Nick to keep going, and then Brian and AJ had followed dutifully along like a couple of retarded sheep. It’s not like my opinion had made a lick of difference anyway.

“We’ve actually decided that it would be better for you all to continue performing ...”

My eyes flew open; so much for not getting involved. “What?!”

“Ashley has indicated that it will be easier for her to continue her story if the five of you remain together.” Agent Adams paused as he took in the fact that all of my monitors were currently beeping like crazy as a result of my increasing anxiety. “She specifically suggested that it would be best if you kept performing.”

“Jesus Christ!” I exploded, sending the monitors into a frenzy. “We are NOT going to keep performing because some fucked up fan says that it will be better for her fucking story! This whole deal with Ashley is a load of shit!” I turned to Nick as I continued. “The others may be too afraid to tell you that you’re an idiot, but I’m not! You’re delusional if you think that Ashley is the answer to our problems. She’s nothing but some crazy fan with too much time on her hands who likes to write about the five of us fucking ...”

“Kevin!” Brian was on his feet; clearly torn between comforting Nick who was cowering in the corner like a wounded animal and screaming at me. “You have no right to speak to Nick like that! You weren’t there when we met Ashley, and you haven’t even read what she’s written ...”

“I know that I wasn’t there, Brian!” I spat. “I wasn’t there because I was busy getting my head beaten in by the person who is trying to kill us! I’m sorry that I didn’t have time to weigh in on the discussion while I was unconscious and fighting for my life!”

“Kev, that’s not what Brian meant ...” AJ started, but I cut him off at rapid speed.

“Stop defending him! I’m so tired of the two of you backing each other up like you’re fucking Lucy and Ethel. This is real life AJ! You need to grow a pair and stop agreeing with whatever it is that comes out of Brian’s mouth.” I was on a roll; the monitors beeping uncontrollably as proof of my rage. “I did not get the shit kicked out of me for nothing! We are going to let the FBI do their job and catch the person who is responsible for putting you in that wheelchair, for poisoning Howie, and for making me lose two full days of my life.”

“It’s not like I can’t get around without the wheelchair ...” AJ mumbled. “It’s hospital policy that’s all.”

“Enough!” I screamed. “Stop making excuses, AJ! We are not continuing with the tour!”

“We should all get a vote, Kev.” Brian argued.

“No!” I shouted. “We will not vote on this again!”

“You don’t have any choice.” Agent Adams deadpanned. “Once you and Mr. McLean are feeling better, the tour will continue. It’s already been decided.”

“Who made that decision?” I challenged, shooting daggers at the others. “Did you all sign something while I was unconscious? That’s so fucking typical ...”

“I’m the one who decided.” Agent Adams owned up to his actions. “I think it’s the only way that we’re going to catch the person who’s after you. Like I said before, if you all go your separate ways it will be nearly impossible for us to keep tabs on all of you. It will be easier if you stay together, if you follow the script that Ashley is writing for you.”

“Jesus ...” I ran a hand through the rough stubble on my face and forced myself not to launch into another round of insults and accusations. Everyone around me had clearly lost all of their common sense.

“Give it a chance, Kev.” Nick’s voice was soft, wounded. “Maybe Ashley will surprise you. Maybe I’ll surprise you.”

“Nick ...” I paused, unsure of what it was that I wanted to say. I hated it when Nick looked as if I’d let him down. I hated to think that I had hurt him. He was my baby brother, and he needed me to be strong. He needed me to believe in him. “...is this really what you think is right? Do you really want to carry on with the tour, with the lies? If we keep going, you’ll have to keep lying to Lauren. Is that really how you want to start your marriage?”

“Nobody’s lying, cuz.” Brian butted in. “We’re just withholding information. There’s a difference.”

“We lied about Howie being sick, and we lied about AJ’s fall being an accident.” I clenched and unclenched my fingers as I struggled to refrain from screaming at my little cousin. For someone who was so open and honest about his faith and the importance of being a good Christian, Brian sure did have a way of circumventing the truth whenever it suited him. “Or did you tell Leighanne the truth about what’s been going on?”

It was Brian’s turn to look wounded. “I would never tell her ...”

“It’s not like you haven’t gone behind our backs before.” I interrupted; my anger bubbling to the surface. “Your wife is not the sixth member of this group ...”

“He said that he didn’t tell her!” Nick raised his voice to cover mine. “I don’t want us to fight right now. I don’t want us to not trust each other.”

“Trust is a funny thing, Nick.” Howie spoke for the first time since the discussion had begun. “Once you lose it, it’s almost impossible to get it back.”

I was momentarily derailed by Howie’s cryptic statement and the others’ reactions. AJ dropped his eyes to the floor, Brian looked unquestionably guilty, and Nick simply stared at Howie in confusion. Something had happened while I was unconscious; something bigger than Ashley and the whole fan fiction nonsense.

“So, it’s settled then?” Agent Adams brought us all back to the moment with a loud smack of his Halls. “You’ll continue the tour?”

“Fine.” I gave up, just like I always did. “We’ll keep touring, but only with increased security and with your guarantee that the FBI will be doing everything in their power to catch the person who’s clearly trying to kill us.”

“We’re doing our best, Mr. Richardson.” Agent Adams forced a smile. “Of that, you have my word.”
Chapter 23: Back On Your Leash by KeepThisSecret
** AJ **

“You’re all clear.” The young physiotherapist smiled and gently patted my leg. “Just remember to take it easy.”

“That’s it?” I couldn’t stop the nerves from showing in my voice. “It’s only been a week...”

“Like I told you when we first met, you were incredibly lucky.” Lucy smiled as she picked up my chart. “It’s a miracle that you didn’t die, that you weren’t paralyzed ...”

“A miracle, huh?” I snorted. “Do you really believe in those?”

“All I know is that you somehow managed to walk away from a very serious accident with virtually no long-term repercussions. I don’t know how or why you were so lucky, so it seems pretty miraculous to me.”

“Just go with the miracle thing.” Brian laughed. “The big guy was clearly looking out for you. That’s not such a bad thought, is it?”

“I suppose not.” I conceded. “I’m just not into the whole miracle idea.”

“Call it whatever you want.” Lucy laughed. “Regardless of how you look at it, you’re okay to return to performing. You may just want to lay off of the intense dance routines for the next little while. If you need anything, or if you start to feel any pain, just give me a call. Even if you’re out of state, I can refer you to another physiotherapist.”

“We’ll have someone travelling with us.” I forced a smile; picturing Damien’s massive hands in relation to Lucy’s delicate, manicured fingers.

“Good.” Lucy gave my leg one final pat before handing me my discharge papers. “You have my number if you need me.” She turned to Brian as she began backing out of the room. “Bye, Brian.”

“Bye, Luce. Thanks again for taking such good care of him. I’ll take it from here.” Brian grinned.

“Luce?” I imitated Brian’s southern drawl once I was sure that Lucy was safely out of earshot. “Really?”

“What?” Brian defended himself. “You’re the reason that I had to spend so much time with her. I was just being polite.”

“Get my shit, Romeo.” I nodded towards the duffle bag that was lying next to the bed. “What would your wifey say?”

Brian frowned. “I was being polite is all.” He slung my duffle bag over his shoulder and positioned his hands on my wheelchair. “You ready for this?”

It was my turn to frown. “To leave the hospital; yes. To return to the stage; no.”

Brian was quiet as he wheeled me down the hallway towards the elevator. He waited until we were alone in the lift before he spoke again. “Do you think this is gonna work?”

The tremor in Brian’s voice was un-disguisable. I knew that he was referring to the FBI’s plan to capitalize on the fact that the person who was targeting us was following the events of Ashley’s story. Ashley had already admitted that Brian was next on the chopping block, and Agent Adams had informed us a few hours ago that she was finally ready to post the next chapter. If Nick and the FBI were right, and the un-sub continued to copy the events of Ashley’s story, then Brian’s life would be in jeopardy as soon as the chapter hit the Internet.

The elevator doors pinged open and I squinted my eyes against the brightness of the sun as Brian wheeled me through the double doors leading to the parking lot. Two beefy men that I didn’t recognize, but who were clearly there for our security, were standing next to a large SUV with blacked out windows; clearly subtlety wasn’t the FBI’s strong suit.

“Aje?” Brian pressed. “What do you think?”

“I think ...” I paused as I got to my feet and turned to face the man who quite possibly knew me better than anyone else in the world. “I think that I don’t want you to get hurt.”

“I’m not gonna get hurt.” Brian stared back at me, his lack of confidence visible in his eyes. “That’s the whole point of us continuing on ... so that no one else has to get hurt.”

You don’t even believe what you’re saying. So, how can you possibly expect me to believe it?” I continued to search Brian’s face as I challenged his words; taking in the wrinkles, and the worry, and the stress. I felt like I was looking at a person that I barely recognized.

“It doesn’t matter if I get hurt. If that’s what it takes to keep everyone else safe, to make this all stop, then it will be worth it.”

Brian looked old. The thought slapped me in the face as I struggled to find the words to express just how badly I didn’t want anything to happen to him. It was the first time that the thought had ever entered my mind. For the first time in my life, I was seeing the real Brian; the one with crow’s feet and thinning hair. This was the Brian who was stressed and struggling to keep up the persona of having a perfect life. This was the Brian who so often came across as a self-righteous prick because he was scared of losing his voice, of losing everything in his life that really mattered to him. The thought was unnerving and I could feel myself starting to break down. I couldn’t lose him; we couldn’t lose him.

“The voices are five.” I whispered. “It’s not really us unless we all stay together.”

“AJ, if any one of us were to ...”

I help up my hand for Brian to stop. “We’re five. That’s how we started and that’s how we’re gonna finish.”

The ride back to the hotel was quiet. Brian and I spent the time looking out the windows, both of us not-so-discreetly wiping at our eyes and unsuccessfully trying to convince the other through our respective silence that we were okay with what was about to happen.

“They’re all waiting for you.” The larger of the two men, who had introduced himself as Stephen, informed us as we pulled into the hotel’s underground parking garage.

“I know.” Brian wiggled his phone for emphasis. “Nick just let me know that everyone’s in our room.”

The elevator ride was just as quiet as the drive over. All I wanted to do was have a cigarette and rant about the stupidity of the FBI’s plan. Instead, I clenched my hands into fists and allowed Brian to direct me down the hallway towards the room that he was sharing with Nick. I stole a quick glance at his face as he swiped his room card and pushed open the door; he was just as nervous as I was.

“You guys made good time.” Kevin spoke first as Brian and I entered the room.

“No traffic.” Brian announced. He sank down on the couch next to Nick, purposefully leaving enough space for me to sit on the other side of him.

Pretending not to notice the fact that Kevin was sitting alone on the larger sofa, I sat down in the space that Brian had left for me and looked quickly around the room. Agent Adams was thumbing through some papers, Howie and Kevin were fidgeting with their phones, Nick was picking at his sweatpants, and Ashley was tapping away at her laptop.

“Okay!” Agent Adams dropped the papers to his lap and clapped his hands loudly. He smiled broadly at Ashley before looking at the rest of us. “Are we ready to get started?”

“Sure.” Brian forced a smile at Ashley who looked like she wanted to throw up. “Let’s see what you’ve got.”

“Remember that I can still make changes ...” Ashley trailed off as Agent Adams began to distribute what I assumed were printed copies of the upcoming chapter to the five of us. “Obviously, I haven’t posted it yet.”

“This is a load of fucking shit.”

I could hear Kevin swearing under his breath as I looked down at the pieces of paper in my hands. Unbeknownst to the others, I had read Ashley’s story in its’ entirety while in the hospital, so I was now fully caught up. The way in which she portrayed our relationships was uncanny and several times I had caught myself struggling to distinguish fact from fiction. There was no doubting the fact that the girl was talented, but I still found it strange that she would want to waste her talent writing about us. I wasn’t sure of her motivation, seeing as how she didn’t come across as crazy or overly infatuated with us. To the contrary, Ashley seemed unnoticeably average.

While I had devoured every single detail of the chapters that were already online, I was only hastily skimming the words that had just been placed in front of me. All I wanted to know was what was in store for Brian. I would concentrate on the details later.

“No.” I began shaking my head as I flipped to the third page and the word ‘stabbed’ practically jumped off the page. “I don’t like it.”

“How the hell are you on page three?” Nick’s eyes widened. “I’m only like halfway through the first page!”

“Well, reading isn’t exactly your forté, Nicky.” Howie chuckled. “But don’t worry, this isn’t a competition.”

“I’m being fucking serious!” I curled my fingers around the edges of the papers, creasing them in anger. “This is serious, Howie!”

Howie looked taken aback by my anger. “I was just trying to lighten the mood ...”

“I can change it!” Ashley jumped in, her voice shaking. “I can change it.”

“Damn right, you’re fucking going to change it.” My voice was rising. “This is ...”

“It’s fine.” Brian interrupted. He placed his hand lightly on my arm before giving Ashley a genuine smile. “It’s fine the way it is. It – It doesn’t seem too bad.”

“Doesn’t seem too bad?” I parroted, waving the papers in Brian’s face. “Are you out of your fucking mind?”

“I think AJ’s right.” Nick had finally flipped to page three and was now shaking his head right along with me. “Brian being stabbed is ... is ....”

“Is not going to happen.” Kevin threw his copy of the chapter onto the coffee table and rubbed roughly at his face. “I still think that this whole idea is a load of shit.”

“Mr. Richardson, I refuse to go over this with you again.” Agent Adams sighed. “The FBI thinks that this is a viable way to locate the un-sub ...”

“I know.” Kevin rolled his eyes. “I know.”

“Brian getting stabbed by some nutter lurking in the fan-pit is not a viable way to catch anyone.” I argued. “Can’t he just like slip and fall or something?”

“A little fall would be okay.” Nick nodded vigorously to back me up. “We don’t want Brian to get, like, seriously hurt.”

“Yeah, we wouldn’t want him to end up like me, or AJ, or Kevin.” Howie rolled his eyes at Nick. “That would be terrible.”

“It would be terrible!” Nick shot back. “You sound like you want Brian to get stabbed!”

“I’m just saying that I’m getting pretty tired of the five of us being held to different standards.” Howie retorted. “Brian should be willing to do what he has to do to help the rest of us. What’s good for Brian is not always what’s good for the rest of us.”

“Don’t be a dick!” Nick was on his feet, jabbing his finger at Howie’s face. “I know what you’re getting at and this situation has nothing to do with that one! You know that he’s working on his voice; you know that it’s not his fault. We all made the decision to give him the parts that we did. I was against it just as much as you were, in the beginning, but it’s different now.”

“Are you telling me that you’re over it, Nick?” Howie got to his feet and stared definitely up into the taller man’s face. “What did he say to make you forget? What did he say to get you back on your leash?”

“Don’t say shit like that.” Nick’s voice had gone from hard to shaky. “You have no right to say shit like that.”

“You know that it’s the truth.” Howie continued. “Why do you always try to pretend like it’s not?”

“We’re supposed to be a team.” Nick shook his head. “Why are you being like this?”

“A team?” It was Howie’s turn to shake his head. “You’re delusional.”

“I’m not the one telling Brian that he needs to be stabbed in order to even out some imaginary score!” Nick shouted. “You’re the one who’s fucking delusional, baby!”

“Even the score?” Howie’s laugh was maniacal. “A little flesh wound wouldn’t even begin to make up for ...”

“Enough!” Kevin roared so loudly that I flinched. “Both of you are going to sit the fuck down and shut up!”

“No, Kev, I’m not going to sit the fuck down and shut up!” Howie argued. “I won’t. Not this time.”

“Y’all clearly have some other issues going on.” Agent Adams stood up from his chair and gave us all a hard stare. “The chapter is fine the way it is.” He turned to Ashley who was frozen to the spot and staring up at Howie and Nick with her mouth slightly open. “You’re going to post it immediately. Let’s go.”

“Right.” Ashley snapped her mouth shut and hastily stood up, clutching her laptop to her chest. “Right. I’ll just – err – post it now then.”

Kevin waited until Ashley and Agent Adams had left the room before he repeated his command. “Both of you need to sit down so we can talk this out. Clearly, we all have a bigger fucking problem then the lunatic who’s after us.”
Chapter 24: Pickles by KeepThisSecret
** NICK **

I couldn’t remember a time when I had been this mad at Howie. Hell, I couldn’t even remember a time when I had been even the littlest bit mad at Howie. It’s like he had all of a sudden become this completely different person. I continued to glare at him as Kevin droned on and on about us needing to speak to each other from a place of love and respect. As if I had any love left for Howie at this point!

To his credit, Howie wasn’t backing down. He, too, was staring at Kevin, but I could tell that he wasn’t listening to a word that he was saying. I could practically see the smoke billowing out of his ears as he absently cracked his knuckles. For the first time in twenty-one years, I was getting a glimpse of the ‘real’ Howie. For the first time, I was able to see the cracks in Howie’s easy-going facade.

He was jealous. He probably always had been, but none of us had been perceptive enough to notice. Or, if we had noticed, we had simply pretended not to. I knew that I, for one, was guilty of the latter. I knew that Howie hated the fact that he was always pushed aside, relegated to the background both in life and in the studio. That’s why we had allowed him to be more of a focus on the new record. That’s just the thing; we had allowed him to move into the foreground, but we hadn’t all necessarily wanted him to. The reality of the situation was harsh, but none of us could deny it. As amazing as Howie’s voice was, it would never be a replacement for Brian’s. If Howie took on more of the lead vocals, we would have a new sound, a great sound, but we wouldn’t have the Backstreet sound.

I guess I hadn’t realized just how much Howie valued the fact that the two of us had grown closer. I suppose a part of me just couldn’t let go of the idea that Howie only saw me as a little kid that he had to protect, nurture, and take pity on simply because no one else would. Never had it occurred to me that maybe, just maybe, Howie needed my friendship just as much as I needed his.

With Brian back in the picture, I had once again downgraded Howie to the background of my life. It was pathetic that I constantly treated Howie like a backup friend; someone to turn to when I felt that Brian had deserted me. I knew that Howie was waiting for me to make a choice, but I also knew that he wasn’t going to like my decision. Friendship, like love, is often blind and it was obvious that Howie knew that.

“Are we clear?”

I stared into Kevin’s face and tried to convince him that I had been paying attention. What had he been talking about? What had he just asked us? I really should learn to listen when other people are speaking.

“Whatever.” Howie stood up and shot me one final look of disdain. “It’s obvious that you guys don’t want to hear what I have to say. You never do.”

“Howie, that’s not what I was saying.” Kevin shook his head in defeat as Howie brushed past him and headed for the door. “Did you not hear a single word that I just said?”

“Apparently not!” Howie slammed the door behind him, leaving the rest of us to stare at each other in awkward silence.

“Just once I would like to have a meeting that doesn’t end in a shouting match. Is that too much to ask?” Kevin broke the silence with his rhetorical question before standing up and striding towards the door. “I’m going to see if Howie will speak to me ... alone.”

“I need a drink.” Brian waited until his cousin had left the room before leaning forward and placing his head in his hands. It was the first time that he had spoken since Howie and I had started shouting at each other. “I’m the reason that Howie feels the way that he does.”

“No you’re not.” I looked longingly at the mini-bar. “I’m the one who treated him like shit.”

“If you fellas are gonna get your drink on then that’s my cue to bounce.” AJ hoisted himself off of the couch and dropped his hand onto Brian’s shoulder. “I’m still not happy with what Ashley wrote. Agent Adams had no right to tell her to post the chapter. We should have all agreed to the content before she uploaded it.”

“Howie’s right, AJ. It’s my turn to take one for the team.” Brian’s voice was muffled by his hands. “There’s no way that you can argue with that.”

“I can argue with anything.” AJ grinned. “I can also keep you safe. Remember that.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” I crossed the room and yanked open the liquor cabinet, selecting two mini bottles of scotch. “What are you planning to do?”

“Nothing.” AJ avoided my eyes as he shook his head. “Don’t overdo it.”

“What?” I dropped back down onto the couch next to Brian and shoved one of the bottles of scotch into his hands before twisting the cap off of the remaining bottle. “Don’t overdo what?”

“That.” AJ nodded in the direction of the mini-bar. “Promise.”

“I promise nothing.” Brian tore the cap off of his bottle and downed the scotch in one quick swallow. He grimaced as he tossed the empty bottle onto the coffee table. “I just need a few hours of not being able to think.”

A little over an hour later, Brian had exactly what he wanted. After cleaning out the mini-bar, the two of us had stumbled down to the hotel bar with two rather disgruntled members of our new security team in tow. Once downstairs, we ordered another round of shots and a pitcher of Stella before collapsing into a large booth nestled towards the back of the establishment.

“Let’s get nachos!” I announced, banging my pint glass against the wooden table. “Do you want nachos?”

“Yes!” Brian grinned sloppily back at me. “Like, the food type. Not your ugly ass dog.”

“Nacho is a beautiful creature!” I shot back while signalling for the waitress. “He would be offended to know that you think otherwise.”

Brian let out a loud, southern cackle. “All I would have to do is give him a treat and all would be forgiven.”

“Why would someone ever need to forgive you?”

I snorted in appreciation and looked up, expecting to see the waitress. Instead, Ashley was standing beside our table holding a massive, colourful cocktail and looking suitably buzzed.

“I can do bad things.” Brian flashed a Cheshire cat grin and motioned for Ashley to join us. “Right, Nick?”

“Uhhhhhh, yeah ...” I struggled to simultaneously focus my eyes and my mind as Ashley slid into the booth next to Brian. “You do real bad stuff.”

“See?” Brian was still grinning like an idiot. “I told you.”

“What are you doing down here all by yourself?” I turned my fuzzy eyes to Ashley while, once again, signalling for the waitress.

“After what happened earlier, I just – I just ...”

“You just needed to forget.” Brian offered. “I get it.”

“The fight was my fault.” Ashley took a long sip of her drink and ran her finger along a crack in the wooden table. “All of this is my fault.”

“You’re not the one who decided that we all needed to agree about what you wrote.” I argued. “You should have just posted the chapter without giving us any advanced notice. That way we all could have just read it and accepted it for what it already was.”

Brian nodded. “You should just post the rest of the story now. Do you have any more of it written?”

“I have the next few chapters written. I could access it through my iCloud account.” Ashley raised her eyes to meet mine. “In my most recent chapter, you’re the target.”

“Post it.” I gulped my beer; the alcohol giving me courage. “Do it right now.”

Ashley’s eyes darted back and forth between me and Brian. “Are you guys serious? Agent Adams will be livid if I mess up his investigation. What if he decides not to offer me or my family protection?”

“He won’t.” I motioned for Ashley to hand me her phone. “I’ll take full responsibility.”

“Nick ...” Brian’s voice wavered as he watched Ashley slowly slide her phone across the table. “Are you sure about this?”

“This will make us stop fighting.” I squinted at the screen, struggling to navigate Ashley’s phone with my blurry vision. “This will give Howie what he wants.”

“What Howie said was awful.” Ashley looked close to tears. “I feel totally responsible ...”

“What Howie said earlier had nothing to do with you.”I shook my head. “Brian and I should be the ones apologizing to you. We’re the ones who dragged you into this mess, who put your life and your family’s life in jeopardy.”

“I started it all with my stupid fan fiction. I don’t know what I was thinking. I’m thirty-three years old. I shouldn’t even be wasting my time writing about you guys.” Ashley took another long sip of her drink. “You guys must think that I’m a huge loser who lives alone with, like, a thousand cats.”

“I only pictured you having, like, three cats.” Brian laughed. “Not a thousand.” He chugged the remainder of his beer and promptly refilled his glass. “You shouldn’t feel bad about anything that’s happened. It’s not your fault that someone decided to use your story as a way to actually hurt us.”

“But if I’d never posted it in the first place ...” Ashley trailed off and downed the rest of her cocktail. She banged her empty glass on the table just as the waitress finally arrived. “For the record, I do have one cat. His name is Pickles.”

“Pickles, huh?” My stomach rumbled as I turned to the waitress. “We’ll have nachos, and deep-fried pickles, and more beer.”

“And another glass.” Brian interrupted, nodding at Ashley. “For the pretty lady with only one cat.”

The waitress rolled her eyes and quickly retreated from the table, mumbling something about deserving a good tip and that the restaurant didn’t even offer deep-fried pickles. I watched her ass as she left; my thoughts turning to Lauren and all of the things that I would be doing to her if she were here. It took me several minutes to get my head back in the present, and when I finally returned my attention to what was happening at the table, I quickly discovered that I wasn’t the only one who was harbouring some inappropriate thoughts.

“Soooooooo ...” I struggled to think of something to say as I watched Brian sling his arm across the back of the booth and begin to inch himself closer to Ashley. “Do you have a boyfriend? Or is it just you and Pickles?”

Ashley shrugged. “I’ve been seeing someone. It’s nothing serious. I’m not old and married like you two.”

“I am not old!” I quickly emptied my beer and shot Ashley a nasty look.

I was so drunk that it took me almost a full minute to figure out that she was only joking. Brian, on the other hand, had obviously picked up on her sarcasm and was busy laughing away; his accent thick and heavy as he gently lowered his arm across Ashley’s shoulders. I refilled my glass and watched the now flirty exchange between Brian and Ashley in silence. It was taking all of my concentration not to spill my entire beer down my front, and I had no brain power left to determine just how impaired Brian actually was. He seemed to be thinking at least fairly clearly, but I really wasn’t in any position to make that assumption. Besides, the Brian that I knew would never even think of looking at a woman who wasn’t his wife.

Brian was whispering now; leaning down so that he had access to Ashley’s ear as well as a better view of her chest. Ashley responded to whatever it was that Brian was saying with a girlish giggle, placing her hand lightly on his chest as she laughed. I smirked and absently took a bite of the nachos that the waitress had just deposited on the table without as much as a word. Even in my intoxicated state, part of me knew that I needed to intervene; that I needed to keep Brian from doing something that he would inevitably regret. But, I drunkenly reasoned, what if Brian was looking for a little fun? What if he and Leighanne were having problems that I didn’t know about it? It was no secret that Leighanne and I had never seen eye to eye and a small part of me definitely wouldn’t be sad if Brian decided to replace her.

So, I said nothing. Eventually, Brian stopped whispering and the two of them joined me in devouring the nachos and laughing about the middle-aged cougars sitting at the table next to us. It wasn’t until three pitchers later as I stumbled back from the bathroom that I began to regret my decision. Who was I kidding? Brian didn’t want to cheat on Leighanne. He was drunk and clearly not thinking properly. Being unfaithful would destroy him and it would be entirely my fault if he ended up doing something stupid. My heart was racing as I bumped my way back to the table; please, God, don’t have let Brian have done something stupid while I was gone!

My stomach plummeted; how could I have been so dense? The table was empty, aside from a wad of bills that Brian must have left to cover the bill. I stared at the money in dismay and grabbed at the side of the booth to steady myself. The room was spinning as I desperately tried to determine if Brian and Ashley were still in the bar. Maybe they had just gone to get another drink.

“Your friends took off.” The waitress stepped around me and grabbed for the pile of bills. Her eyes widened ever so slightly as she took in the amount. “Are you gonna want change?”

“No.” I shook my head and pushed off unsteadily towards the exit. “Keep it.”

I practically fell into the hotel lobby. The panic was rising in my chest as I forced my unfocused eyes to scan the face of everyone that I passed. I had to find Brian before he hurt Ashley, or Leighanne, or both of them. God, I was a shitty friend! No wonder he hadn’t spoken to me for so long. We had been best friends again for less than a year and I had already fucked up. Just when I was on the verge of throwing up, I saw them. They were waiting for the elevator at the far end of the lobby; Brian’s hand resting lightly on the small of Ashley’s back.

“Briaaaaaaan!” I slurred so loudly that everyone turned to stare. “Briaaaaaaaaan!”

Brian looked back just as the elevator doors dinged open. He hastily waved me off and shot me a quick smirk as he and Ashley stepped into the waiting car.

“Wait!” I stumbled forward, but the doors were already closed. I was too late.

“Relax.” One of the security guards for who had tailed Brian and me to the bar came up behind me and laid his hand on my shoulder. “We’ll get the next one.”

My stomach churned as I watched the digital display above the elevator start to climb. “You don’t understand.” I shook my head at the man whose name I couldn’t remember. “I’m already too late.”
Chapter 25: I Missed You by KeepThisSecret
** BRIAN **

The elevator doors slid closed and Ashley crushed her finger against the button for the seventh floor. I leaned back against the wall of the car and blinked rapidly in an attempt to sober up. Nick had looked upset. Maybe I should have waited for him. I stole a quick glance at the security guard who was standing stoically in the corner and staring straight ahead. Surely he would have told me if Nick were really in some sort of trouble.

“Thanks for tonight.” Ashley interrupted my thoughts. “I feel a lot better.”

“You only feel better because you’re drunk.” I laughed as Ashley swayed unsteadily on her feet.

I grabbed her around the wrists, pulling her towards me. She stumbled forward, pressing her palms against my chest to steady herself. She laughed again as she leaned into me.

“I’m not that drunk.”

Ashley’s breath warmed my neck as she spoke, and I quickly dropped my hands to her waist. I was confused. I had definitely had too much to drink, and my brain was struggling to process what was happening. Ashley’s lips were dangerously close to my ear and the sensation of her teeth grazing my earlobe made me shudder in anticipation.

“What are we going to do now, Brian?”

Oh God. What were we going to do now? The elevator dinged to indicate that it had reached the seventh floor and the door slid open. The security guard stepped out first and waited for us to exit. To his credit, the burly man said nothing as the two of us tripped out into the hallway. I still had one arm looped around Ashley’s waist, and I gently began to guide her down the hall towards her room and away from the one that I was sharing with Nick.

My mind was working overtime as the two of us walked in silence; leaning against each other for support. What was I doing? I was married. I had a son. I knew that cheating was a sin. Hell, the very fact that I was clinging to a highly intoxicated woman who wasn’t my wife was probably a sin. I knew that I needed to do the right thing; walk Ashley to her room, say goodnight, down a bottle of water, pop some Advil, and go to sleep. Still, a part of me didn’t want to do the right thing. My heart was pounding at the idea of what could happen if I didn’t leave Ashley alone at her door.

“Wait.” Ashley forced me to stop. She squinted at the room number on the nearest door. “This is me.”

“Oh.” I dropped my arm from her waist and took a tentative step towards her. “G’night then.”

“Listen, Brian, I really did have a good time.” Ashley looked me right in the eyes. “But, you’re right; we did both have a lot to drink. I’m sorry if I did something ... if you’re maybe going to regret something later.”

“I haven’t done anything to regret...” I took another step closer. My mind was slowly being overpowered by my body. All I could think about was how good Ashley looked in her jeans. “...yet.”

What if I died tomorrow? What if I died without fully admitting to myself what I had known for a long time; that I was lonely, that something in my life was missing. What if I prevented myself from acting on my last chance to be with someone other than a woman who hadn’t been giving me everything that I needed for longer than I would ever be brave enough to acknowledge?

Ashley was pretty. I had thought so since the moment that I had laid eyes on her. The way that she was looking at me, the fact that she had been brave enough to look me dead in the eyes was propelling me forward.

I wanted her.

The thought came crashing through my alcohol infused brain, and the idea scared me more than the prospect of being stabbed to death.

“We should go to bed.” Ashley kept her eyes locked on my face.

“Yeah, we should.” I grinned and stepped forward again, effectively silencing my brain. I had made up my mind.

“I – We – I’m pretty drunk.” Ashley bit her bottom lip and looked up at me from under her long eyelashes.

I pressed my own lips together to keep from groaning. It was all I could do not to slam her up against the wall. “Do you want me to go?”

Ashley bit her lip again and placed her palms on my chest for the second time that evening. “No.” She slowly began to move her hands up my chest and around the back of my neck. “I don’t want you to go.”

She could obviously feel how much I wanted her as I grabbed her by the hips and held her against me. Her fingers wound their way through the hair at the base of my neck as I lightly brushed my lips against hers. To her credit, she didn’t take control; waiting, instead, for me to deepen the kiss on my own.

My heart was thudding against the confines of my chest as I allowed myself to kiss her properly. I couldn’t get close enough. I couldn’t kiss her hard enough. Ashley moaned softly against my mouth, and I thought that I would explode. I needed this. I needed her. I didn’t even care if I had to take her right there in the hallway.

“Brian! Shit!”

Nick’s voice was like a kick in the balls. Ashley pushed herself away from me, leaving me gasping and aching in anticipation.

“Brian, I’m sorry, man!” Nick was rambling. “I should never have left ... I should have said something ...”

“Nick, what the fuck?” I watched as Nick ran his hand through his hair, grabbing at the longest strands in frustration. “What do you want? What’s wrong?”

“What’s wrong?” Nick looked at me as if I had lost my mind. “You just – You just kissed Ashley!”

“I’m just gonna go ... go inside and let the two of you work this out.” Ashley tugged anxiously at the bottom of her shirt and quickly ran her fingers through her tangled hair. She pulled her room card out of her back pocket and began backing slowly towards the door. “I’m sorry. I’m just really sorry.”

“What? No! Wait!” I turned away from Nick and focused my full attention on Ashley. I didn’t want her to leave. I desperately wanted to finish what I had started. I needed to finish what I had started. “Nick was just leaving.”

“I’m not leaving without you.” Nick folded his arms across his chest. “I can cock-block you all night, baby.”

I wanted to punch Nick in the face. If I could have focused my eyes properly, I probably would have. Instead, I just stood there glowering at his three revolving heads.

“G’night.” Ashley made her escape, slipping her room card into the slot on the door. “I’ll see you in the morning ... if y’all don’t hate me completely by then.”

“Brian, again, I’m so sorry!” Nick started blathering the moment that Ashley closed the door. “I don’t know what I was thinking. I saw what was happening. I mean, I knew what you were thinking ...”

I continued to stare at Nick in silence. The affects of the alcohol were beginning to wear off and, very slowly, the anger that had been simmering just beneath the surface was starting to be replaced by a heart-wrenching feeling of guilt. Still a bit unsteady on my feet, I pushed past Nick and began to make my way down the hallway towards our room.

Dear God, what had I done?

“Brian? Bri, I know that you’re pissed.” Nick trailed after me as I stumbled inside the room. He allowed the door to slam shut behind him as he placed his hand on my shoulder and turned me around to face him. “Frick, I’m sorry. Don’t hate me, okay?”

The use of my old nickname was the last little push that I needed to fall over the edge. My buzz was completely gone; replaced by a cold, hard ball of dread that had settled itself in the pit of my stomach. I had committed the worst sin of all; I had cheated on my wife. I was a cheater.

“Oh, God ...” I could feel myself crumpling as my voice broke. Nick’s face was already becoming blurry with tears. “I fucked up, Nick. I really, really fucked up.”

“It’s alright.” Nick’s arms were around me within seconds. “It’s not that bad.”

“It’s so bad!” I buried my face in Nick’s shirt, allowing the guilt to consume me.

What had I been thinking? I was a horrible person. I should have been able to control myself. I had been avoiding the temptation for years. Why had tonight suddenly been different?

I was literally clinging to Nick now; sobbing into his shoulder like a baby. Nick tightened his grip, staying silent as my tears soaked into the fabric of his shirt. I wasn’t sure if his silence was due to the fact that he didn’t know what to say or if it was because he knew that nothing he could say would make me feel better. Either way, I didn’t care. At that moment, Nick was all that I had and all that I needed.

Things were even worse in the morning. I woke up to the weight of Nick’s arm on my chest and to the gentle sound of his snoring. At some point, he must have forced me to lie down, but I couldn’t clearly remember anything past the point at which I had started blubbering like a baby. Obviously, I must have eventually passed out and Nick had clearly stayed with me the entire time.

“Nick.” I gently nudged him awake and looked at the clock. “It’s almost noon.”

“No wakey.” Nick mumbled without opening his eyes. He wiggled his head deeper into the pillow and sighed. “Did we sleep together?”

His question immediately made me think of Ashley. I let out a low groan, trying to force myself not to think about the night before. Of course, my efforts were futile. I could still taste her. I could still remember how good her body had felt pressed against mine.

“My head hurts.” Nick continued to speak without opening his eyes. “Why the fuck did we drink so much?”

“Because we’re idiots.” I began lightly massaging my temples. My own head was throbbing. “Thanks for ... you know.”

Nick finally cracked open his eyes, blinking against the brightness that was spilling into the room through the partially open curtains. “You don’t gotta say ‘thanks’.”

“What am I gonna do, Nick?” I focused my eyes on the ceiling in an effort to ignore the pain in my head. “Last night, I did the one thing that I swore that I would never, ever do.”

“It was only a kiss.” Nick rolled over so that he, too, was staring at the ceiling. “It’s not like you fucked her or anything. You were drunk, Ashley was drunk ... just forget that it even happened. I’m the only other person who knows and I have no intention of ever telling anyone else.”

“I wanted to.” I practically choked on the words. Admitting my feelings to Nick would make them real, and I wasn’t entirely sure if I was ready.

“You wanted to what?” Nick asked. “Fuck her?”

“Yeah.” I swallowed hard. “I kinda still do.”

“Jesus, Brian ...” Nick trailed off and rubbed at his eyes. “You had a lot to drink last night. We all had a lot to drink. This wasn’t the first time that you’ve done something stupid while you were drunk and it probably won’t be your last. I don’t know where all of this is coming from, but ...”

“What if I die?” I cut Nick off and forced myself to sit up. “What if I die without getting the chance to say what I need to say?”

“What do you need to say?” Nick turned so that he was facing me. “You can tell me. Will that make you feel better? I mean, it’s not like you’re gonna die or anything, but you can tell me. You can tell me anything.”

“Someone is trying to kill us, Nick. I could step out on that stage tomorrow night for the last time. I’m going to get stabbed, remember? I just don’t want to go out wondering about what could have been.” I pushed myself to keep going. The tears were threatening to fall once again. “I’ve spent so long trying to convince everyone that I’m happy and that I’m living the perfect life that I’ve actually forgotten to live my life. Don’t get me wrong, I love Leighanne and Baylee, but lately I’ve been feeling like something is missing. The passion just isn’t there anymore, you know what I mean? I look at you and Lauren and I want what you guys have. I want to want my wife. I shouldn’t be thinking about other women and I didn’t for the longest time, but now I am. The temptation has always been there for all of us, and I’m finding it harder and harder to ignore. So often now I find myself looking at some of the women at sound check and wondering what it would be like to be with them.”

“Of course you’re tempted ...” Nick paused; I could tell that he was struggling to figure out what he wanted to say. “Last night you were – I’ve never seen you cry that hard. I don’t think that you really want to do what it is that you think you want to do.”

“I don’t want to sleep with anyone else while I’m still married.” I acknowledged, forcing myself to sit up. “I broke my vows last night ...”

“It was only a kiss, Bri.” Nick reiterated his earlier argument. “It’s really not that disastrous.”

“The point is that I’m not happy.” I rushed to get the words out. “Knowing that I have a good chance of dying has forced me to realize – to accept – that.”

“So, what is it that you want? A divorce?”

Hearing Nick say the word ‘divorce’ made me want to be sick. Is that what I wanted? Did I really want to say goodbye to Leighanne forever? She was a good woman. I was comfortable with her. Of course, maybe that was the problem. Maybe the two of us had become too comfortable; we had lost the spark that made things interesting.

“I don’t know ... maybe.”

“Jesus, Brian.” Nick also pulled himself up into a sitting position and stared into my face. “I didn’t know that you were so unhappy. I knew that you guys had been fighting a bit ...”

“I didn’t want you to know. I didn’t want anyone to know.” I absently ran my fingers along the wrinkles that had settled in my shirt. “I’m supposed to have a perfect life, remember? I’m supposed to be perfect; a good Christian boy.”

“You put that pressure on yourself. Nobody ever expected you to be perfect, Frick. For some reason you just decided that you had to portray yourself as this God-fearing, son-of-a-bitch who never did anything wrong.” Nick paused to study my face. “To tell you the truth, everyone would probably like you a lot more if you stopped acting as if your shit don’t stink. If you’re worried about the fans and the media, then you ought to know by now that everyone out there already knows that you drink, that you cuss, that your eyes wander whenever the wife ain’t lookin’ ...” Nick paused again and took a deep breath. “I like you better knowing that you have your faults. It makes you more like me.”

I was crying again; the tears were hot and fresh as they rolled down my cheeks and dropped onto my crumpled jeans. I had missed Nick. Maybe if I hadn’t been so stupid, if I hadn’t pushed him away, my life would have turned out differently. Maybe I wouldn’t have ended up so confused and miserable if he had been by my side.

“Shit, Brian, don’t cry.” Nick pulled me into a tight hug. “I know that you don’t wanna hear that you’re anything like me.”

“I missed you so much!” There I was sounding like a baby again. “You have no idea ...”

“I know.” Nick cut me off. “I missed you, too.”
Chapter 26: The Loser by KeepThisSecret
** HOWIE **

“Shit, shit, shit, shiiiiiiiit!”

I pulled the covers up over my head in an effort to drown out AJ’s persistent cursing. Couldn’t he see that all I wanted to do was go to sleep and stay asleep for the rest of the day? I was in no mood to see, or talk to, anyone.

“Howie, you need to wake up! This is bad. This is fucking bad.”

I scooted down even farther under the covers and rolled over so that I was facing the wall. Maybe AJ would finally take the hint and leave me alone.

“Howieeeeeeeeeee!”

“I don’t want to talk to you, AJ.” I directed my comment into the pillow, my voice muffled. “Leave me alone.”

“Dude, I know that you’re pissed at me, and that’s fine, but you really need to wake up and look at this.”

“Do you even know why I’m mad at you?” I flung the covers away from my face and rolled over onto my back so that I could look into AJ’s face. “Do you?”

“Because of Brian?” AJ shrugged and thrust his phone into my face. “Look at this!”

AJ’s nonchalant response made me want to punch him in the face. He didn’t even care that I was upset. He didn’t give two shits about the fact that I was constantly treated like an accessory; someone who could be utilized when needed and ignored the rest of the time. Maybe I should just leave, quit the group and focus on my solo career. It wasn’t as if the guys or the fans would even notice that I was gone.

“Yes, AJ, I’m mad at you because of Brian.” I rolled my eyes. “I’m mad because you and Nick seem to think that the sun rises and sets on his country fried ass ...”

“Christ, Howie, just shut the fuck up and look at this!” AJ pushed his phone against my nose. “It’s important.”

I snatched the device out of AJ’s hand and pulled it away from my face so that my eyes could focus on the screen. I could feel my stomach muscles clenching in frustration as I saw that AJ had been looking at Ashley’s stupid story. He already knew my opinion about Brian getting stabbed. What more did he want me to say?

“She posted two more chapters last night.” AJ explained. “Nick’s gonna get shot, Howie. Nick’s gonna get shot.”

“What?!” I sat up and kicked the covers away from my body, running my finger down the screen in an attempt to scan through the thousands of words that littered the page. “Why would she do that? Why would she post something without our consent? Did the FBI tell her to?”

Even though I was angry at Nick, the thought of him getting shot was too much for me to digest. I loved Nick. I loved him as more than a friend, as more than a brother. It was hard to explain, but regardless of how he treated me, there would always be a special place in my heart that would be exclusively reserved for Nick. I was fiercely protective of the blonde; I had been since the very beginning. I had been Nick’s older brother, his confidant, his best friend long before Brian had even set foot in Florida.

Over the years, I had tried to fool myself into believing that Nick would always see me as his best friend. Every time that he came running back to me, I received him with open arms. No matter what he did or how far he strayed, I was always willing to forgive him. I’m not sure what made me do it, what made me turn a blind eye to the fact that Nick abused our friendship to suit his own needs.

For the longest time, I had tried to console myself with the fact that Brian used Nick in the same way that Nick used me. I had thought that it was obvious that their friendship was lopsided; that Brian didn’t love Nick in the same way that Nick loved him. It wasn’t until last night that I realized that I had been wrong. Nick loved Brian with a fierceness that I had never seen in terms of a friendship, and it was obvious in the way that Brian had been looking at Nick last night that he loved him in the exact same fashion. The only difference was that Brian had been keeping his need for Nick’s friendship hidden behind a façade; a façade that was now beginning to crack. Last night, I had finally allowed myself to acknowledge what I had always known: that Nick loved Brian more than he loved me.

“What should we do?” AJ was still speaking. “Do you think Nick knows that she posted a chapter about him?”

I shook my head to break free from my own thoughts. There was too much going on in my head, and I needed to focus on the immediate fact that Nick was now in danger. I swung my feet to the floor and practically pushed AJ out of the way as I began to search for some clean clothes.

“I’m going to kill that stupid bitch.”

AJ looked at me as if I had suddenly spurted a second head. “That’s a bit harsh, D. We don’t even know the whole story.”

“I know enough of the story to realize that she crossed a line!” I flung AJ’s phone in his general direction and watched as he struggled to catch it. “Are you coming?”

“Where are we going?” AJ followed me out into the hallway, hopping on one foot as he hurried to put his shoes on; his room card clenched between his front teeth.

“First, I’m going to talk to Nick. Then, I’m going to scream at Ashley.” I mumbled over my shoulder, fuming as I speed walked down the hallway.

AJ finally managed to tug on his shoes. He pulled the room card out of his mouth and jogged to catch up with me. “I’m sure there’s a perfectly good explanation ...”

AJ fell silent as the two of us hurried by the cluster of security guards gathered by the elevator. Three of the massive men were roaring with laughter as their friend animatedly waved his hands in the air; clearly recounting some hilarious event. Their conversation drifted through the air as AJ and I walked passed, despite the fact that the man who was speaking lowered his voice as soon as he caught sight of us.

“... I’m telling you guys, it was fucking hilarious! The little guy was totally pissed. You could practically see his balls turning blue, and the other one was just standing there like a total dope. If one of my buddies ever did that to me, I would have totally knocked him out ...”

“You don’t think that they were talking about us, do you?” AJ glanced over his shoulder at the security guards as I pounded on the door to Nick and Brian’s room. “They’re kinda staring at us.”

I resisted the urge to roll my eyes. “Since when have I ever given you blue balls?”

“Not ‘us’ specifically.” AJ did roll his eyes. “I meant ‘us’, as in ‘our group’.”

“Does it really matter at this particular moment ...” I stopped talking as Nick pulled open the door.

“G’mornin’”

Nick rubbed at the stubble on his chin and stepped aside so that AJ and I could enter the room. His hair was sticking up at odd angles, his clothes were rumpled, and he smelled like stale beer. Essentially, he looked like shit.

“Good morning?” AJ raised his eyebrows in concern. “I told you to take it easy last night.”

“It was my fault.” Brian trudged into the entry way. He looked and sounded even worse than Nick. “I was the one who was pushing the drinks.”

I stared into Brian’s bloodshot eyes. The animosity was radiating out of me in waves. I couldn’t tell if he had been crying or if he was still drunk. In all fairness, I didn’t care.

“You gotta be careful.” AJ was still talking to Nick. “You know how easy it is to slip back into your old habits ...”

“It was just one night.” Nick yawned. “I’m alright.”

“He’s okay, AJ. Like I said, it was all ...”

“How do you know if Nick’s okay?” I cut Brian off. My words sliced through the air with such ferocity that Brian visibly flinched. “You know nothing about what he went through. You weren’t there for him! You have no right to comment about whether or not Nick is in danger of relapsing because you got him drunk.”

Brian stared at me for a few seconds before dropping his eyes to the floor. He sniffed loudly and attempted to discreetly wipe at his face, but he wasn’t quick enough. A tear escaped his finger tips and landed on his shirt, leaving a dark streak on the fabric. I stared at the wet mark in satisfaction. It was about time that Brian started to see how his actions impacted the rest of us.

“Dude!” AJ looked at me in disgust. “What the hell?”

I glared at AJ, struggling to determine if it was worth the effort to formulate a response. No matter what I said, AJ was going to take Brian’s side. After all, I was the bad guy. I was the one who had made Brian cry. It didn’t matter that I was right. It didn’t matter that Brian deserved to shed more than a few tears for the way that he treated Nick in the past.

“Did you guys need something?” Nick voice matched his appearance; exhausted.

“Yes.” I wanted nothing more than to wrap my arms around Nick and pull him into a tight hug, but I held back as I motioned for AJ to pull out his phone. Nick didn’t look very impressed with me at the moment. “Have you seen what Ashley’s done?”

“No.” Brian exchanged a worried look with Nick and placed his hand against the wall to brace himself. He looked as though he was about to be sick. “What has she done?”

“Bri, are you alright?” AJ took a tentative step forwards. “You look like you’re gonna pass out.”

“I’m fine.” Brian was clearly lying. “Just show us what Ashley’s done. You both look as though she’s done something terrible.”

“We shouldn’t believe everything that she says.” Nick returned Brian’s anxious glance. “She’s probably just lying to get some publicity.”

“What are you talking about?” I shook my head at Nick. “She uploaded two more chapters last night without telling us. What do you think she’s lying about?”

“Nothing.” Nick’s answer was too quick. He looked at Brian again. Something was up.

“Don’t you want to know what happens in the chapters that she posted?” I peered expectantly at Nick. What was he hiding?

“Why do neither of you seem surprised?” AJ looked first at Nick and then at Brian. “Did you know that Ashley was going to upload again last night?”

“Ummm ... well ...” Nick scuffed his feet on the floor. “I kinda, sorta told Ashley to upload whatever she had already written.”

“You kinda, sorta did what?!” I felt as though my head were about to explode. Did Nick realize what he had done? Did he realize the danger that he had put himself in?

“And then when she hesitated, I kinda uploaded the chapters myself.” Nick was still talking; head bowed, eyes fixed on the floor. “I just didn’t want to go through another fight like the one that we had yesterday.” Nick pulled his eyes away from the floor and looked pointedly at me. “It was obvious that we all couldn’t agree on what was best for everyone.”

“Nick, Ashley wrote that you’re going to get shot.” AJ shook his head. “Did you know that when you told her to post the chapters?”

“Oh, God.” Brian let out a low moan and slid slowly down the wall so that he was sitting on the floor by Nick’s feat. “Oh, God.”

“I was too drunk to actually read anything.” Nick now had his attention fixed on Brian. “Bri, this isn’t your fault.”

“You can’t get shot!” Brian was sobbing again. “I don’t want you to die, Nick!”

“Nobody is going to die!” AJ also appeared to be on the verge of breaking down. “Ashley isn’t going to let any of us get killed.”

“Has everyone but me lost their fucking mind?!” I exploded. “Don’t you understand that Ashley has nothing to do with what’s going on?! Sure, the un-sub may be copying the events of her story, but she has no control over the outcome. She can write that we’re all going to turn into fucking unicorns and live happily ever after in some magical land, but that’s not what’s going to happen in real life. If whoever is out to hurt us continues to follow Ashley’s plot then all we know for sure is that Brian is gonna be stabbed and that Nick is gonna to be shot. We know nothing more than that! For all we know, the un-sub could start calling his own shots, and he could shoot every one of us dead before we even set foot on stage tomorrow night!”

“Nobody is going to die.” AJ sank down next to Brian on the floor and hugged his knees to his chest. “We’re all gonna be fine.”

AJ’s pitiful attitude only served to make me angrier. The sight of him on the floor next to Brian spurred me to continue screaming. “Have any of you even stopped to think that maybe Ashley is lying?! Maybe she’s only pretending to be a victim so that she can get closer to us. Maybe, just maybe, she’s the one who’s really trying to kill us!”

“No.” Brian hiccupped. “No, that can’t be true.”

“It’s not.” Nick practically threw himself on the floor and slung his arm around Brian’s shoulders. “Agent Adams wouldn’t have offered Ashley protection if he had any reason to believe that she was the one who was trying to hurt us. He would have arrested her right away.”

“You’re all unbelievable!” I spat. I couldn’t stand to see the three of them sitting on the floor like a bunch of little kids. We were supposed to be men. We were supposed to have moved beyond all of this childish division. We were supposed to be a family.

“You’re wrong, Howie.” Nick locked his tired eyes with mine. “I’m sorry ... I’m sorry for everything, but I – I just have to – I just gotta side with Brian.”

Nick’s words were like a punch in the stomach. To Nick, the phrase simply meant what he had intended it to mean; that he had to believe Brian’s deduction that Ashley wasn’t the un-sub. To me, his words meant so much more. To me, his words had a sense of finality; I had officially lost.
Chapter 27: Bad Connection by KeepThisSecret
** KEVIN **

I could hear Howie’s voice all the way down the hallway. Just like Brian became more southern when he was anxious, Howie became more Latin when he was mad. Over the years, my Spanish had improved simply from listening to Howie’s angry rants.

“Are you sure that you wanna go in there?” Justin nodded in the direction of the room that Nick and Brian were sharing as we neared the elevator. “You can always just come for breakfast with me and Eddie. I won’t tell anyone.”

I looked at the closed door and sighed. “You and I both know that I have no choice but to go in there.”

“Good luck.” Justin suppressed a smirk and clapped me roughly on the back. “Eddie and I will be downstairs if you need us ... or a drink.”

I let out a low chuckle as I rapped loudly on the door. “Thanks a lot.”

Justin had already disappeared in the elevator by the time Howie yanked open the door. He gave me a death stare as I forced a smile onto my face and stepped inside.

“Mornin’ y’all.” My smile faltered as I caught sight of AJ, Brian, and Nick huddled on the floor. “What’s goin’ on?”

“Nick drunkenly made Ashley post two new chapters of her story last night without realizing that she wrote about him getting shot. Howie’s convinced that Ashley is the person who’s trying to kill us, and Brian is ridiculously hung-over.” AJ hugged his knees and looked up into my face. “Do you need to know any more than that?”

“Good Christ ...” I turned to Howie. “Do you have anything to add to that lovely summary?”

“Yeah. The three of them are idiots!” Howie jabbed his finger at the group on the floor. “And I’m pretty sure that Brian and Nick are hiding something from us ... again.”

“Okay ...” I looked down at my cousin who was snuffling shamelessly into Nick’s shoulder. “Bri, do you wanna throw in your two cents?”

Brian pulled his head off of Nick’s shoulder and leaned it back against the wall with a soft thud. “I’m not in the mood right now, Kev.”

I couldn’t help it; I let out my standard sigh of annoyance and rubbed at my face. Why was it always so hard for the five of us to talk to each other?

“We should probably talk to Ashley and Agent Adams about the new chapters.” AJ looked to me for confirmation. “Right, Kev?”

Again with the stupid story! From what I had heard of Howie’s speech, I was in complete agreement with him. We all needed to forget about the idea that Ashley was able to control our lives with her ridiculous fan fiction and focus on surviving our next show. If Agent Adams and the rest of the FBI had any brains, they would be thinking the same thing.

“Fine.” I resisted the urge to let out another sigh. “Let’s go talk to Ashley.”

“Y’all can go. I don’t really have anything to say to her anyway.” Brian swallowed loudly and averted his eyes from my face.

“I’m just gonna hang out here with Brian.” Nick cleared his throat. “There’s no need for us all to go trooping down to her room.”

I looked back and forth between Brian and Nick. Howie was right; the two of them were definitely hiding something. They both looked, and smelled as, if they had drunk their weight in beer.

Everyone is coming.” I reached out to help AJ off of the floor. “No excuses.”

AJ accepted my hand and hauled himself to his feet. He looked down at Nick and Brian. “Nick, don’t you want to know your fate? The chapters are about you.”

Nick shrugged. “I can just read them for myself.”

“Can we please just get this over with?” Howie jerked open the door and stepped out into the hallway. “Some of us are not in the mood to spend any more time than is absolutely necessary with the rest of you.”

“Let’s go.” I snapped my fingers at Nick and Brian. I waited as Nick stood up and pulled Brian to his feet. The stench of stale alcohol intensified as the two of them fell into place behind AJ. I caught Nick gently by the elbow and glared at my cousin. “The three of us are going to have a little chat later.”

“Wonderful.” Nick mumbled. “There’s nothing like a Kevin lecture to get the day going.”

I pretended not to hear Nick’s comment as the five of us trudged down the hallway. I would deal with the fact that Nick needed to be limiting his alcohol intake once we had sorted out the minor issue that his life was in jeopardy.

Howie reached Ashley’s room first. He rapped quickly on the door and folded his arms across his chest. “This is so pointless.”

“I know.” I gave my support to Howie. “But just in case it isn’t, we need to talk to her.”

“Oh ... hey.” Ashley pulled open the door. “Sorry. I was just getting ready.” She ran a hand through her freshly blow-dried hair and tugged her tank top down over the waistband of her pyjama pants. “Do you guys want to come in?”

“We just want to talk to you about last night.” I led the way into the room. “If that’s okay.”

“Last night?” Ashley hurriedly began swiping clothes and towels off of the bed. She gathered an armful of magazines into her hands and deposited them on the nightstand. “What about it?”

“Well, I’ve heard that Nick let you do something that you shouldn’t have.” I sat down on the freshly cleared bed and looked at Ashley expectantly. “Is that true?”

“Uhhhh ...” Ashley’s eyes flew to Nick’s before coming to rest on Brian’s. “Ummmm ...”

“I’m talking about the chapters that you posted.” I addressed Ashley, but I narrowed my eyes at Brian. He was fidgeting with the wrinkles in his t-shirt, his eyes locked with Ashley’s, his face flushed. “You okay cuz?”

“Mmmmhmmm” Brian nodded, his face reddening even more. “I have a headache, that’s all.”

“Oh. You’re talking about that.” Ashley let her breath out in one long rush. “I was pretty drunk and Nick seemed to think that it would be ...”

I held up my hand to silence her. “I’m not concerned with any of that. All I want is a quick synopsis of what’s supposed to happen to Nick. I don’t exactly have time to read everything that you posted ... although it is very well written.”

I wasn’t lying. Ashley did have talent as a writer. It was just my opinion that she should focus on trying to write an actual book as opposed to wasting her time writing about us. I mean, it wasn’t as if penning fan fiction would help her writing career. Although, it had apparently done wonders for what’s-her-name who wrote Fifty Shades of Grey.

“I wrote that Nick gets shot by someone in the crowd. It happens during ‘Breathe’ while he’s standing on the catwalk ... almost immediately after Brian is stabbed by the psycho in the fan pit.” Ashley rushed. “It’s a direct shot to the chest.”

I closed my eyes for a brief moment. “Ashley, if you really believe that the un-sub is copying the events of your story then why are you increasing the intensity of the attacks?”

“It’s what the FBI told me to do.” Ashley lowered her eyes to the floor. “They told me to follow the storyboard that I established when I started the story. Agent Adams warned that I could set the un-sub off if I deviated from my initial plan. He said that the un-sub may start doing his own thing if he’s already seen the outline and he realizes that I’m changing the story to make it less violent. Agent Adams said that, if that happened, it would be even harder for him and his team to solve the case; to catch the person who’s been attacking you.” Ashley pulled her eyes away from the floor and stared directly into mine. “I just want to do whatever I can to make sure that you guys are okay.”

“I know.” I reached out and gently placed my hand on Ashley’s shoulder. The poor girl looked beyond stressed out. “This whole situation is just taking its toll on all of us. I didn’t mean to insinuate that you were making the problem worse. I’m just a little bit thrown off by the fact that you posted additional chapters without consulting us or the FBI.”

“It was my fault, Kev.” Nick stepped up to Ashley’s defence. “I was the one who uploaded the chapters. If you’re going to be pissed at anyone, you should be pissed at me.”

“What happens to Nick?” AJ interrupted. “The last chapter that you posted ends with him bleeding out on the stage.”

“I don’t know. I mean, I haven’t written anything beyond what Nick posted last night.” Even though she was answering AJ’s question, Ashley was once again starting directly into my eyes. “If I continue with the plot as I initially outlined it then Nick doesn’t make it.”

“And Brian?” AJ pressed. “What ends up happening to him?”

Ashley slowly shook her head. “I had kinda planned this whole Frick and Frack until the end type of thing ...”

“So, he dies?!” AJ was now on the verge of hysterics. “We’re gonna lose both of them?! I can’t – that just can’t – I won’t be able to ...”

“This is bullshit!” Howie shook his head. “None of this crap is going to come true.”

“It’s all come true so far, Howie.” Brian whispered. “Why can’t you just accept it?”

I steeled myself for another one of Howie’s outbursts. He looked ready to rip Brian’s head off with his bare hands. Fortunately for Brian, Howie closed his mouth just as quickly as he had opened it at the arrival of Agent Adams.

“The door was open.” Agent Adams strolled into the room looking less than impressed. “Ms. Bass, I see that you were rather busy last night.” He looked at each of us in turn. “I trust that you’re all up to date on what our little writer here has penned.”

“She’s just filled us in.” I took a deep breath. There was something about the detective’s face that was making me uneasy.

“Good.” Agent Adams swallowed what I assumed was the last few bites of a cherry flavoured Halls and licked his lips. “We need to talk about the show.”

“We’re not doing it.” I shook my head. “There’s no way that we can go ahead now. It’s too risky.”

“It wasn’t too risky when it was only Brian who was going to get hurt.” AJ interrupted; his voice eerily steady. “Why is it no longer a good idea, Kev?”

I knew what AJ was insinuating. We all did. Of course, just because we all knew what he was asking didn’t mean that it was true. I didn’t love Nick more than I loved Brian. At least, I would never admit to it; not to myself, and definitely not to the others.

“You’re doing the show.” Agent Adams’s voice boomed out through the silence that had descended upon the room. “We’re going to have agents stationed throughout the crowd posing as fans and venue personnel.” He nodded at Brian and Nick. “Nick will wear a bullet-proof vest, and you will both have earpieces that will be linked to FBI security. We’re going to need you to pretend that everything is normal ...”

“Don’t we get a say ...” I stopped as someone’s phone began to ring. “Whose fucking phone is that?”

“It’s mine.” Ashley hurried over to the nightstand and picked up her iPhone. She glanced quickly at the display. “S – Sorry. It’s – it’s my boyfriend, Charlie.” She hastily powered off the device. “I’m sorry ... I don’t know why he’s calling me so early in the morning.”

‘Charlie’.

The name was running through my mind on a loop. There was something familiar about the name. A thought, a memory, was struggling to push its way through to the front of my brain. I stared blankly at Agent Adams, watching his lips move. Howie was adding his two cents to the conversation, but I was no longer paying attention. I knew that what I was trying to remember was important, but I just couldn’t force myself to grasp the memory and pull it forward.

‘Charlie’.

“What does your boyfriend do?” I asked the question in the middle of the conversation; successfully bringing it to a halt.

Ashley looked taken aback. “He works for a grocery supplier that delivers speciality items to commercial locations. That’s how we met; he was delivering coconut flour to my store.”

“What does it matter?” Brian spoke properly for the first time since we had all entered the room. He seemed agitated, flustered. “Who cares what some guy who she sometimes goes out with does for a living?”

“It’s nothing. I was just ...” I shrugged and trailed off. The moment of opportunity had passed; the memory had slipped away. “I was just wondering.”

Although I had quickly zeroed in on the fact that my cousin seemed overly annoyed at the mention of Ashley’s boyfriend, I didn’t bother to ask how he somehow knew more than he should about the intensity of their relationship. I was too busy berating myself for not being able to remember something that I knew was important. Maybe if I had made the effort to dig a little deeper, I would have been able to make the connection.
Chapter 28: What Had We Done? by KeepThisSecret
** AJ **

“You don’t have to this.” My stomach churned as I watched Brian fumble with the buttons on his shirt. His hands were shaking almost as much as my voice. “Nobody said that you have to do this.”

Brian stopped attempting to button his shirt long enough to give me a sad smile. “Everyone told me that I have to go out there tonight. It’s okay, AJ. It’s my turn, and I’m okay with that.”

I shook my head so violently that I knocked my earpiece out. “I never said that you had to. I’m pretty sure that Nick didn’t tell you to either.”

This time Brian’s smile was genuine. “Nobody cares about what the two of you think.”

“No shit.” I snorted. “I don’t know if I can do this. How am I supposed to act normally when I know that someone is going to try and hurt you ... and Nick?”

“Just sing.” Brian shrugged. “No matter what happens, no matter who you see, just keep singing.”

I wanted to hug him, but I wasn’t that guy. I had no problem breaking down and falling into someone else’s arms, but no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t bring myself to initiate the contact. I always felt like I was forcing it; like I was dragging the other person into a situation that they had no business being in. Even with women, I never made the first move. Rochelle said that I had issues. She was probably right.

“Do you promise?” Brian blinked rapidly and coughed loudly in a simultaneous attempt to hide both his tears and the tremor in his voice. “Do you promise to keep singing, no matter what?”

“Here.” I stepped forward and pushed Brian’s fingers away from his buttons. I deftly began to do up his shirt for him; my mind focused on the task of steadying my hands as opposed to the horrors that were about to unfold. “I won’t make you a promise that I can’t keep.”

I finished with the buttons and attempted to step back, but Brian pulled me into a hug before I could move away. I returned his embrace with a crushing amount of force, squeezing my eyes shut in an effort to prevent my tears from falling on his shirt. I couldn’t lose him; no matter what else happened, I just couldn’t lose him.

“Bri, you’re like my brother ...”

“AJ, please, for once in your life, just don’t say it.” Brian directed his words into my shoulder. “I already know what you’re thinking.”

“Are you two ready?”

My body tensed at the sound of Howie’s voice. I knew that none of this was his fault, but I couldn’t help the anger that was rising in my stomach. He was the only one who had never said that we shouldn’t go ahead with the show. Even if he didn’t really think that we should cancel the show, he should have had the decency to lie. He should have had the sense to want to protect Nick and Brian. He should have been able to put his own hurt feelings aside; just like he always did.

I suppose that everyone has their breaking point, and Howie had clearly reached his. He waited for Brian and I to pull apart; his expression unreadable. “Well? Are you guys ready?”

“We’re ready.” Brian looked directly into my eyes as he spoke. “We’re ready to go.”

An hour later, I was desperately fighting the urge not to be sick all over the stage. My eyes hurt from scanning the sea of eager faces, and my stomach was knotted from lurching every time that Brian or Nick stepped out onto the catwalk that extended into the crowd. I didn’t know how the two of them were managing to hold themselves together. In fact, Brian was sounding better than he had in years; his voice hadn’t broken once. I guess he was trying to make sure that he went out sounding his best; a thought that was enough to shatter my heart.

“The roses you left me slowly fading to grey / Your coat on the chair and the scent of your hair I miss ...”

Kevin’s voice was shaking; so much so that Nick actually reached out and grabbed his arm. Even from my place at the far end of the stage, I could see that both of their eyes were misty. I could barely focus on the chorus, and I was thankful that Brian was sounding as strong as he did because I could hear my own breathy, raspy voice in my ear and it didn’t sound good. As the music swelled around me and mingled with the screams from the crowd, I officially decided that I had never hated one of our songs more than I did at that very moment.

As the chorus began to wind down, I could see Nick and Kevin moving out to join Howie on the extended portion of the stage. This was it; I was either going to faint or vomit, maybe both. Nick was walking slowly towards the left side of the stage; his voice falling flat as he concentrated on the swarm of arms reaching up towards him. Kevin was still front and centre and Howie was to the right. They both had their eyes locked on Nick.

That left me and Brian walking towards each other on the main stage. In a few seconds, Brian would walk out onto the catwalk between the two fan pits and I would launch into the second verse. He would be alone, unprotected, until my verse was over.

“Oooh, I walked by the store ...”

I sounded horrible. I couldn’t catch my breath. I was too focused on the fact that Brian was about to step out onto the catwalk. My eyes were on the pit, looking into the hopeful faces of the women who had paid good money to see us, who were all in danger because of what the five of us knew was about to happen. The sick feeling in my stomach intensified. Not only were we willingly endangering ourselves, we were also putting innocent lives in jeopardy. We were stupid, we were selfish, and we were idiots for having listened to the FBI. The thoughts crashed down on me like a tidal wave, and I couldn’t think any more.

“... where we sat on the - and we - like kings ...”

I fumbled the line as I grabbed Brian’s arm, yanking him away from the catwalk. His eyes flew open in surprise as he crashed into me; stumbling to keep his balance as he covered my part of the song without missing a beat.

“And someone said hey, we’re locking the door, no time to play.”

The smile that stretched across my face at Brian’s ability to keep singing was short lived. The first shot rang out so loudly that it sounded like some of the pyrotechnics had backfired. My initial thought was Nick, and it was clear that Brian was thinking the same thing as both of us turned in the blonde’s direction. Except Nick wasn’t ducking for cover or lying on the ground in a pool of his own blood. Instead, he had turned away from the crowd and was rushing towards us, waving for me and Brian to get down; his face contorted in panic.

The second shot was just as loud as the first. The pain took longer to register. It wasn’t until I saw Kevin and Howie’s terrified faces that the searing agony began to rise up my leg. My left knee buckled and I fell to the stage just as the third shot rang out. Similar to my earlier fall from the risers, everything seemed to be happening in slow motion. The fans’ screams had turned from lust to terror and their panicked voices provided an eerily perfect backdrop to what happened next.

The fourth bullet caught Brian directly in the chest; his body bent backwards from the force of the impact and his mouth fell open as his hands flew up to capture the blood that was already flowing. His eyes met mine as he landed heavily on his back, still clutching his chest as his headset flew off and landed with a resounding thud on the stage floor.

“Brian!” I screamed his name even though I knew that he couldn’t possibly hear me over the roaring crowd and the music that was still pumping through the speakers. “Brian!”

“This is wrong!” Kevin fell to the stage next to me as another shot pierced the air. “This wasn’t supposed to happen!” He paused to look at me more closely. “You’re fucking bleeding!”

“I don’t matter!” I couldn’t take my eyes off of Brian. His chest was now rising and falling in a laboured, abnormal pattern. Blood was still spilling out of his chest and was beginning to pool around his torso. “Brian! We have to help him! Brian!”

Ignoring the pain in my leg, I pulled myself along the ground in Brian’s direction. It didn’t take me long to reach him and I practically fell on top of him as yet another bullet whizzed through the air. “You’re going to be okay!” I swallowed hard, unable to stop the tears as I looked into Brian’s shockingly vacant eyes. “You’re going to be okay.”

I pressed my hands down on top of Brian’s in an effort to apply more pressure and to, hopefully, stem some of the bleeding. I was acutely aware of the fact that the un-sub was still shooting at us and that our fans were really starting to panic. The music had stopped, and I could hear the crowd pushing and rushing for the exits in an attempt to escape the flying bullets. I sucked in my breath, refusing to remove my hands from Brian’s chest, as the tears continued to roll off of my chin.

What had we done?
Chapter 29: Did You See Him? by KeepThisSecret
** NICK **

I fell to my knees, the soles of my shoes slipping on the smooth surface of the catwalk as I struggled to right myself. Our fans were screaming and crying, but not in the ecstatic way that I was used to. These women were terrified; running for their lives as the mystery shooter continued to fire at the stage.

The eighth shot rang out and I caught a glimpse of the man behind the gun out of the corner of my eye. My stomach lurched in recognition just as two of the undercover FBI agents threw themselves at the man’s sturdy frame. The three of them crashed to the ground among the scattered folding chairs and began to wrestle for control of the weapon. Additional police officers and FBI agents were shoving their way towards the scuffle, elbowing fans out of the way as they scurried towards the glowing exit signs. My chest felt tight, constrained by the bulletproof vest that the FBI had forced me to wear. A lot of good the vest had done; it was Brian who was lying on the ground in a puddle of his own blood.

By the time I managed to pull myself back into a standing position, I could barely see through the tears that were blurring my vision. Why did it have to be Brian? Why did he have to shoot the one person in the world who I literally couldn’t live without?

Ignoring Kevin and Howie completely, I dropped to the floor on the other side of Brian’s limp body and dutifully placed my hands on top of AJ’s. Brian’s blood was everywhere, his lips were tinged with white, and his usually lively blue eyes were soulless; he was on his way out.

“Why, God, why?” AJ was crying just as hard as I was. “Somebody help!”

“Bri – Bri – Brian ...” I hiccupped. “P – P – Please ...”

My face was soaked from crying. I couldn’t bring myself to stop as I looked down into Brian’s face. He had to hang on. If he didn’t make it, I wouldn’t either. The thought was morbid, but I knew that it was true. I had lived without Brian for too long; surviving simply on the notion that we would, one day, be able to repair our friendship. Without that option, without Brian, I was nothing more than a shell. Even Lauren couldn’t fill the space that Brian occupied in my heart. He was the Frick to my Frack, and nobody else could ever take his place.

“Move!” A heavy hand landed on my shoulder and pulled me roughly away from my best friend. “We’re losing time!”

The paramedics swooped in and simultaneously pushed AJ and I out of the way. I landed hard on my back as the medical team pulled on their gloves and began to look after Brian. I felt numb, useless, as they shouted instructions back and forth; one of them beginning CPR.

“I have to stay with him!” AJ was screaming at the men who had pushed him out of the way. “Please, you have to let me stay! I can’t leave him!”

“AJ, you gotta let them work.” Howie was struggling to hold AJ in place. “You gotta take it easy on your leg! Can you let someone look at you too, please?”

My attention drifted from AJ and Howie to Kevin. He was standing with his back to his cousin, looking out into the now empty arena. His shoulders were shaking with his cries. I had never heard him sound so wounded.

Pulling myself off of the floor, I stumbled towards Kevin, my vision still a bit foggy. I caught sight of our tour staff as I moved down the stage; all of them were waiting in the wings with wide, scared eyes. Eddie was screaming into his phone, his fingers pulling harshly at his hair. Our security team had all taken a knee and were waiting with their heads bowed for Brian to be lifted up on the stretcher. It was all too much for me to handle.

“Did you see?” Kevin addressed me without bothering to turn around. He was staring off into the distance with a tortured expression on his face. “I knew, but I couldn’t remember. I just couldn’t remember.”

I followed Kevin’s gaze as I stepped up beside him. Agent Adams and several other FBI agents were dragging the shooter towards the exit at the far end of the venue. I swallowed hard; my initial identification had been correct. Even though more than two decades had past, I still recognized him. Now, I would never be able to forget him, even if I wanted to.

“I saw.” I could barely get the words out. My lips were salty with tears. “I haven’t thought about him in ... forever.”

“He’s all that I can think about now.” Kevin swiped the back of his hand across his face, smearing his tears into his hairline. “He was the one who attacked me in the street. I’ve been trying to remember all this time, but I just couldn’t. If I could have forced myself to remember then Brian wouldn’t have – then things wouldn’t have turned out this way.”

Oh God, Kevin was blaming himself. I swallowed hard; I had no words to comfort him, to tell him that he was wrong. “Why do you think he did it?”

Kevin shrugged as his tears continued to fall. “Jealousy? Revenge? It’s hard to say, Nick. Only he knows why he did it.”

I could still hear the paramedics shouting to one another about Brian’s deteriorating condition, but I couldn’t bring myself to turn around and look. I didn’t think that I could handle watching my best friend in the whole world take his last breath. Instead, I allowed my mind to wander back to the last time that I had seen the man who was responsible for the dull ache in my heart.

It was a few days after Brian had come down to Florida from Kentucky, and the five of us had been at Lou’s; hanging by the pool. He had let himself into the backyard; screaming and begging Lou to reconsider. He had wanted to be in the group so badly, and he hadn’t been able to let it go. At the time, I had thought that it was funny. I could vividly remember laughing with AJ as we watched him cry. Back then, we had no idea that Backstreet would ever be as big as it was. We had no idea that Lou’s decision would cost him fame, women, and millions upon millions of dollars.

Of course, that’s not to say that he didn’t know. I would never forget the way that he had looked at Brian on that humid Florida afternoon. AJ and I had both stopped laughing when he had turned his maniacal face to Brian; when he had accused Brian of stealing the place that was rightfully his. It didn’t matter that everyone, including him, knew that Brian was the right fit. All that he could focus on was the fact that his biggest chance at success had just been ripped out from under him by some ‘backwoods kid from Kentucky’.

Although I hadn’t thought about that afternoon for the last twenty years, it was clear that he had never stopped thinking about it. Kevin was right; he had probably done it out of both jealousy and revenge. I allowed myself to crumple to the floor as the FBI finally managed to drag him out of the venue. I sobbed painfully into my hands as Kevin dropped down next to me and enveloped me with his long arms. What if he had succeeded? What if he had managed to make Backstreet end the way that it had started; without Brian?

“Nick, you gotta stop.” Kevin’s voice was rough in my ear. “You gotta pull it together. They’re taking Brian away now. They’re taking him to get help.”

I shook my head, refusing to look Kevin in the face. “I can’t – can’t – can’t stop ...”

“Nick ... Nicky, please.” Kevin begged. “We have to be strong – strong for Brian.”

“Nick, Kev ... we have to go.” Howie’s voice was soft, but not in the least bit reassuring. “They’re taking Brian to the hospital. AJ’s riding with him, claiming that it’s so the paramedics can look at his leg, but ...” Howie trailed off. “We gotta go.”

Kevin lessened his grip on my shoulders, so that he could address Howie properly. “Did you see him, D?”

“Yeah.” Howie sighed. “I didn’t even recognize him at first ...”

Kevin got to his feet and gently urged me to stand up. I allowed him to force me to my feet; my legs felt weak and unsteady as I struggled to catch my breath. I still couldn’t focus on anything properly, and I leaned heavily on Kevin for support as he practically dragged me off of the stage. I didn’t know if I could handle going to the hospital. All I wanted to do was curl up into a tiny ball and cry until someone came to tell me that Brian was okay, but I knew that Kevin would never leave me alone.

“Neither did I.” Kevin admitted. “But I can tell you one thing; if Brian doesn’t make it, Charles Edwards is going to wish that he never spent even one second of his life as a Backstreet Boy.”
Chapter 30: Truth, Lies, and Revenge by KeepThisSecret
** HOWIE **

“AJ, you really need to sit down.” I cringed as AJ hobbled towards the door for what was probably the hundredth time in the past five minutes. “They’re not going to forget about us.”

“They’re taking too long.” AJ ignored my request for him to take a seat. “It can’t be good news if it’s taking this long.”

“You don’t know that.” Kevin spoke into his hands. “You don’t know anything, so just do as Howie suggested and sit down and shut up.”

“I don’t want to sit down!” AJ looked as though he were on the verge of punching a hole in the wall. “Why don’t you and Howie just both shut the fuck up?!”

I licked my lips. The words were on the tip of my tongue, but I held them back. There was no point in trying to reason with AJ when he was upset. Instead, I watched him drag his bandaged leg to the door, peer out the small window, and then hobble back to the other side of the room.

“Still nothing.” AJ stated the obvious to Nick as he finally sank down next to him on the couch. “What the fuck is taking so long?”

Nick turned to AJ; his eyes wet and unfocused. “It should have been me. I was the one who was supposed to get shot.”

I resisted the urge to scream. Nick had said the same line probably twenty times since we had arrived at the hospital. If he said it one more time, I was going to leave. I couldn’t handle listening to him blame himself. Didn’t he understand that Brian had always been the intended target? Brian was the one who had taken Charles’s place in the group, not Nick. Maybe if Agent Adams showed up and confirmed my conclusion, Nick would finally be able to stop beating himself up. Until then, I would just have to continue to hold my tongue.

“You gotta stop blaming yourself.” AJ took the words out of my mouth as he slung his arm around Nick’s hunched shoulders. “I think that Charles had his own plan all along. I think that he was always after Brian.”

“You think?” Nick sniffed, his eyes focused on AJ’s desolate face. “Then why was he copying Ashley’s story? I don’t get it.”

That’s it. I was actually going to scream. The blood was rushing to my face so quickly that my skin felt as if it were on fire. I had told Nick the exact same thing no less than ten minutes ago, and my words had been greeted with silence and a blank stare. I guess that’s what happened when you crossed Brian; you were shunned with no chance of ever being forgiven.

“If this is anyone’s fault, it’s mine.” I drew my eyes away from Nick as Ashley slipped into the room. She hovered by the door, obviously unsure about whether or not her presence was welcome. “I’m the one who gave Charlie the idea to do what he did.”

“I don’t understand.” I shook my head. “Did Agent Adams tell you that Charles was the un-sub? How did you know his name?”

“Charlie – Charles is – was my boy – the guy that I’ve been seeing.” Ashley’s face was reddening as she spoke. “I didn’t know about his past, ummmm, history with you guys. He, obviously, never brought it up.”

“I’m sorry, what?” Kevin stirred beside me. “You’re saying that the asswipe who may have killed my cousin is your boyfriend?”

“Ex-boyfriend!” Ashley looked positively terrified as Kevin extricated himself from the couch. “I’m – I’m sorry!”

“So, you were a part of this?” Nick had also stood up. His eyes were sharp and focused for the first time since setting foot in the hospital; he looked murderous. “How can you even show your face in this room!? Why hasn’t the FBI arrested your lying, cheating ass?! How did it work? Did you write the story and then show it to Charles so that he could act it out, or did he come up with the dirty stuff and have you put it into words? Did you somehow know that I would read it and track you down? I can’t believe that I was so fucking stupid! I trusted you! Brian trusted you!” Nick paused for breath, his face contorting in anger. “What about that night after the bar, Ashley? What would have happened if I hadn’t shown up when I did? What was your plan? Was Charles waiting in the room?”

Ashley’s eyes widened as Nick’s anger increased. “Nick, no! I didn’t – I would never – What happened with Brian – You don’t understand.”

“Then tell me!” Nick’s fists were clenched. “Tell me what it is that I don’t understand!”

I jumped up as Nick took another step towards Ashley. My mind was reeling as I tried to figure out what he was talking about. Clearly, something had happened that only Nick and Brian knew about. While I wasn’t surprised that the two of them had a secret, I couldn’t help feeling wounded. Even when he wasn’t around, Brian knew more than I did.

“Do you know what happens when you make assumptions, Mr. Carter?” Agent Adams pushed his way into the room; his mouth noticeably free of Halls. His appearance stopped Nick in his tracks. “Maybe you should wait to hear what I have to say before you attack Ms. Bass.”

I dared a quick glance back at Nick. He still looked murderous, but at least he had unclenched his fingers. I turned my attention back to the pudgy FBI agent. “We’re all waiting.”

“I’m sure you are, Mr. Dorough.” Agent Adams rolled his eyes. “Am I right when I say that you all saw your attacker, and that you all recognized him?”

I nodded on behalf of the group. “Keep going.”

“You’ll be happy to hear that Mr. Edwards confessed to all of the attacks. It seems as though he’s been harbouring an intense grudge against Mr. Littrell for a number of years, and that he is not worried about the consequences of his actions. Apparently, he was, at one time, a part of your ... band.” Agent Adams smacked his lips as he continued. “Mr. Edwards had no problem telling our interrogation officer that he acted purely out of revenge. Now, while Ms. Bass was not directly involved, Mr. Edwards did acknowledge that her writing was the catalyst for his sudden desire to seek his revenge against the five of you. As Ms. Bass has explained, she and Mr. Edwards were romantically involved.”

“We know all of this already.” I was getting impatient, although I did feel vindicated in the sense that Agent Adams had just confirmed my theory that Brian had always been the primary target. “Get to the point.”

“The point, Mr. Dorough, is that Mr. Edwards read Ms. Bass’s work of fiction without her knowledge. He stated that he accidentally came across the story that was backed up to her Cloud account while he was utilizing the computer in Ms. Bass’s office. Apparently, simply finding out that Ms. Bass was such a huge fan of your band is what set him off. To use his words, Mr. Edwards simply ‘couldn’t handle losing to Mr. Littrell for a second time’. He felt that by bringing Ms. Bass’s fiction to life he would be able to hurt, not only the five of you, but Ms. Bass as well.”

“None of that explains how he was able to get so close to us without anyone noticing him.” Kevin pursed his lips. “We had security with us at all times.” He paused. “Except for that time when I left the hotel alone.”

“His job is what allowed him to stay hidden.” Ashley spoke for the first time since Agent Adams had entered the room. “Remember how I mentioned that I met Charlie because he delivers speciality food items to the Blueberry? Well, the hotel where Howie was poisoned and the concession stands in the venues that you guys were playing in are all clients of his company. Nobody paid him any attention ... he was just a delivery man.”

Agent Adams grimaced at Ashley’s words. “He really did have the ideal cover. He slipped by two of our checkpoints this evening without incident. The gun was hidden inside the skid that he was using to unload his product. We checked both him and the product, but we didn’t inspect his equipment. For that, I’m truly sorry.”

“It doesn’t matter.” Kevin looked worn out, defeated. “It’s done now. You guys got him.”

Agent Adams nodded at Kevin. He, too, looked worn out. “We’ve also apprehended the two men who helped him carry out his attack against you. They’ll both be facing some jail time, but nothing compared to what will happen to Mr. Edwards. If Mr. Littrell doesn’t survive, you can bet that Mr. Edwards will be walking death row before the year is out.”

“Brian’s going to be fine.” Kevin stubbornly announced. “We’re just waiting for them to come and tell us. That’s all.”

I bit my lower lip as I watched Kevin struggle to keep his face neutral. I knew that he was putting on a brave face for Nick. Like me, Kevin couldn’t handle it when Nick was upset. The big brother mentality was so harshly ingrained in both of us that we would literally say anything to shield Nick from the truth.

I gave Kevin a quick nod as he caught my eye, and I immediately saw the guilt flash across his face. Kevin was scared, really scared. He knew how badly Brian had been hurt. He had seen the blood and the glassy eyed stare just as well as I had. No matter what lies were spewing from his mouth, Kevin knew the truth; he knew that Brian had virtually no chance of rejoining us.
Chapter 31: Last Chances by KeepThisSecret
** KEVIN **

“... managed to stop the bleeding ... severe internal injuries ... breathing tube ...”

I could barely concentrate on what the doctor was saying. He was an elderly man, probably close to retirement, and he was speaking in the tone that I usually reserved for trying to convince Mason to take a bath. I knew that the man was doing his job, that he was trying to be comforting, that he was trying to make the situation sound better than it really was, but all I wanted the doctor to do was to tell the truth; no sugar coating. All I really wanted to know was if Brian had a fighting chance.

I had never seen my cousin, or anyone, look so bad. Sure, the nurses had cleaned up the blood and covered his wounded chest with blankets, but nothing could disguise the fact that he looked like he was dying. My mind flashed to my father’s final minutes; even he hadn’t looked the way that Brian did lying in his hospital bed. My dad had been at peace with his fate. He had looked so serene in his final minutes. Even with his eyes closed, Brian looked pained; pale and scared.

“What are the chances that he’s going to wake up?”

AJ asked the question before I could summon the courage to open my mouth. I turned to the doctor, forcing myself to pay attention as the older man let out a long, slow sigh and lowered his clipboard.

“Less than twenty-five percent.” The doctor appeared to be struggling with the admission. “His injuries are substantial ...”

“How much less?” AJ choked on the words as they left his mouth. “I just – I need to know the number.”

“I can’t give you an exact figure.” The doctor was speaking in the toddler voice again. “It doesn’t really work like that.”

AJ nodded, his eyes clouding over as they came to rest on Brian’s motionless form. “Right.”

The doctor left a few minutes later, leaving the four of us standing awkwardly at the foot of Brian’s bed. I swallowed hard, the lump in my throat nearly causing me to choke. I didn’t know what to do, what to think. What if Brian didn’t wake up?

I stepped forward and perched gingerly on the bed next to Brian’s side. I gently took his hand in mine, trying to ignore the fact that his skin felt cold and lifeless. “How ya’ doin’ cuz?”I lightly ran my thumb across Brian’s knuckles as I spoke, pushing myself to continue as if everything was normal. “We’re all here ... waiting for you to wake up.” I bit my lip. “It would be really nice if you could open your eyes for us, just to let us know that you’re okay.”

Even though I wasn’t expecting Brian to open his eyes, I lost it when he didn’t. My shoulders heaved as the tears escaped my eyes, rolling down my cheeks and dripping off of my chin. I didn’t even recognize the sounds that were leaving my body; I had never heard myself – anyone – sound so anguished. My heart felt as if it were breaking into a thousand pieces.

As much as Brian was a part of the Backstreet family, to me he was more; he was my blood. I had brought him into the group. I had given his name to Lou. I had presented Brian as being a better choice than Charles. It was only after Lou had heard Brian sing over the phone that he had told Charles that he was out of the group. So, even though Charles blamed Brian for the fact that he had been replaced, it was actually my fault. I was the reason why my cousin might not live to see his son grow up. I was responsible for everything that had happened. My stomach surged with the realization as Howie gingerly laid his hand on my shoulder. I felt as though I was going to be sick.

** AJ **

“Kev, let’s go in the hallway for a minute; take a little break.” Howie gently urged Kevin to his feet. “You look like you’re going to pass out.”

I watched numbly as Howie guided a still sobbing Kevin into the hallway. The situation was surreal. I had been expecting the doctor to announce that Brian was going to make a full recovery; to hand us a fairytale ending. I still hadn’t fully absorbed the fact that the doctor had delivered bad news. I was still waiting for Brian to spring out of bed and yell ‘gotcha’ in his stupid southern accent. I was still waiting for him to be okay.

The door clicked softly into position, leaving Nick and I alone at the foot of Brian’s bed. My legs went weak as I looked into Nick’s crumpled face. This was real.

“Nick, do you mind – do you mind if I talk to Brian for a minute?” My face was hot with tears. “There’s just some stuff that I want him to know.”

“Sure, J.” The voice that left Nick’s mouth wasn’t his. It was too strangled, too forced. “I’ll go check on Kevin.”

I waited a full minute after Nick left before dropping down next to Brian on the bed. Like Kevin, I took one of Brian’s hands in my own; twisting our fingers together until my knuckles turned white from the effort. I took a ragged breath as I looked down into Brian’s still, sombre face. There was so much that I wanted to say and I had absolutely no idea where to start.

“Bri ...” I trailed off, fighting to get the words out through the tears that were still streaming down my face. “I don’t want you to leave me. I, honestly, have no idea what I’m going to do if you’re not around. I know that you are Nick are, well, you and Nick again, but you’re still my best friend. You’ve helped me through so much ...” I paused again, squeezing Brian’s hand even tighter between my fingers. “I know that you’ve always wanted to keep the depth of our friendship kinda quiet ... I guess you thought that my behaviour would bring you down ... make people think less of you or something.” I was rambling now, the words tumbling out of my mouth between my sobs. I really had no idea what I was trying to say. “If I could take your place right now, I would. You don’t deserve to be the one who gets their life cut short. You should be around for Baylee, for Leighanne ... for me. You know how the fans call us ‘A-Rok, right? Well, what am I gonna be without you, Rok? Just A; I am Mr. A ...”

“AJ?” Nick’s voice drifted softly from the door. “Do you need more time?”

I looked down at my fingers that were still intertwined with Brian’s. I didn’t need more time, but Brian did. I was terrified to lose him; terrified of what I would become if he wasn’t around to keep me in check. It may have been Kevin who busted down my door all those years ago, but it was Brian who had helped to keep me grounded ever since. As much as the fans thought they knew just how special our relationship was, they didn’t even know the half of it. Although the two of us would never be ‘Frick and Frack’, Brain was like my other half. Even Rochelle knew that Brian occupied a special place in my heart that she would never be able to infiltrate. If Brian died then a part of me would die as well, and I wasn’t quite sure if I would be able to live without that part of me.

“Nah, Nick.” I shook my head gently and gave Brian’s hand one final squeeze. “I’ve said what I need to say.” I repositioned Brian’s hand on the side of the bed and swiped uselessly at my wet face. “I love you, B. If you don’t remember anything else, just make sure that you remember that.”

“Kevin and Howie are waiting outside.” Nick shuffled forward, his eyes drifting to Brian’s motionless body. “I don’t know why I came back in. I don’t know if I can talk to him ...”

I stood up from the bed and moved towards Nick. “You gotta say goodbye to him, Nick. If you don’t, you’ll regret it.”

“Stay with me?” Nick pleaded, his eyes locking with mine. “I need you, J. I can’t – I can’t do this alone.”

I pulled my eyes away from Nick’s, knowing that I would give in if I continued to stare into his face. “I’ll be right outside. This is something that you have to do on your own.”

** NICK **

Stupid AJ. I swiped angrily at the tears that had started to fall once again. All he had to do was sit in the room with me. Why couldn’t he have done that?

I slowly lowered myself onto the bed next to Brian. The mattress groaned under my weight, and I cringed; needlessly worried that the noise would wake him up. When Brian didn’t move, I let my breath out in a long, unsteady sob. I reached out and slowly brushed a wayward piece of hair off of Brian’s forehead as I summoned the courage to start talking. AJ had told me that I would have to say ‘goodbye’, but I didn’t know if I was going to be able to actually say the words.

“You can’t die, Frick.” My chest felt tight. “There’s still so much that I need – that you need to do. I know that I fucked everything up for us. I really wish that I hadn’t ... I missed you so much ...” I was sobbing hysterically now, hiccupping in the middle of my words. “You told me yourself that there was stuff that you still wanted to do, stuff that you wanted to change. If you don’t wake up, then you’re never going to have that chance. I just want you to know that I’ll always keep your secrets; all of them – even the ones from when we were kids. You mean everything to me ...” I let out a gut-wrenching sob and forced myself to continue. “I love you more than anyone else in the world ... even Lauren ... as terrible as that sounds, it’s true. Please don’t leave me, Brian, please. I love you so much ...” I broke down completely at that point; unable to continue.

I was practically hyperventilating by the time AJ came back into the room to check on me. I had my head on Brian’s chest, the steady beeping of the monitors keeping me company as I cried shamelessly into the blankets that covered my best friend’s practically lifeless body.

“Nick ... Nick, shit ...” AJ walked over and gently placed his hands on my shoulders and tried to urge me into a sitting position. “I shouldn’t have left you alone.”

“He can’t die, AJ.” I refused to lift my head from Brian’s chest. The steady rise and fall of his chest was comforting, even if it was the result of the machines and not his own efforts. “I can’t lose him again. I can’t lose him forever!”

“I know, Nick.” AJ whispered. “I know.”

Reluctantly, I raised my head in order to meet AJ’s eyes. They were wet with tears; his face was puffy and blotchy from crying. He didn’t look at all like his usual care-free self. I got shakily to my feet and practically threw myself into AJ’s waiting arms. He gripped my back like his life depended on it; much the way that Brian had after I had broken up his night with Ashley.

“We’re going to get through this.” Despite his strong words, AJ didn’t sound confident. “Brian is going to make it.”

“What if he doesn’t?” I hiccupped into AJ’s shoulder, still clinging to him with all my strength. “I don’t know if I can live without him. I tried to do it before and it – it didn’t work.”

AJ stayed silent and tightened his grip. I knew that his silence meant that he agreed with me. It was no secret that AJ had always leaned heavily on Brian. Without Brian, AJ and I would be in the same position; lost.

** HOWIE **

Nick and AJ were clinging to each other so tightly that I was pretty sure that they were each holding the other one up. I didn’t know what to do as I looked to Kevin for guidance. There had been a time when I could have gone and over and easily comforted both Nick and AJ, but I was pretty sure that neither one of them wanted anything to do with me at the moment.

My gaze wandered to Brian’s stiff and silent frame. I was seriously beginning to regret the way that I had acted. He looked so weak and vulnerable as the machines worked to keep him stable that I couldn’t help the tears that welled in my eyes. As much as I resented Brian for what he had taken from me, I didn’t want to lose him. He was my brother.

“Guys ...” Kevin’s voice was strained. “We gotta try and get it together.”

“Why?” Nick pulled his face away from AJ’s shoulder and glared at Kevin. “What good is it going to do?”

I averted my eyes from Nick’s distraught face and cautiously took a step towards Brian’s bed. I suddenly had the overwhelming need to explain myself. I had to let Brian know that I loved him; that I only came down so hard on him because I had been feeling sorry for myself. I couldn’t control how Nick felt, but I could control what my – maybe – final words would be to Brian.

“Hey, B.” I slowly lowered myself onto the bed, well aware of the fact that the others were all watching and waiting to hear what it was that I had to say. “I’ve been a massive jerk ...” I swiped quickly at the tears that were now trickling down my face. “I didn’t mean to be so horrible to you ... I hope you know that. You’re my little brother, and we’ve always had our differences, but I can’t imagine my life without you.”

I stopped to collect myself, taking a deep breath as my tears began to fall even faster. How could I have been so petty? How could I have treated Brian like he didn’t matter? He did matter. He mattered more to me then he would probably ever know. I reached out and took Brian’s hand in my own, forcing myself to continue.

“Bri, I’m – I’m so sorry ...” I paused as Brian’s hand twitched around my fingers. I almost choked on my excitement as I felt the movement again. “Brian?!” I leapt up from the bed; my fingers still firmly locked around Brian’s.

“What happened?” Kevin was on top of me so fast that I thought that he was actually on the verge of shoving me out of the way. “What’s wrong?”

“He moved!” I shouted. “He – He moved his fingers!”
Chapter 32: I Hear You by KeepThisSecret
** BRIAN **

“ ... There is still no official word from the Backstreet Boys regarding the targeted shooting that took place during their sold-out show last night. The shooting spree injured twenty-three people, including band members AJ McLean and Brian Littrell. At this time, sources close to the band have confirmed that Littrell is still in critical condition. Charles Edwards of Florida has been charged with five counts of attempted murder and ...”

“Dude, turn that shit off.” AJ’s raspy voice interrupted the news report. “We already know what happened. Why do you want to know what the media has to say?”

“We need to make a statement.” Kevin ignored AJ’s request to turn the television off. “Jenn is supposed to be putting something together for us.”

The whole situation was so frustrating. I could hear everything that was going on around me, but I couldn’t respond. I couldn’t open my eyes. I couldn’t move my head. I couldn’t do anything. The most that I had managed to do so far was squeeze Howie’s hand. I had been so excited when I had felt the movement in my fingers, but the doctor had dismissed my victory as an ‘involuntary muscle spasm’. I had wanted to scream at him, but of course I hadn’t been able to get my body to cooperate.

To his credit, Nick didn’t believe that the movement had been involuntary. He had been by my side twenty-four seven; his fingers locked around mine. Every so often, he would lean over and whisper words of encouragement. It was as if he was more desperate for me to repeat the action then I was. The tone of his voice always made me want to cry; another thing that I couldn’t do.

“What’s it gonna say, Kev?” AJ sounded bitter. “Everyone piss off and leave us alone so we can deal with the fact that Brian’s dying.”

“Brian’s not dying!” Nick was crying again. He squeezed my hand even harder. “He moved! He’s gonna wake up.”

“I might have been wrong, Nick.” Howie mumbled. “Maybe I just imagined it. I – I just want so badly for him to be okay ...”

God, I needed to wake up. I couldn’t stand to hear Howie sound so sad, so guilty. I had heard his apology. I knew that he was regretting the way that he had behaved. I needed to let him know that I had heard him; that I accepted his apology. I wasn’t an idiot. I knew that Howie resented the fact that Nick had let me back into his life and that AJ always seemed to take my side. What Howie didn’t know is that I was just as surprised as he was when it came to the loyalty that Nick and AJ always expressed when it came to me. I didn’t deserve to have friends like them. I didn’t deserve to have a lot of the things that I had in life.

“He wasn’t wrong, Frick.” Nick leaned down so that he could whisper in my ear. “I know that you can hear me. I know that you’re fighting to let us know that you’re okay. I just kinda wish that you would hurry up.”

‘Come on, Brian! Come on!’ I tried to mentally psych myself up. ‘You can do this!’

I focused all of my efforts on moving my fingers. All I had to do was wiggle them a little bit and Nick would know for sure that I was still fighting. I have no idea how long I silently pleaded with myself, but suddenly my body started listening. I bashed my thumb clumsily against Nick’s clammy fingers, causing him to practically fall off the bed in excitement.

“Brian!” Nick screamed in my face. “Oh my God! Brian! Guys, he moved again! He moved!”

“Are you sure?” AJ scrambled to take hold of my other hand. “If you’re lying to me, Nick, I swear to God ...”

AJ fell silent as I squeezed his hand in mine. It was getting easier now; my body was finally beginning to respond. I could feel the excitement rising in my throat as I turned my attention to getting my body to open my eyes. I felt my eyelids flutter; almost there.

“Holy shit!” AJ screamed louder then Nick. “He’s gonna open his eyes. Come on, B! You can do it! Come on!”

My eyes flew open, and I immediately shut them again. The room was too bright. I tried again, more slowly this time, and finally allowed myself to squint into the assaulting florescent lights of the hospital.

“Brian!” Nick was practically on top of me. “Can you hear me? Can you see me?” He was crying as the questions spewed out of his mouth. “Are you okay?”

“Don’t ask him if he’s okay!” AJ shoved his way into my line of sight. “He probably can’t even fucking talk yet! Brian, blink twice if you understand what we’re saying.”

I blinked twice, wishing that I was able to smile. Even in a crisis, the two of them were ragging on each other. Some things would never change.

“Yes, yes, oh my God, yes!” Nick flung himself on top of me, hugging me so violently that I could hear the beeps from my monitors starting to amp up. “I knew that you were going to make it! I knew it!

All I wanted to do was return Nick’s crushing hug, but I had to settle for blinking away like an idiot. My throat felt tight, clogged. I didn’t think that I would be able to speak even if I could force myself to form the words.

“Nick, get off of him!” Kevin was yelling from somewhere outside of my field of vision. “Watch his breathing tube!”

Oh. So, that’s why I couldn’t talk. I had a tube down my throat. Nice.

No sooner were the words out of Kevin’s mouth then I was surrounded by doctors. The oldest of the group of men who had descended upon me, pushed Nick and AJ out of the way and began jamming his fingers against the machines that I could only assume had been keeping me alive. He began spewing a series of medical commands at his colleagues who all sprang into action; one of them, thankfully, removed the breathing tube from my throat with a series of swift tugs.

I gasped as the plastic left my airway, sucking in as much as air as I could. I sputtered at the sudden ability to breathe on my own; my throat was burning. The older man quickly positioned an oxygen mask over my face and looked down at me with a warm, crinkly smile.

“Breathe, Mr. Littrell, just breathe.”

I nodded viciously, my eyes swivelling to find Nick who was now lurking behind the group of medical staff. His eyes found mine, his face crumpling with the realization that I was finally responsive. I couldn’t remember a time when I had been so happy to see Nick cry.

“Mr. Littrell, can you hear me?” The older doctor was still peering into my face. “Do you feel any pain? Can you speak?”

“Throat.” I managed to croak the word out from underneath the mask that was still covering my face. “Sore.”

“That’s good, Mr. Littrell.” The doctor smiled, despite my admission of being in pain. “How about your chest? Does it hurt?”

My chest? I forced myself to focus on that part of my body, and noticed, for the first time, the dull ache that was radiating through my upper torso. “Hurts a bit.”

The doctor nodded. “You suffered a haemopneumothorax from damage to the lung and chest wall, which required a large chest drain. Unfortunately, you also went into cardiac arrest which demanded us to perform a prompt thoracotomy. I have to tell you, Mr. Littrell, that I’m very surprised to see that you’re awake; there was so much blood loss.”

“But he is awake.” Kevin pointed out the obvious. “So, he’s going to be okay?”

“He needs to take it easy for the next few weeks.” The doctor smiled warmly at me for the second time. “No dancing, no vigorous exercise, no stress, no sex ..”

AJ’s snort of laughter interrupted the doctor’s speech. “Knowing his wife that last one probably won’t be a problem. Unless he’s got some sexy lady on the side that none of us know about.”

“AJ!” Kevin snapped. “Can you shut up? Please.”

My eyes once again flickered to Nick. Had he mentioned something to AJ about what had happened with Ashley? I took a rather ragged breath as the possibilities of what would happen if Leighanne found out that I had been unfaithful began to invade my mind. I had just been given a new lease on life, and there was so much that I needed to consider. I didn’t want to be forced into making a life-altering choice. For once, I wanted to be the one who decided my future.

Nick shook his head ever so slightly and gave me a slow smile. I immediately relaxed. Nick had kept my secret, just like he had promised. It may have taken a tragedy to re-cement our friendship, but I didn’t care. All that mattered was that I was going to have the opportunity to start over with Nick by my side.

“You’ve got two scars now, Frick.” Nick grinned. “Think about how wild the ladies are gonna get the next time that you take off your shirt.”

“Jesus, Nick ...” Howie trailed off and looked to the ceiling for guidance. “You and AJ seriously need to give it a rest.”

“It’s okay, D.” I pulled the oxygen mask away from my face, eliciting a frown of disapproval from one of the doctors who was still checking me over. “I kinda missed it.”

Howie sighed and shook his head, suppressing a smile. “Well, we kinda missed you too, B.”

“I heard you all crying, acting like I wasn’t going to pull through.” I grinned. “You didn’t really think that I was going to give up, did you?”

“We had faith in you.” Howie finally allowed the smile to overtake his face. “We always have faith in you, Bri ... all of us.”
Epilogue by KeepThisSecret
** ASHLEY **

‘You have a new review from nacho_the_pug’

I reread the message for what was probably close to the hundredth time. My finger was shaking, hovering over my left mouse button. It had been months since I had written and even longer since I had uploaded a story. Last night, I had finally decided to bite the bullet and upload the first few chapters of the novel that I had penned almost immediately after returning to my ‘normal’ life. It was a romance, not my usual style, and I had been surprised by the amount of feedback that I had already received; especially since I had left my typical readers hanging when I had discontinued ‘The Chaos Tour’ immediately following the shooting that had almost cost Brian his life and that had left Charlie awaiting trial and, inevitably, death row.

My finger was starting to hurt from being held in such an awkward position. I knew that Nick was the reviewer behind ‘nacho_the_pug’, but I didn’t know if I wanted to read what he had to say. We hadn’t really had a proper conversation since Brian had been released from the hospital, and our messages had become even less frequent now that the guys were getting ready to embark on their new tour; a retro-inspired show that was going to showcase all of their old-school fan favourites.

Even though we didn’t speak that often, I knew that Nick would easily be able to realize that I had modeled my new female lead after myself; the female lead who was completely in love with Brian. In all fairness, I hadn’t expected Nick to read the story. I hadn’t seen his username on the site since everything that had happened, and I had, apparently wrongly, assumed that he had given up his little fan fiction addiction for good.

“You can do this, Ash.” I whispered, trying to psych myself up. “Just click the button and see what he said.”

My little pep-talk worked. I crushed my finger against the mouse and held my breath as the page loaded.

Reviewer: nacho_the_pug

It’s great to see a new story from you! I feel as if I know ‘Paige’ ... I think Brian would like her a lot. I know that Paige is not the only one who is hiding her feelings. I bet that Brian will tell her that he loves her too ... give him some time. xxx

My heart was in my throat. Anyone who looked at the review would think that Nick was just talking about the story, but I knew different. I moved my shaking hands to the keyboard, trying to figure out how to respond, but I stopped short when a new review suddenly popped up above Nick’s.

Reviewer: ajthesexgod

I called this shit!!! This Paige chick needs to get her shit together and talk to Brian, ‘cause Rok is way too much of a pussy to do it himself. Just sayin’...

My eyes widened as I reread the words that could have only come from AJ himself. I was an idiot. What had I been thinking posting a story that detailed my feelings for Brian? I needed to take it down before things really got out of hand.

My mind made up, I began navigating to my account portion of the website, but stopped when my phone pinged with an incoming text message. I looked at the display and Brian’s smiling face stared back at me.

AJ and Nick both tell me that you’re writing again ... I’m glad.

I picked up my phone from the desk with unsteady fingers. Sucking in my breath, I fired back the first thought that came to my mind.

You were my inspiration. I’m glad that you’re feeling well enough to get up on stage again.

I held my breath; feeling as if I might pass out as I waited for Brian’s response.

I inspired you, huh? ;) Are you coming to our opening show? Nick says that he sent you tickets.

I let out my breath in one slow sigh and quickly typed back my answer.

Of course I’m coming! It will be nice to see you ... and the other guys.

The little blinking dots popped up to let me know that Brian was typing a message. I held my breath for the second time; waiting.

It will be nice to see you too, Ash. I’m finally in charge of what I want ... and it’s amazing.


The End
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