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** 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?