The Year Without a Pandaskunk by RokofAges75
Summary: The sequel to Return of the Pandaskunk



Five years have passed since Nick and Petunia took over for Santa Claus, but this Christmas, neither one of them feels up to flying around the world delivering presents. They both seem to be in desperate need of a staycation. Now a father of two, Nick decides to take the year off and host a fun, old-fashioned Carter family Christmas at home instead, hoping it will help him mend his broken relationship with his estranged brother Aaron. But Christmas with the Carters quickly becomes a nightmare, and for Nick, there may be no escape. It will be up to Brian and the other Backstreet Boys to come to his rescue and save the holiday once again!

Categories: Backstreet Boys, Aaron Carter Characters: Brian, Group, Nick
Genres: Action, Adventure, Dramedy, Fantasy, Humor, Science Fiction
Warnings: Death
Challenges:
Series: The Pandaskunk Saga
Chapters: 11 Completed: Yes Word count: 37180 Read: 21836 Published: 12/24/19 Updated: 04/25/20

1. Prologue by RokofAges75

2. Part I by RokofAges75

3. Part II by RokofAges75

4. Part III by RokofAges75

5. Part IV by RokofAges75

6. Part V by RokofAges75

7. Part VI by RokofAges75

8. Part VII by RokofAges75

9. Part VIII by RokofAges75

10. Part IX by RokofAges75

11. Epilogue by RokofAges75

Prologue by RokofAges75
Have you been told? Did you ever hear
of the curious, furious, fidgety year
when St. Nickolas and his pandaskunk
vowed they were taking a vacation?

How do I know so much about St. Nick?
Well, I’m Nick’s pug, Nacho, and I’ll tell you quick.

It was not long ago, in 2019,
not yet Christmas but past Halloween,
though I can’t give you the very date.
Nick got up that morning late,
pulled on his favorite camo pants,
tamed his blond hair with his hands,
and sat back down on the side of the bed.
“Damn, I’m freaking tired,” he said.
“Playing Santa for the past five years,
delivering presents and holiday cheer,
maintaining his lists of the naughty and nice,
has me running on empty,” St. Nickolas sighed.
“No wonder Santa Claus never had kids.
It’s hard being a dad and Father Christmas.
If Tim Allen can do it, then so can I,
but I’m dreading my annual Christmas ride.”

His wife Lauren warned her husband, “Now Nick,
you must take it easy, not work yourself sick.
Don’t you remember what the doctor said?”
she asked as she tucked him back into his bed.
“It’s important for you to get plenty of rest
to keep your immune system functioning best.”

“But how can I rest while Saoirse is crying?
My baby girl needs me,” said Nick, sighing.
“And who will make Odin his breakfast and play
if Daddy just stays in bed all day?

“Who do you think does all that while you’re away?
Trust me, I’ve got this. Enjoy your sick day!”

“That’s a nice gesture, babe, but it’s not like I can
just take a whole day off from being a dad.”

“No, but you can take a break from being Santa.
Why don’t you give Brian a call in Atlanta
and see if he’ll fill in for you this year?
I’m sure he’d love to spread holiday cheer
so you can stay home with your kids and your wife.
Doesn’t a relaxing staycation sound nice?”

“That does sound amazing,” Nick had to admit.
“A fun, old-fashioned Carter family Christmas.
That is exactly what I could use.
I’ll call Brian up and give him the news.”

On the phone with Brian, Nick said, “Tell the Boys
I’m much too tired to deliver Christmas toys.”

“But… but-but... but Nick, you must be kidding!”
cried Brian. “You’re not? Fine, I’ll do your bidding.
I’ll order a red and white suit from my tailor
and hitch up Petunia to the old Wylee trailer.
I’ll fly with the pandaskunk around the world,
delivering presents for good boys and girls.”

But Petunia the pandaskunk could not go east,
for something was wrong with the mystical beast.
“I haven’t been feeling myself,” she confessed,
as Nick looked in concern at her untouched breakfast.

“What’s wrong? Are you sick?” he asked her in fear.

“I’m not sure, but I think I should stay home this year.
I’m just too tired to travel,” she sighed,
nestling down in her den and closing her eyes.

Nick knew then the decision was made:
They were both taking a holiday.
Some time off would help them get out of their funk.
It was the year without a pandaskunk.

***


Part I by RokofAges75
“This is the life,” sighed Nick Carter as he stretched out in bed next to his three-year-old son, Odin. “No traveling, no touring, no work, and no stress. Daddy could definitely get used to this.” He flipped lazily through the channels, looking for something he and Odin could watch on TV together.

“Santa!” Odin cried suddenly, pointing at the screen.

“Santa woke up one day, looking tuckered and gray,” an old woman was singing, as a stop-frame animated Santa shuffled across his bedroom in pajamas and a night cap.

“Yeah, buddy, that’s Santa,” said Nick with a grimace, realizing he had landed on one of the old Rankin/Bass Christmas specials he had watched as a child. He had been looking forward to sharing them with his son, but now he was overcome with guilt. What would Odin think when he found out Santa Claus wasn’t coming this year?

“...There’ll be a year without a Santa Claus beside your Christmas tree.”

He won’t find out, thought Nick, swallowing hard. We’ll still play Santa for him. Parents around the world would have to do the same for their own children, just like most people grew up thinking they always had. Nick had stopped believing in Santa long before he met the jolly old man at one of his concerts in Canada five years earlier. But that fateful encounter had triggered a chain of events that had changed everything.

“And he slept through the day, as the hours ticked away, and the time was growing near. And the children, they cried - they thought Santa had died! Every eye shed a blue Christmas tear.”

Nick squirmed as he listened to the song. Santa had died, and it was all because of him. At the meet-and-greet before the show, Mr. Claus had become infected with Nick Plague, a highly contagious virus spread through contact with Nick’s unwashed hands. With the North Pole under quarantine and Disneyland under attack by a miserable army of Misfit Fans, it had been up to Nick to save Christmas with the help of his friends from the Backstreet Boys, a bunch of Disney characters, and a young pandaskunk named Petunia. Though they had ultimately succeeded in defeating the Misfit Fans and delivering presents to children around the world, they hadn’t been able to save Santa, who had succumbed to his illness. Nick was devastated to discover that the doctors had not been able to use his host blood to produce an antidote for Nick Plague, as it was found to be infected with HIV from a drunken fling he’d once had with Howie in another story. Santa was dead, and it was all his fault.

“It was a year without a Santa Claus, a Christmas Eve so sad. It was a year without a Santa Claus, the worst we’ve ever had!”

Determined to keep the spirit of Christmas alive, Nick had tried to fill Santa’s boots and taken over his duties, overseeing operations at the North Pole and delivering presents to nice boys and girls. But in the five years since his promotion, everything had fallen apart.

First, he and his wife, Lauren, had started a family, which made it much harder for Nick to leave home and spend the holiday season at the North Pole. He hated every minute he spent away from his wife and son. Having grown up in Florida, he wasn’t a fan of cold weather, either, so when Odin was one, Nick had relocated Santa’s workshop from the North Pole to Las Vegas, Nevada. It was the perfect solution to his problems, or so he had thought - he and Lauren had just bought a house there themselves so their family could be together while the Backstreet Boys were doing their residency. But the reindeer weren’t acclimated to such a warm climate, and the elves, upset with the change, had flat-out refused to continue working for him, forcing Nick to hire local talent to manufacture the toys. As it turned out, former show girls and Elvis impersonators weren’t anywhere near as adept at toymaking as the elves had been, and the workshop had been flooded with complaints from kids around the world about the drastic decline in both the quality and quantity of their Christmas gifts. The following year, they’d resorted to purchasing premade toys instead, but with Toys ‘R’ Us having gone out of business, it had been difficult to find a large enough supply to keep up with the demand.

But Nick had an even bigger problem than his employees or inventory. For the past two years, a washed-up popstar named Melissa Schuman had been waging a very public war against him on social media. At the height of the #MeToo movement, when it had become trendy for women to accuse high-profile male celebrities of sexual misconduct, Melissa claimed Nick had raped her fifteen years earlier. She and her father had been dragging his name through the mud ever since, doing their best to discredit him and ruin both his reputation and career. They had barely made a dent in either - the Backstreet Boys were back and better than ever. In the past year, they had released a number one album, earned their first Grammy nomination in seventeen years, and embarked on a successful world tour, selling out stadiums around the globe. Nineties nostalgia had brought the bestselling boyband of all time back into the spotlight, which only seemed to infuriate the attention-seeking Schumans even more. In the last two months, Melissa had stooped lower than Nick had thought possible and formed an unholy alliance with his ailing little brother, Aaron, who had been struggling with addiction and mental illness for most of his adult life. Together, the two had aligned themselves against Nick, determined to take him down.

Aaron had supplied Melissa with fresh ammo by telling her how Nick had taken over as Santa Claus. Now she wasn’t just attacking Nick and the Backstreet Boys, but Santa, too.

 

Melissa Schuman @MelissaSchuman
What do I want for Christmas? Santa Claus behind bars! #SantaIsASerialRapist #CancelChristmas #metoo

Melissa Schuman @MelissaSchuman
I’m disturbed to think parents would actually let their daughters sit on the lap of a known serial rapist. #NotMySanta #CancelChristmas #metoo

Melissa Schuman @MelissaSchuman
Are you really comfortable having a serial rapist come into your house in the middle of the night while you’re sleeping? You better watch out! #SantaIsASerialRapist #NotMySanta #CancelChristmas #metoo

 

In the meantime, Nick and his sister Angel had both been granted temporary restraining orders against Aaron after he’d made threatening comments against their families, but Nick hated to see his brother struggling, especially around the holidays. Judging by his round-the-clock Instagram live videos, Aaron appeared to be in the midst of a mental health crisis. He was manic, barely eating or sleeping, constantly smoking pot, flaunting his guns and bling as he told braggadocious lies about his financial success, driving cross-country and back to do concerts that had been booked before his mental breakdown. If he didn’t get help soon, he was going to seriously hurt himself or someone else. Nick and Angel had both appealed to the authorities, begging for Aaron to be hospitalized on a 5150 hold, but their desperate pleas had fallen on deaf ears. Every time the police went out to Aaron’s place for a welfare check, the charismatic Carter managed to convince them he was doing just fine. As a former drug-user himself, Nick knew just how manipulative addicts could be. But if he also knew his brother had to want help in order to truly get better. If he couldn’t have Aaron committed or arrested, maybe he could get him to agree to voluntary treatment.

“How we doing in here?”

Nick looked up to see Lauren standing in the doorway, holding their newborn daughter, Saoirse, in her arms. “Hey,” he said, smiling at them both. “We’re okay. Why don’t you come watch TV with us?”

Lauren smiled back. “Maybe for a little while.” She came into their bedroom, carrying Saoirse, and climbed onto the bed, laying the baby next to her big brother between them. “Are you feeling any better, babe?” she asked Nick.

“Yeah, a bit,” he replied. He glanced quickly at his son, who was completely engrossed in the Christmas special, before adding in a low voice, “You know, I’ve been thinking… maybe we’re going about the whole Aaron situation the wrong way. Instead of cutting ties with him and trying to have him detained, what if we reached out to him and extended an olive branch? He might be more willing to accept our help if he could see that it’s coming from a place of love.”

Lauren was silent for a few seconds before she finally sighed and said, “Look, I’m sorry if this sounds… negative… or heartless… but haven’t we tried that before? Like, a bunch of times? It always ends the same: Aaron will eventually go back to his old ways, and then you’ll feel guilty for not being able to help him. We need to break the cycle, not repeat it.”

Nick raked his hand through his hair. “I know, baby, but he’s my brother. I can’t just give up on him. I have to keep trying. If I turn my back on him and he ends up like Leslie, I’ll never be able to forgive myself.”

“Nick, you know none of your family’s issues are, were, or will ever be your fault, right?” said Lauren, reaching out to rub his shoulder. “Aaron’s a grown man who makes his own choices. You can’t control him.”

“No, but I can still try to help him,” Nick replied firmly. In spite of his wife’s assurances, he knew the truth. Money and fame had torn his family apart, and that was at least partly his fault. As the most successful Carter by far, he was the only one with the finances and clout necessary to get his brother the help he needed. Money couldn’t fix everything, but it could pay for inpatient treatment, therapy, or whatever he could get Aaron to agree to.

Lauren let out another sigh. “Okay… so how do you propose we try to help him this time?” she asked.

Nick took a deep breath before answering. “Since I’m going to be home this year, I want to invite him here for the holidays.”

Lauren raised her eyebrows. “You want to invite him here?” she repeated. “To our house? Nick, he said he wanted to kill me and Saoirse!”

“I know, baby, but he didn’t really mean that,” said Nick, shaking his head as he looked down at his newborn daughter. “Aaron’s a pathological liar; he says a lot of stuff he doesn’t mean to get attention. It was probably just a cry for help.”

“And how is having him here for the holidays going to help him?”

“Because it won’t just be him. I want to invite everyone - the whole Carter clan. My hope is that we can all come together and show Aaron how much we care about him and how willing we are to help him.”

“It sounds like what you really want is to stage an intervention,” said Lauren.

Nick nodded. “I do. But I can’t tell Aaron that, or he’ll never come.”

“Well, you and Angel do have a restraining order against him - for good reason, I might add. What makes you think he would risk getting arrested to come here for Christmas?”

“The restraining order’s only temporary; it can be dropped. I’ll talk to Angel about it, but I wanted to run it by you first,” said Nick.

His wife gave him a long-suffering look. “I don’t know, baby, I just have this feeling-”

“Lauren, I want to have Christmas here in our house,” Nick insisted. “It means a lot to me. All my life, I’ve wanted to have a big, family Christmas.”

She sighed again. “If it means that much to you, then fine, let’s do it. We’ll invite your brother, your sisters, and whoever else you want. Aaron wouldn’t kill anyone in front of his whole family, would he?”

Nick reached across his two children to take her hand. “You know I’d never let anything bad happen to you or the kids. I love you, Lauren.”

“I love you too, Nick,” Lauren replied. “I just hope this plan of yours works.”

***


Meanwhile, Petunia the pandaskunk was having an equally lazy day, lounging in the den Nick had built for her in his backyard. She hadn’t been feeling like herself lately, and she didn’t know why. She wasn’t sick, as far as she could tell, but something was different - she just couldn’t put her paw on what it was.

As she lay pondering, the pandaskunk eventually drifted off to sleep. When she woke, it was dark outside. Having slept the entire day away, Petunia stood and stretched before ambling out of her den. She decided to take a lap around the pool - she could use the exercise. If I pack on any more pounds, I’m not going to be able get myself off the ground, let alone fly around the world, thought Petunia as she padded slowly along the perimeter of the pool. At least I don’t have to worry about doing that this year. Though she had been happy to help her liberators, Nick and Brian, deliver Christmas presents, the pandaskunk couldn’t imagine pulling the heavy Wylee trailer through the sky in her current condition. What’s wrong with me? she wondered, pausing to look down at her reflection in the still water. Am I just getting old?

“Be glad you can still get old,” the face in the water said back to her.

Petunia jumped. Great, she thought, shaking her head. Looks like my mind is starting to go, too.

“Greetings, sister!” She stared, flabbergasted, as what she had mistaken for her own reflection rose out of the pool and materialized on the patio before her, a full-fledged pandaskunk. “Fear not, for it is I, your brother from another mother.”

Picking her jaw up off the ground, Petunia stammered, “P-Patches?”

“In the flesh,” replied the other pandaskunk, spreading his paws with a smile. “Well, not really - I no longer have a corporeal body, but I can take on a physical form when I wish for others to see me.”

Petunia blinked as she tried to comprehend what he was telling her. “Are you a… ghost?” she asked warily, noticing the otherworldly glow shimmering around the semitransparent pandaskunk.

“I prefer the word ‘spirit,’” said Patches.

“I’m dreaming, aren’t I?” Petunia decided, remembering the only other time she had talked to Patches. It was during that strange, out-of-body experience she and Brian had shared five years ago, after her father Flower, possessed by Lord Voldemort, had nearly killed them both. “Or am I dead?”

“You are neither dead, nor dreaming,” said Patches, shaking his fluffy head. “You are awake and very much alive.”

“Then what are you doing here?” Petunia wondered uneasily.

And the spirit said to her, “Do not be afraid, Petunia, for The Force is with you. And soon, you will bear a son, and you will name him Jeff. He will-”

“Jeff?” Petunia interjected, wrinkling her nose. “I would never name my son Jeff.”

“But you will,” insisted Patches. “He-”

“I’ve already thought about it, and if I ever have a baby boy, I’m going to name him Perseus and call him Percy for short,” replied Petunia. “Percy the Pandaskunk - isn’t that cute?”

“Yes, but this baby’s name shall be Jeff,” said Patches impatiently.

“Just Jeff? Not Jeffrey?”

“Just Jeff,” Patches confirmed.

“Jeff with a J or Geoff with a G?” Petunia wanted to know.

“Jeff with a J!” shouted Patches. “Geoff with a G is pretentious and stupid!”

“Well, Jeff with a J is just plain stupid,” said Petunia. “Why should his name be Jeff at all?”

“Because it has been foretold,” said Patches simply. “You will name him Jeff, and he will be great and will save Christmas and bring balance to The Force.”

Petunia said to the other pandaskunk, “How can that be, since I am a virgin?”

The spirit said to her, “The power of The Force has manipulated the midi-chlorians inside you to create life. The Force will be strong with the child growing in your womb; he will be called The Chosen One.”

“The Force?” Petunia repeated with a frown. “I thought that only existed in Star Wars.”

“Ah, yes, but remember, Star Wars has become a part of the Disney universe, the very same universe to which you, as the daughter of Flower the Skunk, also belong,” said Patches. “Never forget, you are a half-blood Disney princess, Petunia. The Force will be with you… always.”

Petunia wrinkled her furry, white snout. “That still doesn’t make much sense,” she said.

“No? Well, consider this: Your friend Lauren, in her old age, has given birth to a daughter after another miscarriage, for nothing is impossible in a world where flying pandaskunks exist.”

“Old age?!” Petunia exclaimed, laughing. “Lauren’s only thirty-six! That’s not even middle-aged in human years.”

“Yet when the mother is over thirty-five, it’s considered a geriatric pregnancy,” Patrick replied wisely. Then the pandaskunk departed from her, leaving Petunia to ponder what he had prophesized.

***


Brian Littrell was at home with his wife Leighanne, helping her decorate one of their forty-three Christmas trees, when his phone rang. “Hey, Nick,” he answered it, having noticed his friend’s name flashing on the screen.

“What’s up, man?” Nick replied.

“Not much. Leighanne and I are just working on getting our bathroom trees put up,” said Brian.

There was a pause. Then: “You put up Christmas trees in your bathroom?!” Nick cried.

“We put up Christmas trees in every room,” said Brian nonchalantly. “And yes, that includes the bathrooms.”

“The Littrells love Christmas!” Leighanne exclaimed loudly enough for Nick to hear, closing the toilet lid so the gold ribbon she was draping on the tree wouldn’t dip into the water.

“Gross,” said Nick. “Isn’t that, like, unsanitary or something?”

“Unsanitary? Says the man who started a plague by not washing his hands after going to the bathroom,” Brian replied snarkily. He saw Leighanne make a face, giving his phone the stink-eye. She had never been a huge fan of Nick.

“Exactly - bathrooms are filled with germs,” said Nick, missing the point. “I hope you at least have a Mr. Hankey theme happening in there.”

Brian laughed. “You’ve gotta be kidding. You really think my wife would let us do a Mr. Hankey theme?”

Leighanne looked outraged, her mouth dropping open at the mere mention of Mr. Hankey the Christmas Poo. Brian would never dare admit it to her, but privately, he thought Nick’s suggestion made a lot of sense.

“I mean, maybe if Mr. Hankey were made of gold and bedazzled with diamonds,” replied Nick. “Hey, if I had a custom Mr. Hankey statue made for you guys, do you think she’d let you put it on display? ‘Cause I bet my brother knows a guy who could do a real classy-looking one.”

Brian chuckled, shaking his head. “It’s a nice idea, Nick, but I wouldn’t waste your money on something like that.”

“Aww, man…” He couldn’t tell if Nick was still joking, or if he was actually disappointed.

“So what’s up with you?” Brian asked, wondering why he was calling. “You sound like you’re feeling a little better. Did you change your mind about being Santa?”

“No, I haven’t changed my mind, but you might after you hear what I’m going to tell you. I’ve got some big news,” said Nick.

“Good or bad?” Brian wondered with trepidation. He had been worried about Nick ever since he had called and begged for Brian’s help playing Santa Claus, claiming he was too tired to deliver presents that year. Nick had always had boundless energy, but between the world tour, the birth of his second child, and the feud with his brother and Melissa Schuman, the past few months seemed to have taken a toll on him. At least, Brian hoped that was all it was. Nick’s health had been stable for the last five years, thanks to the advances modern medicine had made in treatments for HIV, but Brian knew it was likely to get worse one day. He hated the thought of that happening now, when Nick was not yet forty, with a wife and two little kids to take care of.

“Good and bad, I guess,” was Nick’s answer. “The bad news is, Petunia won’t be able to pull the trailer for you this year. The good news is, we’re gonna have another new addition to the Backstreet family!”

At first, Brian didn’t understand. “Wait, what?! Lauren’s pregnant again?” He saw Leighanne’s eyes widen as she looked at him in surprise. Was it even possible for a woman to get pregnant again so soon after giving birth? he wondered.

Nick laughed. “No, not Lauren - Petunia’s pregnant!”

“Petunia?” Brian repeated incredulously. “But… how? She hasn’t been-?”

“Fucking other pandaskunks?” Nick finished the question Brian couldn’t put into words, albeit less tactfully than he would have attempted to. “No, dude, that’s the crazy part. She claims she hasn’t been, and even if she wanted to, I’m not sure when she would have had the opportunity. As far as we know, Petunia’s the only living pandaskunk in the world, right? But according to her, she was visited by the ghost of Patches, who told her she was going to have a baby.”

Brian’s heart began to beat faster. “Nick…” he whispered.

“I know, I know,” Nick interrupted. “I know it sounds unbelievable. And it’ll be hard to prove; apparently it’s almost impossible to tell if a panda is pregnant. But-”

“I believe you,” blurted Brian, bringing Nick to an abrupt stop.

“You do??” he asked, sounding surprised.

Tears had sprung up in Brian’s eyes. “Nick, don’t you know what this means?” he replied hoarsely. “It’s an immaculate conception. Just like-”

“Anakin Skywalker!” shouted Nick.

Brian paused, caught off-guard. After collecting himself, he said, “Actually, I was thinking of Jesus. You know... our Lord and Savior? The Son of God?”

“Oh, yeah,” said Nick. “Him too.”

“Nick, this could be the Second Coming of Christ in pandaskunk form!” exclaimed Brian. Leighanne’s eyes were as round as saucers now; she was staring at him as if he had grown a second head. “I want to be there to witness this miracle with my very own eyes. Can I bring my family for a visit before Christmas?”

“Of course, dawg, you know you’re welcome any time,” replied Nick, sounding delighted. “We’ve got plenty of room - the more, the merrier! Just a heads up, though: since I’m not doing the Santa thing this year, I’ve decided to host a fun, old-fashioned Carter family Christmas instead, so my crazy family may be coming, too. Consider yourself warned.”

Brian laughed. “Christmas with the Carters, huh? Count us in.”

When he hung up the phone, Leighanne gave him an incredulous look. “Brian Thomas Littrell,” she scolded him, shaking her head. “What in the world have you gotten us into now?”

***


“Holiday ro-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-oad! Holiday ro-o-o-o-o-o-oad!” Jane Carter sang along with Lindsey Buckingham on the radio, as her son Aaron’s pick-up truck sped down the highway.

In the driver’s seat, Aaron rolled his eyes. “Okay, Mom, time to turn off your old people music,” he announced. “I wanna play you my new beats!”

Please don’t, thought Jane, cringing inwardly. Her ears were already hurting. “We don’t have to listen to music at all, you know,” she said, turning down the volume on his truck’s stereo. “We could just make conversation and enjoy each other’s company.”

“Okay,” agreed Aaron. “What do you wanna talk about?”

“Well…” Jane trailed off, racking her brain for a topic. “What do you want for Christmas?” she finally asked her son.

Aaron had his answer ready. “I want an official Smith & Wesson M&P15 .223-caliber AR-15 style semi-automatic rifle!” he blurted out, all in one breath.

Jane just looked at him, her eyebrows raised, and shook her head. “You’ll shoot your eye out,” she replied.

“But Mo-om!” whined Aaron. “Nick and his BSB gang stalkers sent the cops to my house, and they took all my guns away!”

“You don’t need guns, Aaron.” You need help, Jane added in her head, but she knew better than to say so out loud. It would only set him off.

“Yes I do!” Aaron argued. “According to the second amendment, it’s my constitutional right to bear arms!”

“Oh, Aaron,” sighed Jane.

Her son just scowled. “Fuck this conversation,” he huffed. “I’m turning my music on.” He pressed a few buttons on his stereo and cranked the volume back up until the whole truck was vibrating with the booming bass of his latest techno track. “What do you think?” Aaron asked his mother, as he bobbed his head to the beat.

Holding her ears, Jane shook her head. “I don’t know, Aaron… I think this is bad idea.”

Aaron frowned, turning the music down a bit. “What the fuck are you talking about?” he said scornfully.

“Watch your mouth!” Jane snapped back. “I’m talking about this trip. Driving all the way across the country to spend Christmas with your brother and that gold-digging whore he married is a bad idea. After how hard he’s worked to cut his family out of his life, I still can’t believe he invited us.

“Me,” her younger son corrected. “Nick invited me. He doesn’t know you’re coming.” And he’ll be in for the shock of his life when you show up at his house, Aaron added in his head, snickering to himself. He couldn’t wait to see the look on Nick’s face when he opened the door to find his estranged mother and her dozen pugs standing on his front porch. It was going to be great.

“What?! You told me he invited everyone for a fun, old-fashioned Carter family Christmas!” cried Jane.

“Well, I think Angel’s coming too,” Aaron said with a shrug. “I don’t know. We haven’t really been speaking lately.”

Jane sighed. “I know how that feels.” She hadn’t heard from her oldest son or youngest daughter in several years. It was only recently that Jane and Aaron had reconciled, after appearing on the reality show Marriage Boot Camp together. When he had offered to drive her and her dogs from her home in Florida to Nick’s house in Las Vegas for the holidays, she had jumped at the chance, hoping it would help her heal the fractured relationships she had with the rest of her kids, as well. Now she was wondering if she had made a mistake.

“It’ll be fine, Mom,” Aaron insisted. “I know you just got out of rehab, but I really don’t think you need to worry. I don’t drink anymore-” He paused to puff from the joint he held between his fingers, filling the car with a cloud of pot fumes as he exhaled. “-and Nick’s not supposed to with that heart condition he has. Plus, I’m pretty sure Lauren’s still breastfeeding. They probably won’t even have any alcohol in their house, so we should have no problem staying sober,” he said confidently, as he picked up the can of computer duster he kept in his cupholder and took a hit of the inhalant.

“Stop that!” Jane scolded her son, as he drifted across the center line. “You’re going to kill us both!”

“You stop!” Aaron shot back, swerving back into his lane. His lips were tingling, and his head felt pleasurably light and floaty. “I’m a grown man, Mom; I got this. Go to sleep.”

“Why don’t you let me drive for awhile?” Jane offered.

“After you took two hundred miligrams of fucking Seroquel?” Aaron scoffed. “Yeah right. I told you, I got it. Chill out. It’s all under control.”

“Yeah, you seem real in control,” said Jane, rolling her eyes.

“Shut up, Mom,” snapped Aaron. He could already feel his high starting to fade away. “You’re annoying me. Just go to sleep.”

“All right, fine,” Jane finally relented, taking a bottle of sedatives out of her purse. She washed a handful of pills down with a swig of soda from her Big Gulp cup. Jesus, take the wheel, she prayed, as she closed her eyes and leaned back against the headrest. It was going to be a long trip.

***


Part II by RokofAges75
Hours later, Aaron pulled into a rest stop somewhere in rural Arizona. He had been driving live on Instagram all night. Now the sun was rising, and he was starting to get sleepy.

“You still wanna drive for a while, Mom?” he asked, stifling a yawn.

There was no response from Jane. She was still sound asleep in the passenger seat, snoring softly with her mouth hanging open.

Aaron gave her a rough poke. “Wake up, Mom. It’s morning. Time to take your meds.”

Still no response. If it hadn’t been for the fact that he could hear her ragged breathing, Aaron might have thought she was dead. As it was, he doubted she was just sleeping deeply. She must have taken too many pills last night, he thought, shaking his head in disgust. Fresh out of rehab and already overdosing on drugs.

Aaron left the truck to stretch his legs and let her dogs out, tying their leashes to the rear bumper while he lit a joint. The pugs bounded playfully around his ankles as he leaned back against the side of the truck and smoked pot. It felt good to get some fresh air.

After finishing his joint, he stamped out the butt before he slid back behind the wheel. Jane was still sleeping as he started the engine and put the truck in drive. She didn’t even stir when he turned up his music and peeled out of his parking spot, pulling onto the highway without a backwards glance.

Several miles later, he caught a glimpse of something bright out of the corner of his eye. When he finally looked into his rearview mirror, his heart almost stopped. He was being followed by a police motorcycle, its blue lights flashing.

“Fucking BSB gang stalkers must have called the cops on me again,” he muttered as he pulled over onto the shoulder, hastily reaching across his unconscious mother to shove his duster can into the glove compartment, where he kept his bag of weed, along with the rest of his drugs. He could only pray the cop wouldn’t ask to search his truck.

He held his breath as the cop came swaggering up alongside his truck. “Hello, officer,” he said politely, as he put down his window. “What’s the problem?”

Whipping the sunglasses off his face, the cop glared through the open window at Aaron. “Get out of the vehicle.”

His heart pounding, Aaron tried to play it cool as he unbuckled his seatbelt and climbed out onto the pavement. “I don’t think I was speeding. Was I weaving or something?” he asked innocently, hoping the cop couldn’t smell the marijuana he had been smoking.

“Shut your mouth, sir,” snapped the patrolman, still glaring at Aaron. “You know, if I wasn’t in uniform, I’d split your skull with the butt of this revolver faster than you can say ‘police brutality.’”

Aaron could feel his blood pressure spike as he struggled to stay calm. “Well, officer, whatever it is you think I’ve done, I’m sure it’s a lie. My brother, Nick Carter, started a smear campaign against me and got his BSB gang stalkers to spread all kinds of vicious lies about me. They’ve been saying I’m a crackhead, that I smoke meth, that I’m crazy, that I’m a pedophile, that I abuse animals, that I threatened to kill members of my family, but none of it’s true. They keep calling the cops on me for no reason, trying to get me locked up, and it never works because I’m a law-abiding citizen.”

The officer raised his eyebrows. “Is that so?” Snatching Aaron suddenly by the elbow, he hauled him to the back of the truck, where he bent down to pick up the bundle of empty leashes that was still tied to the bumper. “Explain this, you son of a bitch.”

Aaron’s heart sank. “Oh my god,” he gasped, clapping his hand over his mouth. He felt sick to his stomach.

“Do you know what the penalty for animal cruelty is in this state?” asked the officer.

Aaron swallowed hard. “No, sir, I don’t.”

“Well…” The officer fixed him with a penetrating stare. “...it’s probably pretty stiff.”

“Oh, you can’t think I’d do this on purpose, sir!” Aaron sputtered. “I… look, I… I tied them to the rear bumper when I was stopped at the rest area. I… I’d been driving all night, and I was very tired; I must have forgot.” He shook his head with regret. “I’m very sorry. I feel terrible.”

The officer finally looked away, gazing off into the distance. “How do you think those little dogs feel?”

Aaron shuddered. He didn’t know what else to say. “Look, I told you I was sorry. It really was an accident.”

“Yeah… well, I guess I can buy that, sir. But it is a shame,” said the patrolman, shaking his head. “I had a pooch like these ones, when I was a kid. Poor little guys…” His voice grew thick as he choked up, tears sparkling in his eyes. “Probably kept up with you for a mile or so. Tough little mutts.”

“Oh no, they were purebred,” Aaron corrected him. “My mom breeds pugs.” Oh god, he thought, his heart skipping a beat. Mom’s gonna kill me when she finds out.

To his relief, the officer let him go with only a verbal reprimand. Aaron got back into the truck, only to realize he was still on Instagram live. His phone had been recording the whole time. Had it caught the conversation between him and the officer? Heart racing, he read the comments.

 

ednaheartsaaron
I was afraid you’d get pulled over, Aaron. You’ve been exceeding the speed limit for thousands of miles!

rusty83
Aaron wasn’t speeding. The cops stopped him because he’s been driving high.

lmg_ellen
He was speeding, Rusty!

rusty83
No he wasn’t!

 

Aaron let out a sigh of relief. It didn’t look as though any of them had heard the real reason he had been pulled over. “Listen to Ellen,” he said, looking at the camera. “I was speeding. I was driving like a maniac. We can all be grateful to this man for stopping me.”

At that moment, the officer suddenly reached through his open window. “Here are the leashes, sir,” he said, handing them to him. “I’m going back to get the rest of the carcasses off the road.”

Fuck, thought Aaron, his hands balling into tight fists. “Thank you, officer,” he said through gritted teeth. “Have a nice day.”

He ended the live video before his followers could start freaking out in the comment section, but he knew the damage had already been done. It was only a matter of time before someone uploaded the video to YouTube and the BSB gang stalkers started tweeting it out. They would see this as documented evidence that he really was an animal abuser, and they’d never let him live it down.

The only thing he worried about more than his own reputation was his mother’s reaction. It was a relief she had slept through the whole thing, but she would be devastated and furious when she woke up to discover her dogs were dead.

Maybe I can keep her from finding out the truth, thought Aaron, the wheels in his head already turning as he pulled back onto the highway. What she doesn’t know won’t hurt her, right?

When he saw the exit for Phoenix, where his mom’s brother Steve lived, he took it. It was pouring rain by the time he pulled into his Uncle Steve’s driveway, yet despite the racket of the raindrops pounding on the roof of the truck, Jane was still sound asleep.

“Maybe this will sober you up,” said Aaron, hauling her out of the car and dragging her onto Steve’s doorstep. He rang the doorbell, but no one answered. He tried knocking. Still no answer. Finally, he lowered his mother into a lawn chair that was sitting on the front porch, propped an umbrella over her head, and left her there for her brother to find.

Not my problem anymore, he thought, brushing his fears aside, as he got back on the highway and headed for Sin City.

Halfway to Vegas, he stopped again for gas and food. He was parked outside a McDonald’s, eating his burger and fries, when he heard a soft, whimpering sound. What the hell is that? he wondered. Turning around, he looked into the back seat and saw one, tiny pug puppy sitting upright on the floor, pawing at the passenger seat in front of it.

“Well, where have you been?” he asked, staring at it in wonder. “You must have been hiding earlier when I let the others out. Lucky for you.”

He reached back and grabbed the puppy by the scruff of its neck, pulling it into his lap. “I guess that means I get to keep you, huh, little girl?” he said, looking her over. “I’m gonna call you Nala. It means ‘gift’ in Swahili. Merry Christmas to me!”

He fed the newly-christened Nala the last few bites of his cheeseburger and let her out to use the bathroom before he pulled out of the parking lot, the little puppy curled up in his lap. While stopped at a red light, he snapped a selfie of the two of them and posted it to Instagram with the caption, “Vegas, here we come!”

***


Overnight, a cold front had swept through Las Vegas, dropping the temperature to a frigid fifty-two degrees. Nick shivered as he braved the bitter cold to bring clean blankets, fresh from the dryer, to Petunia, who was holed up in her backyard den.

“Don’t you want to come inside the house?” he asked her. “It’s nice and warm with the heat on.” Lauren hadn’t been keen on the idea of having a half-skunk in her house at first, but now that Petunia was pregnant, she had agreed with Nick that the pandaskunk deserved to be pampered.

“Oh no, I’m nice and cozy right here,” replied Petunia, burrowing into the pile of warm blankets. “Thanks for the offer, though.”

“No problem,” said Nick uncertainly, not sure whether he should try to change her mind or just let her be. He knew many animal mothers preferred to be left alone when they were about to give birth, and he didn’t want to interfere with nature. “Let us know if you need anything, okay?”

“I will. Thanks, Nick.” Petunia gave him a tired smile as she lay her furry, white head upon her big, black paws.

“I’ll let you rest now,” said Nick, smiling back at her. “See you later.”

“How’s Petunia doing?” Lauren wanted to know the instant Nick stepped inside the house. “Didn’t she want to come in?”

Nick shrugged. “She said no, but she seemed okay. Just a little listless.”

Lauren nodded, not seeming too concerned. “Pregnancy takes a lot out of you,” she said knowingly, grunting as she bent down to pick up another ornament from the box at her feet. She was in the midst of decorating their twenty-foot Christmas tree while Odin watched cartoons. Baby Saoirse lay on a blanket spread out on the living room floor, staring up at the bright lights in wide-eyed wonder.

“What do you think of all this, baby girl?” Nick cooed, scooping her up so she could get a closer look at the lights on the tree. “Your first Christmas…”

Suddenly, he heard the ominous sound of the doorbell ringing. Lauren froze, looking at him with her ornament held in mid-air. Odin leapt up from the sofa and ran for the door, shouting, “I’ll get it!”

“Wait, wait, wait!” Nick called. He handed off Saoirse to his wife before hurrying after his son. If it was Aaron at the door, he wanted to be the one to answer it. He had no idea what to expect from his brother, but it wouldn’t have surprised him if Aaron showed up drunk, high, or manic. He didn’t want to subject his son to the sort of mental instability he had seen on Instagram live. His hope was that Aaron would be on his best behavior around his nieces and nephew, but he knew better than to count on it. “Let me get it, buddy,” said Nick, shunting Odin safely behind him before he opened the door.

He was surprised to find not only Aaron, but Angel and her family standing on the front porch. They were already fighting.

“You knew full well you had no business being at The Grove when my husband works there and we had a restraining order out against you!” Angel accused, wagging her finger in Aaron’s face.

“But he wasn’t even working that night! I knew he wasn’t working, or I wouldn’t have gone there!” Aaron protested. The pug puppy he was holding in his arms looked around nervously.

“How did you know he wasn’t working?” asked Angel.

“Because it was six o’clock in the evening! I know his schedule, all right? He never works nights!”

“You know my schedule?” repeated Angel’s husband Corey, raising his eyebrows. “That’s a little scary, all things considered.”

“What things?” Aaron retorted angrily.

“Oh, I dunno, maybe you threatening to kill my daughter?”

“You mean the sick lies Lina’s been spreading,” hissed Aaron, his eyes narrowing as he spat out the name of his ex-girlfriend like it was venom on his tongue.

Angel was holding her daughter Harper protectively on her hip. “Aaron, you’re the one who told me you had thoughts about killing babies!” she cried, turning her body to shield Harper from him.

None of them seemed to have even realized Nick was standing there in the doorway until he cleared his throat loudly and shouted, “HEY!”

Aaron, Angel, and Corey all froze, as Harper stared at her uncle with wide eyes.

Once his siblings had stopped bickering, Nick broke into a grin. “Merry Christmas!” he called, stepping back so they could come inside.

“Merry Christmas, Nick,” said Angel, leaning in to hug him as she carried Harper into the house.

“Good to see you, bro,” said his brother-in-law, shaking Nick’s hand. “How you been?”

“Not too bad,” Nick replied with a nod. Indeed, since he had taken the stress of being Santa off his plate, he did feel better, both physically and emotionally. Now if he could only take care of the Aaron situation… He looked up at his little brother, who had hung back, lingering hesitantly on the doorstep. “You coming in or what?” Nick asked him.

Aaron nodded, stepping slowly across the threshold. “Hey,” he said awkwardly.

“Hey,” Nick echoed. Without another word, he spread his arms wide and stood there, waiting. After a few seconds, Aaron set his dog down on the floor and fell into his big brother’s arms. “Welcome back,” Nick whispered, as he embraced him. “It’s good to see you, bro.”

In truth, Nick got no joy out of seeing his little brother the way he was. Aaron looked terrible. His clothes hung from his lanky frame; he had lost so much weight, he was practically nothing but skin and bone. His face was gaunt, his complexion gray beneath the hideous Medusa he had gotten tattooed down the left side of it. There were dark circles under his eyes, and his hair was greasy and disheveled, as if he hadn’t slept or showered in days.

“Thanks for inviting me,” mumbled Aaron. As he pulled back, he added, “Look, I’m sorry for all my bullshit these past few months.”

“Water under the bridge,” said Nick, waving his apology aside. Beneath his casual facade, he was still bitter about the hurtful things Aaron had said about him, but he knew he needed to be the bigger man and model forgiveness if he was going to convince his brother to get help. “Come on inside. It’s cold out there.”

With a smile that didn’t quite reach his sunken eyes, Aaron walked further into the house, and Nick closed the front door behind him.

***


That evening, as Lauren and Angel were getting the kids ready for bed, the doorbell rang again. As Nala and I both barked excitedly, Nick hurried to answer the door, only half-expecting it to be his other sister, Bobbie Jean.

Though they had barely spoken in the almost eight years since their little sister Leslie had died, he had extended an invitation to BJ to join the rest of the Carter kids for the holidays. She hadn’t immediately said yes, though she hadn’t given him a definite “no” either. The last he’d heard, it all depended on whether or not she could find a way to get herself and her daughter to Las Vegas from their home in Florida, as she claimed she no longer had a car. When Nick had offered to fly her out, she had flat-out refused. “I’m an independent woman, Nick; I don’t need your charity. I make my own way in the world,” she’d told him with pride.

When he opened the door, Nick found not BJ, but one of the “elves” he had hired to help with Santa’s workshop, an elderly woman named Mildred. Mildred was one of the original Vegas showgirls, having performed in the long-running Lido de Paris revue when it opened at the Stardust Casino in 1958. Now ninety-one, Mildred hadn’t danced onstage in many years, but as her late husband had squandered away their retirement savings at the Blackjack tables just before his death, leaving her destitute, she was desperate for work. She reminded Nick of his grandmother, if his grandmother had worn bedazzled bras and elaborate, ostrich feather headdresses.

“Hi, Mildred!” Nick exclaimed warmly, as he ushered her inside. “What brings you here?”

“Just dropping off some gifts for the children,” Mildred replied, her wrinkled face barely visible above the pile of wrapped boxes in her arms.

“Oh, Mildred… you know, you shouldn’t have done that,” said Nick, as he took the packages from her. He handed them to Aaron, who had come to see who was at the door.

“Oh, dear,” Mildred fretted. “Did I break wind?”

Nick snickered. “Did the room clear out, Mildred? I mean presents - you shouldn’t have brought presents. We’re not delivering them this year, remember?”

“Um, Nick?” said Aaron, frowning down at the boxes he was holding.

“In the garage, Aaron,” Nick told him. Turning back to the old woman, he added, “Mildred, why don’t you stay for a cup of hot chocolate so you can warm up some? It’s cold out there.”

“It sure is,” agreed Mildred, shivering. She wasn’t exactly dressed for the weather. The skirt of her skimpy, red, sequined elf costume stopped at mid-thigh, and the fishnet stockings she wore beneath it offered no warmth. The bare skin above her waist had broken out in goosebumps, and the nipples on her saggy breasts stood erect underneath the snowflake pasties she’d put over them.

Once a showgirl, always a showgirl, thought Nick, shaking his head, as he escorted her into the living room.

When he went to the kitchen to make Mildred a cup of cocoa, Aaron was waiting for him. “Nick?” he said again, still holding one of the boxes.

“What?” asked Nick, as he got a mug out of the cupboard.

“This box is meowing.”

Nick frowned. “Let me see it.” Aaron handed him the box, and he gave it a shake. Sure enough, he could hear something howling inside it. “She wrapped up her damn cat,” he said, shaking his head.

Aaron’s eyes widened. “Why would somebody wrap up a cat in a box?”

“She gets confused, Aaron,” Nick sighed, setting the box down on the floor. “She’s old. She doesn’t have much money, so she takes things from around the house, wraps them up, and gives them away as presents.” He poured milk into the mug and put it in the microwave to heat it.

“Wow…” Aaron shook his head in disbelief. “You need to hire better help, bro.”

“Be nice, or you’ll end up on my Naughty list,” warned Nick with a wink.

While Aaron went to unwrap the cat, Nick added cocoa mix to the mug of warm milk and carried it over to Mildred, who was sitting on the couch. “Here you go, sweetheart,” he said as he handed it to her.

“Oh my, aren’t you a dear? Thank you very much!” replied Mildred, taking a sip.

After a while, Aaron wandered back into the room. “What did you do with the cat?” Nick whispered, while Mildred was distracted by drinking her cocoa.

“Put it in her car,” Aaron muttered back. Giving Mildred a sideways glance, he added, “Isn’t she kinda old to be driving?”

Mildred must have heard him because she suddenly set her mug down on the coffee table. “You know, on second thought... I really can’t stay,” she said, starting to get up.

“But, baby, it’s cold outside,” Nick protested, grabbing her arm as he glared at Aaron.

“I’ve got to go away,” added Mildred, rising again.

“Baby, it’s cold outside,” repeated Nick, coaxing her back down.

“This evening has been…”

Nick put his arm around her hunched shoulders. “Been hoping that you’d drop in.”

“...so very nice,” warbled Mildred, struggling to her feet.

He took one of her gnarled hands in his to steady her. “I’ll hold your hands; they’re just like ice.”

“My grandson will start to worry,” she went on, shaking her head.

Nick smiled. “Beautiful, what’s your hurry?”

“My daughter will be pacing the floor.”

He nodded toward the hearth. “Listen to the fireplace roar.”

“So really, I’d better scurry.”

“Beautiful, please don’t hurry,” he begged.

She hesitated before sinking back onto the sofa. “Well, maybe just a half a drink more.”

Nick handed her the mug of cocoa. “Put some records on while I pour.”

“The neighbors might think-”

“Baby, it’s bad out there,” he warned.

“Say, what’s in this drink?” she asked, looking into her mug.

“No cabs to be had out there.”

“I wish I knew how…” She started to stand again, wobbling under the weight of her huge, feathery headdress.

He wrapped his arms around her to keep her from falling, twirling her toward him so they were face to face. “Your eyes are like starlight now,” he crooned, looking into her light blue eyes, which were clouded by cataracts.

“...to break this spell.”

“I’ll take your hat; your hair looks swell,” he added as he removed her headpiece.

“I ought to say no, no, no,” she sang, shaking her head.

“Mind if I move in closer?” He rocked her back and forth, rotating her slowly on the spot.

“At least I’m gonna say that I tried.”

“What’s the sense in hurting my pride?”

“I really can’t stay...” Mildred insisted.

“Baby, don’t hold out...” Nick responded with a grin.

“Ah, but it’s cold outside,” they harmonized, as they danced hand in hand. Neither of them noticed Aaron recording their little duet on his phone.

Later that night, after Mildred had left, Nick was lying in bed with Lauren, catching up on his social media, when he saw the new post on Aaron’s Instagram account.

 

aaroncarter I cannot be silenced. @lasdlan @lvmpd @cnn @foxnews @wendyshow #CoverUp #SerialRapist @fbi he raped Mildred. 91 years old. And he is doing EVERYTHING TO PROTECT HIMSELF. NICK GIVE YOURSELF IN!!! Give it up. I stand by the #metoo MOVEMENT!! @realdonaldtrump

 

This was the caption he had written to accompany the video he had taken of Nick singing and dancing with Mildred.

With a sigh, Nick showed Lauren. She shook her head in disgust. “Nick, we need him out of this house. He’s sick! How can he apologize to your face, then turn around and post this crap behind your back? He’s a lying piece of shit!”

“I know, babe, but at this point, don’t you think everyone else knows he’s a liar, too? No one’s going to believe I really raped a 91-year-old woman,” said Nick, rolling his eyes.

“I wouldn’t be so sure,” Lauren cautioned. “Look what that cunt Melissa Schuman tweeted.” She handed him her phone so he could see her Twitter feed.

 

Melissa Schuman @MelissaSchuman
Leave it to my abuser to sing “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” a song about date rape. I’m disturbed by the video I saw of #NickCarter using physical force to prevent an elderly woman from leaving his home, despite her protests. No means no! I’ve already reported him to the @LVMPD, and you should too. #SantaIsaSerialRapist #CancelChristmas #metoo

 

“The Las Vegas police department must be getting pretty sick of people wasting their time with false allegations about me,” said Nick casually. He was trying to play it off as if he didn’t care about the claims against him, but inside, his stomach churned. These days, it seemed he couldn’t do anything without someone taking it the wrong way.

“Let’s hope they assume those allegations are false,” said Lauren, sounding worried. “If they decide to start taking them seriously…”

Nick snorted. “Trust me, Lauren, no one’s taking Aaron seriously. That’s why he’s acting out. It’s all just a show for attention.”

She sighed. “Look, if you’re not going to kick him out, at least keep him away from the kids. I don’t want him alone with Odin or Saoirse. He’s a horrible influence.”

“I know, baby.” Nick reached for her hand and held it tightly. “But I meant what I said before: I would never let him hurt our children.”

“He needs to be kept off his phone, too,” Lauren continued. “Can’t you come up with some kind of project for the two of you to work on together - a way to keep him occupied and out of my hair at the same time?”

Nick nodded. “I’ll have him help me put up Christmas lights tomorrow. It’ll get him out of the house, and hey, maybe we’ll even be able to bond a bit.”

His wife finally seemed to be appeased by this. “Sounds like a perfect plan,” she said, offering him a faint glimmer of a smile.

***


Part III by RokofAges75
Nick got up bright and early the next day. Sleeping in was a thing of the past now that he had kids. His niece Harper woke at the crack of dawn just like his own little ones, so he wasn’t at all surprised to find Angel already at the breakfast table, feeding her baby cereal. It was a bigger shock to see Aaron sitting across from her, slumped over a cup of coffee. Nick wondered if his brother had actually woken up before him, or if he had just never gone to bed. The dark circles under his eyes made it look like he had been awake for days.

“Good morning,” Nick greeted the twins cheerfully, getting out the ingredients to make gluten-free pancakes for his family. As he flipped flapjacks on the griddle, he asked casually, “Hey, Aaron, you wanna help me hang Christmas lights outside today?”

To Nick’s astonishment, Aaron didn’t take much convincing. “Sure,” he agreed with a shrug.

After breakfast, the two brothers trouped out to the garage to get the lights. “We’re gonna have the best looking house in town, Aaron,” Nick said, as they carried box after box to the driveway. “I’ve always wanted to do this.”

Aaron raised his eyebrows as he looked down at the stockpile of plastic storage totes that had amassed on the pavement. “That’s a lot of lights, Nick.”

“Yeah, well, I’m sure it’s a lot of work, too,” Nick acknowledged as he set down the last box, “but if I’m out in the cold and I’m committed to decorating the house, I’m gonna do it right, and I’m gonna do it big. You want something you can be proud of, don’t you?”

Aaron shrugged again. “Yeah, I guess so.”

Nick smiled as he started unwinding one string of white lights. “Sure you do.”

“Think you might be overdoing it, Nick?” Aaron asked, as he watched him work.

“Aaron… when was the last time I overdid anything? C’mon, unravel these,” said Nick, handing him a length of cord. “You have to check every bulb. Oop, got a little knot here.” He shoved a tangled ball of lights toward Aaron. “You work on that. I’ll get the other box.”

Aaron sighed. He was already starting to regret agreeing to help his brother.

Putting up the lights took all day. By the time they had finished, the sky was getting dark, but the ground was fully illuminated, every tree, bush, and flower bed gleaming with bright white, purple, and multicolored lights.

“Oh, Nick, it’s so lovely!” gasped Lauren in delight when she saw the winter wonderland they had created. The whole family had come outside to admire it.

“Babe, you and the kids deserve a home like this to spend Christmas in,” Nick replied proudly, resting his hands on his wife’s shoulders.

“It’s a beaut, Nick!” declared Lauren’s dad, Larry. “It’s a beaut!”

“Aw, Dad… you taught me everything I know about exterior illumination,” said Nick, who had turned into quite the handyman under his father-in-law’s tutelage.

“Thank you. Thank you,” said Larry with a wide grin.

Nick went down the line of family members, wanting to acknowledge each one of them. “Aaron… Angel,” he said, slinging an arm around each of the twins as he stood between them. “I hope this adds to your enjoyment of the holidays.”

“Oh, it’s just wonderful!” Angel exclaimed, her dark eyes shining in the glow of the lights.

“Corey,” Nick continued, slapping her husband on the back. “Bro… thanks for being here.”

“Hey, thanks for inviting us,” replied Corey, who was carrying Harper on his shoulders. “You did a great job, dude.”

Aaron scowled. “I helped, too, you know.”

“The house sure does look swell, Nick,” said Jane, ignoring her other son.

“Thanks, Mom,” Nick replied automatically, as he put his arm around the next person in line. “I hope this enhances your holiday spirit. And BJ…” Smiling at his sister, Nick suddenly did a double-take, as he realized who he was talking to. “Mom?? BJ??”

“Aw, the house is gorgeous, Nick,” gushed Bobbie Jean, grinning back at him.

Nick kept looking between the two of them, as if he couldn’t believe his eyes. “Mom?!”

“I hope you didn’t do this all on our account, Nick,” Jane said, as she hugged her oldest son. Nick felt numb with shock. He hadn’t seen his mother in many years, and he certainly hadn’t expected her to come to his house for Christmas, especially considering he hadn’t invited her.

“Hey, baby!” called BJ. “Come here and see what Uncle Nick did to the house!”

Turning around, Nick noticed a rusty RV parked in the driveway. When did that pull up? he wondered, still feeling completely bewildered. He watched as the door opened and a little girl came bounding out. She ran right up to BJ, wrapping her arms around her mother’s waist.

“This here is Bella,” BJ introduced her daughter.

Angel bent down to Bella’s level. “Do you have a kiss for me?” she asked, smiling, as she turned her cheek toward her niece.

“Eh, you better take a rain check on that, sis,” said BJ. “She’s got a lip fungus they ain’t identified yet.”

Angel quickly drew back in disgust.

“We were gonna call,” BJ added, turning back to Nick, “but Mama wanted to make it a surprise.”

“Yeah… you surprised?” asked Jane, smirking at Aaron, who looked like he had seen a ghost.

“Surprised, Mom?” replied Nick, smiling through gritted teeth. “If I woke up tomorrow with my head sewn to the carpet, I wouldn’t be more surprised than I am right now.” He turned away from her, giving his wife a look of wide-eyed horror.

“That could be arranged,” Aaron muttered under his breath.

Lauren was looking back at her husband in dismay. “We have plenty of room,” he heard her say with forced politeness, as she pasted a smile onto her face. “Plenty of towels… plenty of everything.” She went over to hug BJ, but not Jane. Nick knew she had not forgotten how horrible his mother had been to her before and after their wedding, to which Jane hadn’t been invited either.

Jane, however, acted as if none of that had happened. “And this must be baby Seer-say!” she cooed, pulling back the fabric of the sling Lauren was using to carry Saoirse so she could better see her face. She leaned down close and pinched the baby’s cheek. Saoirse immediately began to cry.

“It’s Seer-sha,” Lauren corrected, as she took a step backwards.

Jane moved closer. “Can I hold my granddaughter?” she asked.

“Maybe once we’re inside,” Lauren said stiffly. “It’s too cold for her out here.”

While Lauren lead the rest of the family into the house, Nick hung back with BJ. “It’s good to see you, Beej,” he told his sister sincerely. “I wish I’d known you were bringing Mom.”

BJ sighed. “I’m sorry, Nick. I know you didn’t invite her, but Aaron was the one who decided to bring her in the first place. He drove all the way to Florida to pick her up, and then halfway here, he ditched her and stole all her dogs!”

“What?!” gasped Nick. “But, wait… Aaron only has one dog with him now.”

BJ shrugged. “He probably sold the rest of them for drug money or something. According to one of his stupid Instagram videos, he dropped Mom off at Uncle Steve’s house in Arizona because she was ‘overdosing’ in the seat next to him, but Uncle Steve wasn’t home, so he literally left her lying on the front porch, unconscious.”

Nick shook his head. “I can’t believe him. So is Mom using again, too?”

“Who knows,” said BJ, rolling her eyes. “She claims she accidentally took too many sedatives. She called me, crying, and begged me to come get her. I couldn’t leave her stranded there, so I did. It just made more sense to continue on to Vegas from Phoenix than to drive all the way back to Florida, so… here we are.” She offered an apologetic shrug. “I hope you’re not too mad.”

Nick sighed. “No, it’s okay. I wanted to have a fun, old-fashioned Carter family Christmas, and I guess Mom should be included in that, too. Maybe this is just what we need to make things right again.”

BJ nodded. “Maybe. But watch your back. You can’t trust either of them, Mom or Aaron.”

“Believe me, I know,” said Nick with a rueful smile. He turned his attention to her ride. “So… when did you get the tenement on wheels?”

“Oh, that there? That’s an RV!” BJ replied proudly. “I borrowed it off a buddy of mine. He took my house; I took the RV. It’s a good-looking vehicle, ain’t it?”

“Yeah. It looks so nice parked in the driveway,” said Nick.

She seemed to miss his sarcasm. “Yeah, it sure does,” she said, nodding. “But don’t you go falling in love with it now. We’re taking it with us when we leave next month.”

Next month?! Nick nearly fainted. If his whole family made it through the holidays without killing each other, it would be a Christmas miracle.

***


In the morning, while everyone else was getting dressed for a day of shopping, Nick, still in his pajamas, snuck up to the attic to stash some packages that had just been delivered - presents for Lauren and the kids. He much preferred shopping online to going into stores, where he was often stopped by fans wanting photos and autographs, but Lauren, desperate to get everyone out of her house for a few hours, had suggested the whole family go Christmas shopping together. She and Angel wanted to visit The Shops at Crystals to browse the high-end boutiques there, while Aaron, BJ, and Jane were more interested in bargain-hunting at the Gold & Silver Pawn Shop.

“Can’t Corey and I just stay home with the kids?” Nick had practically begged his wife.

“And leave me alone with your crazy family?!” Lauren had hissed back. “Not a chance in hell, Nick. You’re coming!”

He knew she would start to wonder where he was if he stayed in the attic for too long, so he hurriedly hid the packages and turned to leave. But before he could climb back down the ladder, he heard the trapdoor it was attached to close with a thud.

“What on earth was that doing down?” wondered Jane, making sure the door was safely shut before she walked away, shivering from the draft of cold that had been coming from the attic. “The kids could have gotten hurt climbing that ladder!”

“Hey!” Nick called, rattling the trapdoor, but there was no response. “Hello?!”

“Has anyone seen my husband?” asked Lauren later, as they were getting ready to leave. Odin and Saoirse were both buckled snugly into their car seats in the back of her car, but no one seemed to know where Nick was. “Aaron? Is Nick coming?”

Her brother-in-law was no help. “How the hell would I know?” he snapped, as he slid behind the wheel of his truck.

“Is he in the house?”

“If he isn’t out back with the pandaskunk, he must be in the house,” said Aaron with a shrug.

Lauren sighed with frustration. “I’m sure he wants to come shopping and have lunch with us,” she said, starting back toward the house, but Jane caught her by the wrist and stopped her.

“Nick’s got another car; he can drive. I’ve got to eat so I can take my Seroquel!” she exclaimed, settling herself into the front seat of Lauren’s car.

Closing her eyes, Lauren took a deep breath and counted to ten before she let it out slowly. I will not cuss out my mother-in-law. I will not cuss out my mother-in-law, she chanted in her head. I may just kill my husband, though. Damn it, Nick, where the hell did you disappear to??

“Help!” Nick called desperately from the attic, but no one heard him. Through the tiny attic window, he watched his whole family drive away without him.

Well, looks like I get to stay home after all, he thought with a sigh, as he paced around the chilly attic. I guess it’s true what they say: Be careful what you wish for.

He rummaged through some storage boxes, looking for something warm to wear over his thin pajamas. In a box of his old Backstreet Boys stage costumes, he found a puffy jacket, a pair of gloves, and a beanie. Good thing we used to dress like we were going skiing instead of singing and dancing, he thought, pulling the winter gear on gratefully.

Digging to the bottom of the box, Nick discovered a DVD set of House of Carters, the reality show he had filmed with his siblings over a decade ago. A lump rose in his throat as he looked at the picture of the five of them on the cover. He was pretty sure living in that house in L.A. was the last time they’d all been together before Leslie’s death six years later.

Feeling nostalgic, he found a boxy old TV with a built-in DVD player, plugged it in, and popped in the first disc. Tears rolled down his face as he watched the old family videos, smiling at the fond memories they brought back: he and Aaron fighting over Aaron’s beats and what had happened with Paris Hilton, Aaron jumping off the balcony and barking at him like a dog, BJ guzzling bottles of champagne and lighting her cigarettes on the stove burner, Leslie chasing Angel around the kitchen as they threatened to stab each other with cooking utensils. God, we were one fucked-up, dysfunctional mess of a family, he thought, shaking his head. But I sure do love those guys.

He was so engrossed in watching, he didn’t realize how many hours had passed until he heard the trapdoor open and the ladder being lowered down. “Lauren?” he called.

“Nick?!” Lauren’s head poked through the trapdoor, and her jaw dropped. “There you are! Have you been up here the whole day?”

“I got stuck,” he said with a shrug.

“Oh my god, baby!” Scrambling into the attic, Lauren dropped the shopping bags she had brought up and hurried over to hug him. “I’m so sorry! Are you okay?”

“I’m fine. I’ve just been watching this old DVD I found of House of Carters,” he said, holding up the case to show her.

She laughed as she took it from him. “Wow… you guys look so young! When did this come out?”

“2006.”

“So before we met. No wonder I’ve never watched this,” said Lauren, turning over the case to look at the back with interest.

“You wanna hide out and watch it with me for awhile?” Nick asked, raising his eyebrows.

“You mean avoid your family?” Lauren replied, smirking. “You bet your ass I do!” She wedged one of her bags into the trapdoor opening to prevent it from being closed all the way, and Nick bundled her up in more of his old tour clothes. “You owe me, by the way,” she added, as she leaned back against him.

“I promise I’ll make it up to you, baby,” he replied, kissing the top of her head before he pressed the play button.

“Oh my god, look how much hair AJ had back then!” she gasped the first time the Backstreet Boys appeared onscreen.

Nick snickered. “He just grew it out to make it look like he had a lot of hair. If you lifted his hat, you would see how bald he was underneath. This was before his hair transplant.”

Lauren laughed. “And Howie looks exactly the same. How has he not aged at all in thirteen years??”

“I know, right? I swear he discovered the Fountain of Youth down there in Florida and didn’t tell anyone. He’s like freaking Benjamin Button,” said Nick, shaking his head.

“And who’s that in the background, in the white t-shirt, with his face all blurred?” asked Lauren, frowning. “Is that Brian??”

Nick snorted. “Who else would it be? ‘Cause it sure as hell ain’t Kevin.”

Lauren looked at him in disbelief. “Brian wouldn’t show his face on your reality show?”

“He had just released his contemporary Christian solo album. Somehow, he didn’t think House of Carters would be a good reflection of his Christian values,” said Nick, rolling his eyes.

Lauren raised her eyebrows. “Wow. Just wait till he and his flawless little family get to spend Christmas with the Carters. Won’t that be fun?”

They both burst out laughing at the thought.

***


“Oh, come let us adore hi-im, Chri-ist the Lord!” sang the trio of Littrells in perfect, three-part harmony as their rental car drove down the desert road to Southern Highlands, the gated community where the Carters lived.

“That was beautiful,” sighed Leighanne, looking over at her husband in adoration.

“Deck the halls with bows of holly,” Brian began without missing a beat, and she and their son Baylee quickly joined in. “Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la! ‘Tis the season to be jolly, fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la! Don we now our gay apparel, fa-la-la, la-la-la, la-la-la! Troll the ancient Yuletide carol, fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la!”

“Hey now, don’t be trolling. This apparel’s not gay!” joked Baylee, looking down at his Baylee Littrell “Don’t Knock It” t-shirt.

Brian and Leighanne laughed. They were both wearing shirts with their child’s name and face on the front, as well.

“No… it’s beautiful,” sighed Leighanne, looking back at her son in adoration. Since liquidating her company, Wylee Bags, the year before, her life had revolved around managing Baylee’s budding career as a country music artist. She and Brian had traded in their Wylee wardrobe for a closet full of Baylee merchandise, and they couldn’t have been more proud.

“Now, that’s beautiful,” said Brian, pointing straight out the windshield. Normally, it was hard to see the stars over Las Vegas because of the light pollution coming from the Strip, but a single, bright star hung low in the night sky, as if it were lighting their way to Nick’s house.

“Why, it looks like the Star of Bethlehem!” gasped Leighanne. “Do you think the baby pandaskunk has already been born?”

Brian frowned. “I’m sure Nick would have called to let us know if that were the case. But I guess we’ll soon find out. We’re almost there.”

When they pulled up in front of Nick’s place, Leighanne made a face. “What on earth is that?” she asked, looking at the rustbucket that was blocking the driveway.

“That there’s an RV,” said Brian, laying his Southern accent on thick.

“Yes, dear, I know it’s an RV. What is it doing in Nick’s driveway?” Leighanne wondered.

Brian shrugged, as he parked their car carefully alongside the curb. “Remember, he invited his whole family for a fun, old-fashioned Carter family Christmas. It could belong to any of them.”

“God help us,” said Leighanne, shaking her head. “Are you sure you want to go through with this? I love our Littrell family Christmas a whole lot more.”

“Now, baby, be nice,” Brian warned before he opened the car door. “You’ve never been to a Carter family Christmas before, so how can you compare?”

“Have you?”

Brian paused to consider her question. “Come to think of it, no. I have no idea what we’re in for, but I’m sure it’ll be a December to remember,” he said with a grin.

Leighanne rolled her eyes as she reached reluctantly for the door handle. “Lord, give me the strength I need to get through this,” he heard her whisper as she climbed out of the car.

Brian and Baylee unloaded their luggage from the trunk, and the three of them trouped up the well-lit walkway to the front door. “Look at all the lights,” Brian pointed out, admiring Nick and Aaron’s handiwork. “It’s like a winter wonderland!”

Leighanne looked critically at the trees. “Purple lights? For Christmas?”

“What’s wrong with purple?” Brian wondered. “It’s the color of royalty - and of our advent candles. I think purple’s perfect for celebrating the birth of our King.”

“Well, then next year, you can put up purple lights all over our house, if you love purple so much!” snapped Leighanne. “Personally, I think all white lights would have looked much classier.”

He sighed. Why did his wife have to be so particular? “Save it for your Yelp review,” he muttered under his breath as Baylee ran ahead to ring the doorbell.

Thankfully, Nick answered the door right away. “Hey, guys! Merry Christmas!” he cried as they came in, hugging Baylee, then Brian, and finally Leighanne.

Leighanne instantly turned on the charm, her whole demeanor transforming the moment she set foot inside. “Merry Christmas!” she chirped back, beaming at Nick. “The lights outside look so pretty!”

“Thanks,” said Nick with a grin. “Aaron and I worked really hard on that.”

“You’re welcome! Oh, and here’s a little gift for you and Lauren for being such gracious hosts.” She handed him a beautifully gift-wrapped package.

“Oh wow, you didn’t have to do that. Thanks!” said Nick. “Should we wait until Christmas to open it, or-?”

“No, you can open it now,” Leighanne said eagerly. “It’s something you and Lauren will want to use tonight.”

Before Nick could make a sex joke, Brian asked, “Where is Lauren, anyway?”

“She’s out back, checking on Petunia,” Nick replied. “She should be in soon. Everyone else is hanging out in the living room. You can just leave your bags right here for now; I’ll take ‘em to your room later. Come on.” He motioned for them to follow him into the living room, where all the core members of the Carter clan were gathered.

It had been many years since Brian had seen Nick’s mother or most of his siblings. Baylee had only been around Angel and Aaron a handful of times and had never even met BJ or Jane. Together, Nick and Brian made a round of introductions, making sure their families were reacquainted.

“And this little princess is Seer-say,” said Jane, showing them the new baby, who was sound asleep in her arms. “Named after a Greek goddess - and also one of my Siamese cats I had when I was a little girl.”

“Seer-sha,” Nick corrected her, rolling his eyes at Brian while his mom wasn’t looking. “And, actually, Saoirse is an Irish name; we got it from one of Odin’s favorite movies, Song of the Sea.”

“Well, either way, it’s beautiful, and so is she,” said Brian, grinning at his bandmate. “I’m glad I finally get to meet her.”

“Oh, Nick, she’s absolutely precious!” Leighanne gushed, as Nick glowed with pride.

“Thanks, guys,” he said. “She’s the best gift we’ve been given.”

“Now, wait a minute - you haven’t seen what we got you yet,” Brian joked, and they all laughed.

“Well, I dunno what’s taking Lauren so long, but the suspense is killing me. I gotta see what it is,” said Nick, looking down at the present in his hands. “I’m gonna go ahead and open it without her. Wanna help me, Odin?”

“Yeah!” said his little boy, his blue eyes lighting up as he rushed over. Everyone watched in anticipation as Nick ripped off the ribbon and Odin tore into the paper, unwrapping a lovely set of…

“Sheets?” said Nick, raising his eyebrows at Brian as he held up the package of bed linens.

“Not just any sheets,” Leighanne said enthusiastically. “Celebrity sheets from our new collection at CelebritySheets.com! See?” She pointed out the small picture of herself and Brian on the front of the package. “They’re even autographed by both Brian and me!”

Brian had to look away as he heard Nick exclaim, “Wow, just what we’ve always wanted - your names on our sheets! Thanks!” He knew Nick was being sarcastic, of course, but Leighanne didn’t seem to catch on.

“You’re welcome! I guarantee you’ll love them just as much as Brian and I love ours. They’re amazing! They’re microfiber!” his wife went on. “Baylee loves his, too, don’t you, Bay?”

“Uh-huh,” said Baylee, looking as embarrassed as Brian felt.

“You’ll sleep like a celebrity on these sheets!” Leighanne chirped, flashing a big, toothy smile like she was filming a TV commercial.

Brian bit his tongue before he could say, “He is a celebrity!” and thankfully, Nick bit his, too.

“Ooh, I’d love a set myself!” Jane interjected.

In the midst of all the awkwardness, Lauren burst into the living room. “The baby’s coming!” she cried.

“What?!” everyone gasped.

“Yes! It’s coming now! Nick, grab some old towels or sheets, something we can use to clean and wrap the baby in after it’s born, and bring them out to Petunia’s den. I’ve gotta get back; I don’t want to leave her too long.”

“Here,” said Nick, thrusting the new set of sheets into her hands. “Let’s go!”

Brian saw his wife’s jaw drop as Nick and Lauren disappeared outside with her sheets. He hesitated for one second, then hurried after them. Besides wanting to witness the baby pandaskunk’s birth himself, he knew he had better get the heck out of the house before Leighanne lost it.

***


Part IV by RokofAges75
Nick and Brian had been pacing outside Petunia’s den for the past hour. Every few seconds, they would peek in to see how she was doing.

Petunia was sitting with her back against the wall of the den, doubled over so she could lick her privates. “Wow... I didn’t know pandaskunks were so flexible,” Nick whispered to Brian, making a face. He felt slightly perverse for watching what was unfolding in front of him, even though he knew it was just nature at work.

Lauren was kneeling on the floor beside her, stroking the fur on her back and whispering soothing words as the pandaskunk fought through her labor pains. “Okay, Petunia,” they heard her say. “On the next contraction, you’re going to push as hard as you can.”

“Wow, your wife really seems to know what she’s doing,” Brian remarked to Nick. He seemed impressed.

Nick nodded. “Well, she has been through a natural home birth herself,” he reminded Brian. “Plus, she used to be a veterinary tech, so she has some actual training to fall back on, too.”

“I bet she’s never delivered a baby pandaskunk before, though,” said Brian with a grin.

Nick chuckled and shook his head. “Nope. That part’s new.”

A primal growl escaped Petunia’s throat as another contraction hit. “Push, Petunia!” Lauren called. “You can do it! That’s it! You got this, girl!”

Nick and Brian both poked their heads through the entrance of the den, watching with wonder. Petunia leaned backwards, her roly-poly body writhing with pain, as a wiggly, pink head suddenly appeared between her splayed hind legs. The two Backstreet Boys leaned closer, their eyes widening, but before they could get a better look, the baby pandaskunk literally popped out the birth canal like a ball shot from a canon.

“Holy shit!” cried Nick. He stared at the baby in shock as it landed on the floor of the den and started squirming around in a pool of blood and amniotic fluid, its four tiny limbs flailing wildly. It was much smaller than he had imagined it would be, and it looked nothing like a panda, nor a skunk, but more like an albino rat. Its wet fur was pure white, and the skin underneath was pink. It was squawking loudly in a way that sent chills down Nick’s spine, reminding him unpleasantly of the chestburster scene in Alien. “That thing is not a pandaskunk,” he said shakily. “That’s a baby alien!”

Lauren laughed as she scooped the little creature up, swaddling it in a pillowcase from Brian and Leighanne’s Celebrity Sheets set to keep it warm. “What are you talking about?” she said, as she lay it gently on Petunia’s belly, between her two front paws. “Of course it’s a pandaskunk.”

Nick shook his head in disbelief. As he watched Petunia cradle her offspring, he realized it didn’t really resemble the chestburster in Alien. It looked more like Lady Porcupiney’s demon spawn in the “Woodland Critter Christmas” episode of South Park. “No,” he replied softly. “It’s the Antichrist.”

Brian drew in a sharp breath as his head turned toward his friend. “Nick!” he hissed. “Don’t say such blasphemous things! This baby could be the Second Coming of our Lord and Savior!”

Nick shrugged. “Or it could be the Spawn of Satan.”

“Will you two listen to yourselves? You both sound ridiculous. This precious little one is not the Son of God, and he’s certainly not the Son of Satan,” said Lauren, rolling her eyes. “He’s the son of a pandaskunk, and he’s just perfect! This is what baby pandas look like right after they’re born.”

“If that thing is a pandaskunk, then why’s its body all white? Where are its stripes? And the black circles around its eyes?” Nick demanded.

“Panda cubs start out all white, just like this one,” his wife explained patiently. “The black patches don’t come until later.”

Nick was still skeptical, but he knew better than to keep arguing with her. He would just have to keep a close watch over the baby to make sure it didn’t have any Satanic powers.

“Personally, I think your baby is beautiful, Petunia,” said Brian. “Congratulations.”

“Yes!” Lauren agreed. “You did it, Mama!”

“Thank you, everyone,” Petunia said, sounding exhausted.

As the pandaskunk leaned over and began to lick her baby clean, Lauren rose from the floor, brushing bits of straw off the back of her pants. “I think it’s time for the three of us to go back inside and give you two some time to bond in private,” she said, patting Petunia on the head. “We’ll be back to check on you later.”

By the light of the bright star shining down on their heads, she, Nick, and Brian walked back to the house to share the blessed news of the baby’s arrival.

***


Nick yawned as he wandered into the kitchen the next morning. After an almost sleepless night, in which he went out to check on Petunia and the baby whenever Lauren got up to feed Saoirse, he and his wife were both exhausted. But the fun, old-fashioned Carter family Christmas he claimed to have wanted was still in full swing.

Aaron and BJ were standing on opposite sides of the dining room table, screaming at each other about the pugs Aaron had apparently stolen from their mother and then sold, while Bella and Odin chased each other around the table. Angel poured herself and her husband glasses of champagne from the bottle BJ had brought to breakfast to “make mimosas,” and they settled back to watch the action as they fed Harper. Nick took one look at his dysfunctional family, then turned and walked away.

Lauren found him staring out the front window. “Aren’t you having any breakfast?”

Nick shook his head. “I’m not in the mood.”

“What are you looking at?” she asked, wrapping her arms around his waist.

He sighed as he returned his gaze to the window. “Oh, the silent majesty of a winter’s morn… the clean, cool chill of the holiday air… and an asshole in a unicorn onesie, emptying a chemical toilet into my sewer.”

Lauren looked out the window. Her mother-in-law was standing on the curb in light blue, one-piece pajamas that looked like a unicorn, complete with a shimmery horn on top of the hood, which she had pulled up over her head. She was holding a hose, which was connected to the RV, while the other end hung over the storm drain. Waving to them with a cigarette in her hand, Jane shouted, “Shitter was full!”

“Ah… yeah,” Nick said with a nod, feeling his blood pressure rise as he turned to his wife. “Have you checked our shitters, honey?”

Lauren shook her head. “Nick, please… she doesn’t know any better.”

“She oughta know it’s illegal,” he replied, rolling his eyes. “It’s a storm sewer. If it fills with gas, I pity the person who lights a match within ten yards of it.”

“I pity the people who have to walk past and smell it,” said Lauren, smirking as she pointed down the street.

Nick looked out again and laughed when he spotted the three Littrells strolling up the sidewalk. They must have gone out for an early morning walk as a family, perhaps to escape the chaos of Christmas with the Carters. They had coordinated their outfits, of course; each of them was wearing a different red, crewneck Backstreet Boys Christmas sweatshirt with a pair of black joggers. Brian’s said “I Want It Santa’s Way” in white letters, Leighanne’s had a twenty-year-old photo of her husband on the front with the caption “All I want for Christmas is Brian,” and Baylee’s featured all five Boys’ faces as emojis.

As they approached, Nick saw their expressions slowly change, their noses wrinkling as the stench emanating from Jane’s hose wafted toward them. They looked at each other, then at Jane.

“Merry Christmas!” he heard her call out to them. “Shitter was full!”

Nick and Lauren laughed until their knees were weak as they watched the horrified Littrells hurry past her, holding their noses.

***


Over the course of that day, a steady stream of visitors came to the Carter house to see the newborn pandaskunk. Among them were a young street performer who did a drum solo on an upturned bucket and a trio of former Elvis impersonators who now worked as Nick’s “elves.” Decked out in matching, bedazzled, white jumpsuits, complete with capes lined in gold lamé, they crooned:

“We-uh three-uh kings uh-uh-of Memphis are,
Bearing gifts we traverse uh-uh-afar,
Field and fountain, moor and mountain,
Following yond-uh-uh-er star, oh-huh-huh-huh-oh…”

“Star of wuh-uh-onder, star of night,
Star with roy-uh-al beauty bright,
Westward leading, still proceeding,
Guide uh-uh-us to thy perfect liiight...”

Before departing, the three kings presented the baby with gifts of peanut butter, bananas, and bacon - the ingredients of Elvis’s favorite sandwich.

After dinner, the doorbell rang. “Special delivery, straight from Disneyland,” the courier said, handing Nick an envelope. It was addressed to Petunia the Pandaskunk, so he and Brian took it out to her den.

“Another gift for you,” Nick announced, showing her the envelope. “Want me to open it?”

“Sure,” Petunia replied with a smile, as she patiently nursed her baby.

Nick slit open the envelope and slid out a card. Opening it, he read aloud, “To Petunia, from your father’s best friends, Bambi and Thumper: Congratulations on your new bundle of joy. We know Flower would be proud of you.”

“Aww, how sweet of them,” said Petunia, swiping away a stray tear with her paw. “I sure do wish my dad was still with us.”

“Didn’t your dad try to kill you?” Nick asked, frowning.

“Only because he was possessed by Lord Voldemort. He didn’t know what he was doing,” she said defensively.

“Look, there’s something else,” Brian suddenly interjected. Peering over Nick’s shoulder, he frowned in confusion as he read the certificate tucked inside the card. “It’s a... one-year membership to the Jelly of the Month Club.”

“Hey, that’s the gift that keeps on giving the whole year,” said Nick with a grin.

“That it is, Nick. That it is indeed,” Brian replied. “Pretty random for a baby gift, though.”

Nick shrugged. “What else do you give the pandaskunk who has everything?”

“It’s a nice gesture. I’m sure JP and I will enjoy it,” said Petunia appreciatively.

“JP?” Brian repeated, raising his eyebrows. “Is that what you decided to name the little guy?”

Petunia nodded. “It’s short for Jeff Perseus. Patches said I was to name my son Jeff, but I liked the name Perseus better, so… I gave him both. Jeff for the first name, Perseus for the middle.”

“Aw, man.” Nick made a face. “Don’t get me wrong - I do it like it,” he added apologetically, “but I had the perfect name all picked out for him: Pandakin Skunkwalker!”

“Pandakin Skunkwalker?” Petunia repeated. Now it was her turn to make a face. “That’s, um… fun… but I think I’ll stick with JP, thanks.”

“Suit yourself,” said Nick with a shrug.

“Pandakin Skunkwallker?” Brian snorted, as he and Nick walked back to the house. “That’s pretty stupid, dude.”

“No, dawg, it’s genius,” argued Nick. “You’re just jealous you didn’t think of it yourself.”

“Whatever…” Brian shook his head. Suddenly, out of the corner of his eye, something bright caught his attention. “Hey,” he said, glancing at the sky. “Is it just me, or does that star overhead look a lot closer than it did last night?”

Nick looked up. “That’s no star…” he said slowly, staring at the reddish circle of light. “It’s a spaceship.”

Brian sighed. “Nick, please don’t start this again. It’s not a spaceship.”

“How do you know? It was a spaceship five years ago!” Nick protested.

“Okay, sure, but we defeated the Misfit Fans five years ago. They’re dead.”

“They’re not all dead,” argued Nick. “I mean, yeah, we killed their leader, Princess Kujo, and took out a lot of them, but at least one got away - their sentry, Mariah… I mean, Audrey… she flew off in her spaceship, back to the Planet of Misfit Fans. They’ve probably been biding their time for the past five years, plotting revenge.”

Brian considered this. “Maybe… but I still don’t think that’s a spaceship. It’s a sign from God. It’s only gotten bigger because the baby has been born. It’s been leading people here to see him, just like the Star of Bethlehem.”

“The Star of Southern Highlands,” Nick said dreamily, gazing skywards. He liked the sound of that. “Yeah, I guess you’re probably right.”

They went back inside, where the star was quickly forgotten.

***


Later that evening, as the adults were enjoying one last cup of eggnog before bed, Leighanne looked around the living room and announced, “I know what this night needs - some music!”

Nick and Lauren exchanged glances. “I can turn on Spotify,” he offered, reaching for his phone.

Leighanne shook her head. “No, not that type of music. Brian, Baylee, and I have been working on a little something that we’d love to share with you tonight as a token of our appreciation. Go get your guitar, Bay!”

“Oh god, here we go,” Nick heard Lauren mutter out of the side of her mouth, just loud enough for him to hear. He struggled to keep a straight face as Baylee ran to fetch his guitar from the guest bedroom where the Littrells had been sleeping.

After they had arranged themselves in front of the fireplace, Leighanne smiled and said, “From our family to yours… Merry Christmas!” As Baylee began to strum his guitar, she added, “Oh, wait! Would one of you please record this for Instagram?”

“Already on it,” said Aaron, holding up his phone. Everyone exchanged uneasy looks. Knowing him, he had probably been live-streaming the entire evening.

“Actually, I meant on one of our phones,” said Leighanne. Turning to her husband, she added, “Let’s use your phone, babe. We’ll get more likes if you post it from your account first.”

Brian dug his phone out of his back pocket and handed it to Nick. “Would you?”

“Sure, bro,” Nick agreed.

“Hold it sideways,” Leighanne directed. “There you go. Ready?”

“Ready,” said Nick, smiling through gritted teeth.

“Okay… hit record!”

Once Nick had pressed the record button, Brian began, “Hey, guys. We’re the Littrells. Uh, Merry Christmas. Uh, we’re thankful for each and every one of you watching this. This is special for you.”

Then they started to sing. “Silent night… holy night… all is calm… all is bright…” Baylee closed his eyes as he strummed his guitar, looking a lot like his father as Brian and Leighanne joined him in three part-harmony. “Round yon virgin, mother and child... holy infant so tender and mild… sleep in heavenly pe-eace.... slee-eep in heavenly peace.”

“Merry Christmas!” Leighanne said, smiling into the camera.

“Yeah, Merry Christmas,” echoed Brian.

“Merry Christmas, everybody,” added Baylee in his deep, baritone voice.

“Good playin’, bub,” Brian told his son with a grin before Nick ended the recording.

“Wow, that was great, guys,” he said, forcing a smile onto his face as he handed Brian’s phone back to him.

BJ didn’t even bother to hide her look of disgust as she stared at the Littrells. Downing the rest of her eggnog in one gulp, she cleared her throat and clapped her hands together. “Okay! Now it’s the Carters’ turn!” she announced. Turning to her siblings, she said, “Shall we sing our family’s favorite Christmas carol?”

Aaron and Angel shot each other identical evil grins, as Nick rose from his seat. “Let’s do it,” he said, snickering. “C’mon, Mom, get up here with us.”

Jane joined her sons and daughters as the five Carters assembled in front of the fire.

“We’re gonna do this thing a capella,” said Nick. “Ready, y’all?” He cleared his throat and sucked in a big breath before he began to sing. “Grandma got run over by a reindeer…”

“Walkin’ home from our house Christmas Eve,” the rest of the Carter clan quickly joined in. “You can say there’s no such thing as Santa... but as for me and Grandpa, we believe.”

Leighanne raised her eyebrows, while Brian and Baylee laughed.

“She’d been drinking too much eggnog,” sang BJ, tipping her empty cup.

“And we begged her not to go,” continued Angel, clasping her hands together.

“But she forgot her medication,” countered Jane with a shrug.

“And she staggered out the door into the snow,” added Aaron, doing a drunken sort of twirl.

“When we found her Christmas morning... at the scene of the attack,” Nick went on, as his family accompanied him with a series of “oohs.” “She had hoof-prints on her forehead... and incriminating Claus marks on her back!”

They all stomp-clapped along to the beat as they sang the chorus together: “Grandma got run over by a reindeer... walking home from our house Christmas Eve. You can say there’s no such thing as Santa... but as for me and Grandpa, we believe.”

Before they could start the second verse, there came a loud knock at Nick’s door.

“Damn, more visitors?” he grumbled as he went to answer it. “It’s like nobody’s ever seen a baby pandaskunk before…”

He pressed his eye to the peephole to see who was outside, but before he could get a good look, the door burst open, smacking Nick in the face. He stumbled backwards, holding his nose. In shock, he hardly noticed the blood that had begun to flow freely from it. His attention was focused on the man who had just entered his home.

Nick could only tell it was a man by his towering height, as his face was hidden beneath a helmet that covered his whole head. There was something familiar about that helmet, combined with the body armor and cape he wore.

“Holy shit,” Nick whispered, blood dripping down his face as he stared up at the masked man. “You’re a Mandalorian!”

The Mandalorian said nothing, simply handed him a small, circular disc.

“Is that a bounty puck?” Nick asked uncertainly, looking down at the disc in his palm. He was beginning to get a bad feeling about this. “You’re a bounty hunter, huh? Like Boba Fett?”

Suddenly, a holographic image sprang up from the disc. Nick swallowed hard when he saw his own head slowly rotating on the spot. “Is that me?” he said, his heart beating faster. “Look… uh, there must be some mistake. Please, I have plenty of money. I can get you more-”

“I can bring you in warm,” the Mandalorian cut him off, “or I can bring you in cold.” His voice was quiet, slightly muffled by the helmet, yet it still managed to sound menacing.

“Nick?” he heard his wife call. “Who was at the door?”

Before he could stop her, Lauren rounded the corner. She gasped when she saw the Mandalorian.

“Stay back, baby,” Nick warned his wife, his voice shaking. He knew he had no choice but to comply now. “I’ll go with you, I promise. Just, please, don’t hurt my family,” he pleaded with the bounty hunter, as he held out his hands. The Mandalorian placed a pair of cuffs around his wrists, binding them in front of his body.

“What the hell is going on here?” Lauren demanded, her voice rising. “Who are you, and what are you doing with my husband?”

“I’m a bounty hunter. There’s a price on your husband’s head. I’m here to apprehend him so I can deliver him to my client,” the Mandalorian explained matter-of-factly, his voice devoid of any emotion.

Lauren bristled. “You most certainly are not!” she protested. “Nick’s done nothing wrong! Who is this ‘client’ of yours?”

“I can’t tell you that,” said the Mandalorian. “It’s time to go.”

“NO!” Lauren shouted, as he started to pull Nick toward the open door. “STOP!”

At the sound of her screams, the rest of the family came running. Aaron was right at the front of the pack and reached the Mandalorian first. “Let go of my brother!” he cried, his fists flying as he attacked the bounty hunter, hitting and kicking him. Of course, the meager force of his frail, one-hundred-fifteen-pound body wasn’t enough to make a dent in the Mandalorian’s armor, and he only ended up hurting himself.

As Aaron massaged his sore knuckles, a cord suddenly shot out of the Mandalorian’s gauntlet and wrapped itself around his wrists, tying them together. “Looks like you’re coming, too,” said the bounty hunter, as he hauled both Carter brothers outside, where a spaceship was waiting on the lawn.

“I told you!” Nick shouted back to Brian, who was standing on the front porch with the others, staring at the ship. “I told you it was a spaceship!”

“Nick!” Brian cried out, watching as his friend was forced aboard it. “Don’t worry! We’ll find you!”

How? Nick wondered, swallowing hard when he heard the ship’s hatch slam shut with a heavy, metallic clang. His stomach jolted as the ship suddenly jerked to life, lifting off the ground. He looked at Aaron and found his little brother staring back at him, his brown eyes wide. Sitting behind the Mandalorian pilot, they were able to see out the large windshield. With tears in his eyes, Nick watched the rest of his family growing smaller and smaller as they got further and further away, wondering when and if he would ever see them again.

***


Part V by RokofAges75
Brian felt helpless as he watched Lauren pace back and forth across the living room floor in her pajamas with the phone pressed to her ear.

“Yes, officer, it seems my husband’s been abducted,” he heard her say, her voice shaking as she struggled to stay calm. “The man was… was wearing a metal helmet and body armor. He was a... big... beastly... bulging man…”

Brian knew the police would be no help in bringing Nick and Aaron back. They probably wouldn’t even believe the brothers had been abducted by an alien bounty hunter and taken away in a spaceship. But Brian had promised Nick they would find him, and he intended to keep that promise, even if it meant going after Nick by himself. But for that, he would need a ship of his own… and a crew…

His mind raced as he walked through the kitchen, where BJ was mixing up another batch of eggnog with her arm. “BJ, can I help you with that eggnog? Please?” he offered, watching with disgust as she swirled her hand around the inside of the bowl like a spoon, elbow deep in eggnog.

BJ gave him a blank stare before she pulled her hand out of the bowl and shook it off without a word. Then she dipped her cup into the bowl, filling it with eggnog, and sat down at the breakfast bar to drink.

The rest of the Carters seemed just as stunned. “My boys!” Jane kept crying dramatically, as Angel tried to comfort her.

Brian couldn’t stand to listen to them. He continued out to the backyard, hoping to find a quiet place to come up with a plan to rescue Nick and Aaron. But out of the darkness, something big and furry bumped into him, nearly knocking him down.

“Petunia?!” Brian gasped, as he stumbled backwards.

“Brian!” The pandaskunk sounded equally shocked. “I’m sorry! I didn’t see you.”

“What are you doing out of your den at this hour?” he wanted to know. “You should be resting; you just had a baby!”

“That’s just it... JP is gone!” cried Petunia.

“What?!” Brian gasped again, his heart skipping a beat. “What do you mean, gone?”

“I don’t know! I just woke up, and he wasn’t with me anymore!” The poor mother pandaskunk was panicstricken, her whole body trembling with fear. “I went out to look for him, but I haven’t been able to find him anywhere!”

That was when a horrible realization occurred to Brian. “Oh my God,” he said slowly, his heart now racing. “I think I know where he is.”

Her eyes widened. “Where?!”

Brian took a deep breath. “I’m sorry, Petunia, this is going to come as a shock… but I think your baby may have been kidnapped.”

“Kidnapped?!” cried Petunia. “Please tell me you’re joking.”

“Believe me, I wish I was,” said Brian with a sigh, “but Nick and Aaron were just abducted by a Mandalorian bounty hunter and taken away in a spaceship. He must have snuck the baby onto his ship before he came to the door to get Nick.”

“Oh no…” Petunia buried her face in her paws. “What are we going to do?”

Brian squared his jaw, feeling more determined than ever. With a steely glint in his eye, he pressed a button on the side of the huge, blinged-out wristwatch his wife had given him several years before. The face of it swung open to reveal a secret compartment, in which he kept the crystal amulet Zanell had given him many years ago. Wrapping his hand tightly around it, he replied, “We’re going to bring them back.”

***


Meanwhile, the ship carrying the Carter brothers had already left Earth’s atmosphere.

As it soared through outer space, Aaron leaned closer to their captor and said, “I like your ship. She’s a classic.”

The Mandalorian did not respond to his attempt to make conversation. He stared straight ahead, seeming to concentrate on steering the ship, but Nick knew he must have seen right through Aaron. His brother may have been able to charm American cops into letting him off the hook, but manipulating a Mandalorian bounty hunter the same way simply wouldn’t work any more than trying to buy him off had.

“I have a lot of money, by the way,” Aaron went on, undeterred. “I’m the biggest thing in music right now, and I just bought a mansion in Canada.”

Crickets.

“How much are they paying you?” he asked the Mandalorian.

Still no answer.

“Is it true you guys never take off your helmets?”

Nothing.

Nick sighed. Shut up, Aaron, he thought. He worried if his brother went on annoying their captor, the bounty hunter would kill them both and bring them in cold after all. He decided to try a different tactic.

Clearing his throat, Nick shifted his weight uncomfortably and said, “Excuse me, but I need to use the bathroom. I had a peanut butter, banana, and bacon sandwich on wheat bread earlier, which is unfortunately full of gluten. I found out I have celiac disease, see, so gluten messes with my gut and gives me real bad diarrhea. I could go here, but I don’t think you wanna see that - or smell it, if you know what I mean.”

The Mandalorian still said nothing.

Taking his silence as permission, Nick stood up. “Clearly, there’s nowhere for me to go,” he added, “so, uh... I’m gonna look for that bathroom if it’s all the same to you.”

When the Mandalorian made no attempt to stop him, Nick sidled through the cockpit door, still in handcuffs. It was a good thing he’d been lying about needing to take a dump because he wasn’t sure how he would have wiped with them on. He was hoping to find some way out of this situation - an escape pod, perhaps, or a weapon he could use to subdue his captor and take control of the ship. He had once built his own rocketship and had been to outer space before, so he knew the basics of spaceflight.

As he continued further from the cockpit, he could hear Aaron saying, “You think celiac disease is bad? My doctor said I’m developing esophagull cancer and have less than two years to live…”

Nick climbed carefully down a ladder - a difficult feat with handcuffs on, but he managed it. The lavatory was located at the bottom of the ladder. “Found it!” he shouted up the ladder. “Thanks! This might take a awhile!” He closed the door to hide the toilet from view and crept past it.

“Ugh… this feels a lot better!” he called, as he explored the cargo hold, making a few farting noises for good measure. “I haven’t taken a shit since Saturday!”

When he came to another closed door, he cast a wary glance backwards to make sure the Mandalorian hadn’t come down after him, then furtively pushed the button on the wall to open it. The door slid open, revealing a small compartment that was empty except for a strange, egg-shaped object floating several feet off the floor. Leaning in for a closer look, Nick quickly realized it was a cradle, for lying inside it, fast asleep, was Petunia’s newborn cub.

“Pandakin Skunkwalker?” he whispered. “What are you doing here?!” But the answer was obvious: the baby pandaskunk had been kidnapped along with Aaron and him. “Don’t worry, buddy,” Nick assured him in a hushed voice, stroking the sparse, white fur on his head. “I’m gonna find us a way out of here.” Then he quietly closed the door, leaving the cub asleep in his cradle.

Continuing further into the bowels of the ship, he called loudly over his shoulder, “Yeah… I was hoping to be free for Christmas - or, uh, Life Day, I guess - that’s what you guys celebrate in your galaxy, right? Maybe even, uh…” He paused as he came to a rack that held huge blocks of carbonite, each one containing an unfortunate victim cast inside it. “...get home to the family.” He grimaced at the painful expressions frozen onto each of their faces. “But I guess that’s not gonna happen this year.”

“Probably not,” said a voice behind him.

Nick’s heart leapt into his throat as he spun around and found himself face to face with the bounty hunter, who was still wearing his helmet. Aaron was standing behind him.

“I love you,” Aaron said in a small voice, as the Mandalorian forced Nick into an empty carbon-freezing chamber.

Nick gave his brother a grim smile. “I know.”

The bounty hunter pushed a button, and Nick flinched as his whole body was hit with a sudden burst of cold. Within seconds, he had been fully encased in carbonite, and he knew no more.

***


By morning, the other three Backstreet Boys had arrived in Las Vegas. Summoned by Brian, Kevin and AJ had made the four-hour drive from Los Angeles through the desert at night, while Howie had hopped on a red-eye flight out of Orlando.

“Did y’all bring your amulets?” Brian asked them, as they gathered in Nick’s backyard.

“Yeah, but what’s the point?” replied AJ, shaking his head. “You know they won’t work without Nick.”

“Well, it’s worth a try, isn’t it? C’mon, fellas, let’s put ‘em on.”

Carefully, they pulled out the amulets containing the mystical crystals Zanell had given them to save the Earth from certain doom and secured them around their necks. Normally, this created a tingling sensation as one of the world’s greatest musical teams was transformed into the world’s most unique team of superheroes, but this time, nothing happened.

“Told ya,” said AJ with a sigh. “We’re not changing. We had this problem last time we were short a member. Without Nick and his amulet, we’re powerless.”

“Darn it.” Brian hung his head in defeat. “I knew it was a long shot, but I wasn’t sure what else to do. We’ve gotta find a way to get to outer space so we can go after the bounty hunter and save Nick!”

“If only we still had his rocketship,” said Kevin with regret. “I’m sure I could have flown that thing - or Petunia could’ve pulled it like Patches did before he and the ship both got blown up on that asteroid.”

“God rest his soul,” added Brian, glancing heavenward, and they had a brief moment of silence for their fallen friend.

When it was finished, Howie said, “Hey, maybe we could contact Zanell. She has a spaceship.”

Kevin’s eyebrows furrowed. “Didn’t Zanell and Nick have a pretty bad breakup after she had to return to her home planet?” he asked.

“Yeah… they made the whole long-distance relationship thing work for a while, but she eventually caught him cheating on her with Paris Hilton, and that ended it,” said AJ with a shrug.

“Uh-huh... I thought something like that had happened,” said Kevin, frowning. “I dunno if she’d be too keen on helping him.”

“How about Han Solo?” suggested Brian. “He and Chewbacca helped Patches and me way back when we were just a couple of misfits, remember? I’m sure we could hire him and the Millennium Falcon to help us find the Mandalorian’s ship.”

“Do you have his number?” Howie asked hopefully.

Brian’s heart sank. “Uh… no. I guess we’d have to go to Galaxy’s Edge to track him down.”

“You mean at Disneyland?” asked AJ.

“Or Disney World?” added Howie.

“Gee, cuz, I wish you would have thought of that when AJ and I were still in California and Howie was in Florida,” said Kevin, shaking his head.

“I dunno if he’d be willing to help us anyhow,” said AJ. “I hear he’s got his hands full with his son these days.”

Silence fell, as they all tried to come up with a different plan. “Who else do we know who has a spaceship?” Brian asked desperately.

“What about Lance Bass?” blurted Howie. “I don’t know about a spaceship, but he definitely has contacts in the space program. Maybe he could hook us up somehow.”

“I’ve got his number,” AJ volunteered, pulling his phone out of his pocket. “I’ll give him a call right now.”

As it turned out, the former *NSYNC member was only too happy to help his friends from the Backstreet Boys. “I’m on my way!” Lance told AJ. “Meet me at the airport in one hour.”

When they arrived at the airport, they were astonished to find that Lance did have a spaceship, after all. “Where the hell did you get this?” AJ asked, as he and the others stared at the small spacecraft sitting on the tarmac.

“I built it myself!” Lance replied proudly. “I got tired of waiting for NASA or the Russians to finally let me go to space, so I decided, what the hell? If Nick Carter can build his own rocket, why can’t I?”

Kevin’s brow furrowed in disbelief. “Can it fly?”

Lance looked offended. “Of course it can fly!” he exclaimed. “How do you think I got here from LA? It’s fast as hell!”

“But will it actually go into outer space?” Kevin wondered, still seeming doubtful.

“I guess we’re about to find out. You four get to be my first test subjects!” said Lance, clapping his hands in excitement.

The Backstreet Boys exchanged anxious looks. “I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” said Howie, shaking his head.

Brian tried to be optimistic. “Come on, guys, we’ve gotta have faith,” he told the others. “We have to find a way to get beyond Earth’s atmosphere if we’re going to rescue Nick and the others, and Lance here is offering us a way. Maybe it’s meant to be.”

“Or maybe we’re all about to die a very painful, fiery death,” said AJ, looking skeptically at the spaceship.

Brian shrugged. “If we do, then at least we’ll die together, trying to save our brother. All for one, and one for all!”

The Three Musketeers’ rallying cry did not motivate the other Backstreet Boys to board the ship. “I still think we should try to contact Zanell,” said Howie.

“Or Han Solo,” added AJ.

Brian sighed. “Look, the longer we wait, the less likely we are to find Nick at all, let alone save him. We need to act now. I dunno about y’all, but I’m going with Lance.” Then he turned and walked up the ramp to an open hatch on the side of the spacecraft.

Sucking in a deep breath, Kevin called, “I’m comin’ with ya, cuz!” He hurried after Brian, leaving Howie and AJ to look at each other.

AJ hesitated only a second before he shrugged and said, “Oh, what the hell!”

Howie heaved a huge sigh as he watched AJ run up the ramp, too. Not wanting to be the only one left behind, he reluctantly followed the others onto the ship, hoping they weren’t making a huge mistake.

***


To the Backstreet Boys’ relief, Lance’s spaceship worked. Miraculously, the only malfunction they experienced on their way out of Earth’s atmosphere was with the ship’s radio. It seemed to be stuck on repeat, playing the same song over and over again: “Space Cowboy (Yippie-Yi-Yay)” by *NSYNC.

“For the love of god, can we please just turn this off?” begged Kevin, blood trickling from his eardrums, as they hurtled through space with “If you wanna fly, come and take a ride, take a space ride with the cowboy, baby! Why-yi-yi, yippie-yi-yay, yippie-yi-yo, yippie-yi-yay!” blaring in the background.

“Sorry,” said Lance with an apologetic shrug. “None of the buttons are working. Weird, right?”

“Uh-huh. How convenient,” said Kevin sarcastically, rolling his eyes at his cousin behind Lance’s back. Brian’s nostrils flared as he shook his head, which was hurting from the incessant noise of the Boys’ former nemesis. Only for Nick would they continue to subject themselves to such torture.

“How are we going to track Nick down?” Howie wanted to know. “We have no idea where the Mandalorian took him.”

“It may not be as hard as you think, fellas,” said AJ, holding up his phone. “I know none of you follow Aaron on Instagram, but I do. He’s been live for hours with his location turned on. We can use that to track them.”

“Finally, his constant streaming comes in handy,” said Brian happily, as they huddled around AJ’s phone to watch, struggling to hear the video over the obnoxious sound of *NSYNC singing “Why-yi-yi, yippie-yi-yay…” for approximately the five hundred and fortieth time.

“Don’t you think it’s weird that the bounty hunter would let him keep his phone, though?” asked Kevin, frowning. Aaron appeared to be streaming from the cockpit of the Mandalorian’s ship.

“Maybe he was able to hide it,” said Howie with a shrug. But when AJ turned the volume all the way up, they heard otherwise.

“...and here’s my friend, Mando,” Aaron was saying, rotating the camera until the Mandalorian came into frame. “Hey, Mando! Say hi to all my LMG ladies out there.”

“What’s LMG?” Howie asked in a whisper, as the helmeted bounty hunter gave a single wave with one of his gloved hands.

“Love Money Gang,” AJ muttered back. “It’s what he calls his followers.”

Kevin’s frowned deepened. “Sounds like a cult. And why’s he acting like he and his kidnapper are friends all of a sudden?”

“Stockholm Syndrome?” Brian suggested.

“Yeah, so anyways, me and Mando are headed to a friend of mine’s new place to hand-deliver the Christmas present I got for her,” Aaron continued. “Y’all wanna see it? It’s pretty fuckin’ sweet.”

The Boys watched as Aaron left the cockpit, the camera shaking as he climbed down a ladder to some kind of cargo hold. “This is gonna give me motion sickness,” muttered AJ, looking away.

“Check it out,” said Aaron after a minute or two, turning the camera again to reveal what they first took to be a huge piece of artwork hanging on the wall. It looked like a life-sized sculpture of a man’s body cast inside a thick, solid block. There was a big, red bow stuck to the man’s head, and they didn’t recognize him until Aaron added, “It’s my brother, Nick Carter, the serial rapist. But don’t worry, ladies - he’ll never be able to abuse anyone again.”

“Nick?!” Brian gasped. “Oh, no…”

“That’s not really him, is it?” asked AJ, squinting at the screen.

“Looks like it is,” replied Howie, cringing as Aaron moved the camera closer to Nick’s face, which was frozen in a painful expression.

“I hired Mando here to help me transport this piece of shit to his new home in a galaxy far, far away,” Aaron continued proudly as he climbed back up to the cockpit. “The carbon-freezing was a nice touch, don’t you think? He’s gonna make a great gift!”

“Oh, they’ve encased him in carbonite!” exclaimed Kevin. “He should be quite well-protected - if he survived the freezing process, that is.”

“So all you fucking BSB gang stalkers better find a new band to obsess over because the Backstreet Boys are finished,” a smug Aaron was now saying. “Like I’ve been telling you for months, I am single-handedly dismantling the corporation known as the Backstreet Boys. They’re gonna need a new blond lead singer after this.”

“Where are they taking him?” Howie wondered.

AJ looked at the location on Aaron’s live stream. Unfortunately, it didn’t seem very helpful. Rather than a specific city, planet, or galaxy, all it showed was a confusing series of coordinates, which meant absolutely nothing to him.

But Brian seemed more hopeful. “I don’t know for sure,” he said slowly, “but I have an idea…”

***


Part VI by RokofAges75
“AJ, are you sure this is the right place?” asked Lance, looking around uncertainly, as he landed the spaceship on the frozen surface of a dreary and desolate planet. In the distance, a large castle loomed on the gray horizon, the only dwelling he could see for miles. Set against a backdrop of craggy mountains, its appearance was more forboding than welcoming.

“Positive,” replied AJ, putting his phone back into his pocket. They had followed the coordinates from Aaron’s Instagram Live location to a far away, yet familiar galaxy. “Welcome to the Planet of Misfit Fans.”

The Backstreet Boys had once been welcomed like kings by the outcasts who inhabited this forsaken world, but they knew that would no longer be the case - not since the war that had been waged between them five years ago, when the Misfit Fans had invaded Earth and tried to destroy all the Disney parks on the planet. The Misfit Fans may have been defeated, but they weren’t completely decimated. It only made sense that they had spent the past five years biding their time as they plotted revenge against the boyband that had led to their downfall. AJ had a feeling Brian’s hunch had been right: Since Nick’s computer virus had been the key to their undoing, putting a price on his head seemed just like something the Misfit Fans would do.

But the Boys had come up with a plan of their own to get their brother back.

“I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” Lance muttered to himself as he made his way across the rocky terrain, heading toward the castle.

“It’ll be fine,” he heard Kevin assure him. “They’ve got nothing against *NSYNC.”

Lance looked down at his phone, from which the disembodied voice had come. He could see Kevin’s face filling its screen, still connected via FaceTime. Taking a deep breath, he sighed and said, “I hope you’re right.”

Hesitantly, he approached the colossal castle door alone. “I’d better knock, I suppose,” he said, rapping his knuckles lightly against the heavy metal.

Almost immediately, the door began to lift slowly off the ground, gradually opening to reveal a wide entrance hall, where a woman was standing guard, armed with a spear. “Halt!” she called. “Who goes there?”

Lance adjusted the red bandana he had tied around his neck and cleared his throat. “Hello... my name is Lance Bass,” he began pleasantly. “And you must be…” He looked at the sentry’s nametag. “...Mariah?”

“No,” she snapped. “It’s Audrey.”

“Oh.” Lance blinked, taken aback. “My mistake. Well, either way, it’s lovely to meet you, Audrey. I’d like to speak with whoever’s in charge here. I have an important message for your leader.”

Audrey’s eyes narrowed. “What’s the message?” she wanted to know.

“I’m terribly sorry, but my instructions were to give it only to your leader herself,” said Lance. “Could you take me to see her, please?”

The sentry seemed to be sizing him up as she considered his request. Finally, after several seconds of uncomfortable silence, she gave a curt nod. “Come with me.”

Lance reluctantly followed her into the castle, holding his phone up with the camera facing forward so that Kevin and the Boys could see what he was seeing. Audrey led him down a long hallway to a large chamber, where the rest of the Misfit Fans were gathered.

“Well, I’ll be goddamned,” AJ swore, gazing over Kevin’s shoulder at his phone. The four Backstreet Boys were hunched together, watching via FaceTime as a platform appeared on the screen. Perched upon it was none other than... “Melissa Fucking Schuman.”

“We should’ve figured,” muttered Brian, his blue eyes darkening as they narrowed at the former Dream singer and failed actress who had tried to destroy his little brother’s reputation with her rape accusation. “Who else would wanna hurt Nick?”

“Shh...” Kevin hissed, as Lance approached the platform. Melissa was lying on her left side in a leisurely pose, being fanned by a small team of her most devoted minions. An older man was sitting to her right; they recognized him as Melissa’s meddling troll of a father, Jerry Schuman. A younger man dozed at her feet, his body curled into the fetal position. With a start, Kevin realized it was Aaron Carter.

“Oh Aaron,” whispered Howie, shaking his head sadly at the sight of Nick’s brother. The younger Carter was barely clothed, naked but for a pair of briefs that appeared to be made of copper. He could see practically every bone protruding from Aaron’s emaciated body and count his ribs as they expanded and contracted beneath the paper-thin skin of his narrow chest. He looked utterly pathetic, chained to Melissa’s platform like a dog on a leash.

“Good morning,” Lance said politely, as Audrey leaned in to whisper something into Melissa’s ear.

“Oohh shoodah,” Melissa murmured in a low voice, gazing down at him with a haughty look on her face.

This didn’t make the slightest bit of sense to any of the Backstreet Boys, but Lance proceeded with his part of the plan anyway. “I bring you a message from a mutual acquaintance of ours, I believe,” he said, holding up his phone so she could see Kevin’s face on the screen.

“Greetings, Assaulted One,” Kevin spoke slowly and clearly. “Allow me to introduce myself. I am Kevin Richardson, Backstreet Boy and friend to Nick Carter. I know that you are powerful, Ms. Schuman, and that your anger with Nick must be equally powerful. I seek an audience with Your Greatness to bargain for Nick’s life.”

“Ha, ha, ha!” chuckled Melissa.

“With your wisdom,” Kevin continued, “I’m sure we can work out an arrangement which will be mutually beneficial and enable us to avoid any unpleasant confrontation. As a token of my goodwill, I present to you a gift: Lance Bass from *NSYNC.”

“What did he say?” whispered Lance, looking down at his phone in dismay.

“He is homosexual and will not rape you,” Kevin went on reassuringly.

“This can’t be!” cried Lance, rotating the camera so he could see Kevin. “Kevin, you’re giving the wrong message!”

“Ah ha ha ha!” cackled Melissa’s father.

“Mistress, bargonay tua Backstreet Boy?” Audrey murmured into Melissa’s ear. “He’s no #MeToo advocate.”

Reluctantly, Lance turned the camera back around so Melissa could address Kevin. As she began, still speaking in a language he didn’t understand, Aaron suddenly sat up. “None of my brother’s co-conspirators are trauma-informed,” he told Melissa sanctimoniously, “so allow me to translate for them: There will be no bargain.”

“We’re doomed,” whispered Howie as he watched from Kevin’s side, just out of sight of the camera.

“I don’t understand,” said Brian softly, shaking his head. “Is Aaron her ally or her prisoner? Whose side is he on?”

“He’s her little bitch!” spat AJ under his breath. “Fuck him.”

“I will not give up my favorite decoration,” Aaron continued interpreting Melissa’s unintelligible words. “I like Mr. Carter where he is.”

Lance turned the camera in the direction Melissa pointed so they could see the block of carbonite mounted on the wall. Nick was still clearly embedded inside it.

“AJ, look - it’s Nick,” muttered Brian, as they both snuck another peek at Kevin’s phone. “And he’s still frozen in carbonite.”

“Ah ha ha!” Jerry Schuman cackled some more. The Misfit Fans who filled the chamber started cracking up, too, their condescending laughter echoing through the large room.

Kevin quickly ended the call and put down his phone, turning to face the others. “Well, at least we know for sure where Nick is now,” he told them, trying to stay positive. “Time for Plan B.”

***


Meanwhile, within the Misfit Fans’ castle, Lance was being led away by one of Melissa’s minions. “Betrayed by the Backstreet Boys,” he muttered, shaking his head in disbelief, as the woman took him down another long hallway.

“You and me both,” the woman replied. “I used to be a big fan, but that was before I knew one of them was a rapist.”

“You really think Nick raped Melissa Schuman?” asked Lance.

“Of course he did - and the other four covered it up to protect his reputation and save their own careers,” she argued. “All five of them are complicit.”

“Ohh, how horrid!” cried Lance.

The Misfit Fan looked him up and down. “You produced that documentary on Lou Pearlman, did you not?”

With a surge of pride, Lance puffed out his chest importantly. “It was called The Boy Band Con: The Lou Pearlman Sto-” he started to reply, but was quickly cut off.

“Yes or no will do.”

“Oh.” Lance felt himself deflate a little. “Well, yes.”

“How many followers do you have?

Lance thought quickly. “I have over four hundred thousand followers on Twitter and-”

“Splendid,” said the minion, stroking her chin as she continued to survey him. “We have been looking for someone to produce a new documentary series Queen Melissa has pitched called Surviving Nick Carter. Lupine!”

“Yes, Hater Hayley?” Lance jumped as another one of the Misfit Fans poked her head out of a doorway down the hall.

“This pop singer might be useful,” Hater Hayley told her. “Fit him with restraints and take him back up to Her Excellency’s main audience chamber.”

“Kevin, don’t leave me!” Lance cried desperately as he was dragged away, but the FaceTime call had long since been disconnected.

***


That evening, a party was in full swing inside the palace.

“The doorbell rings ‘cause the party’s here! I’m crankin’ up the stereo like it’s New Year’s,” Aaron rapped, his chains rattling as he danced in front of Melissa’s platform with a posse of Misfit Fans who were also members of his Love Money Gang. “Walkin’ ‘round the house like who’s da man…”

“Ain’t nobody do it like Aaron can,” chanted the LMG girls. “First on the floor!”

“Yo, that’s me, bustin’ out the moves like it’s MTV,” Aaron went on, his arms flailing as he strutted across the dance floor. “I guess somewhere along, I lost my head. Then I jumped on the table. This is what I said: People all around, you gotta-”

“Come get it!” chorused his gang.

“Everyone together, sing it loud!”

“Come get it!”

“Jump all around, come on!”

“Come get it! Come get it! Come get it!”

“People all around, you gotta-”

“Come get it!”

“From the left to the right, make noise.”

“Come get it!”

“Aaron C’s in the house!” called Aaron, nearly tripping over his chain as he tried to do a twirl.

“Come get it! Come get it! Come get it!” the cult members chanted, waving their arms in the air behind him. “Na-na, na-na! Na-na, na-na! Na-na, na-na! Yeah, yeah, yeah… Come get it! Come get it!”

“Things are goin’ great, then to my surprise, some people walked in I didn’t recognize. I said-” Aaron’s rap was cut short by a sudden commotion in the hallway. As the music stopped abruptly, heads turned toward the entrance to the hall to see what was going on.

To their surprise, two people walked in whom they did recognize: Brian Littrell and AJ McLean. They were accompanied by a large white rabbit - or, rather, a man in a white rabbit costume.

“I have come for the bounty on these Backstreet Boys,” said the rabbit in a strange, reedy, slightly robotic voice, which had obviously been altered by the creepy, red-eyed mask he wore. It covered his whole head, leaving no part of his face exposed.

“Ah, Brian… and AJ,” said Aaron, smirking at the sight of Nick’s bandmates being led into the chamber in chains. “‘Bout time you joined my brother, the serial rapist.”

With a tug of Aaron’s leash, Melissa summoned him back to her side to translate for her again, as she knew neither Brian nor AJ were trauma-informed. Both Backstreet Boys had made public statements in support of Nick after Melissa’s allegations against him and, in doing so, denied that the rape had ever taken place. They had been on her shit list ever since.

“The illustrious Melissa bids you welcome and will gladly pay you the reward of twenty-five thousand,” Aaron informed the bunny bounty hunter.

The rabbit’s red eyes glowed in the dimly-lit room. “Twenty-five thousand each,” he said in his robotic voice. “I want fifty thousand. No less.”

Melissa responded with something indecipherable to trauma-uninformed ears. Aaron translanted: “The thirsty Melissa cannot afford to pay fifty thousand. That is why she has been so desperate to get her name back in the news by accusing my bro-” His words were cut off as Melissa suddenly whacked him in the chest with her arm, knocking the wind out of him.

“Very well,” said the rabbit. “How about the two Backstreet Boys in exchange for forty thousand and the *NSYNC member?”

The Queen of the Misfit Fans made her counter-offer. Coughing as he straightened up, massaging his tattooed chest, her translator choked out, “Melissa offers the sum of thirty-five, plus Lance Bass - and I do suggest you take it.”

The rabbit sized them up through his beady red eyes before giving a brief nod.

“He agrees!” announced Aaron, watching with relief as Brian and AJ were hauled away to the dungeon.

Keeping one eye on the man in the rabbit costume, Melissa leaned over and whispered something in Aaron’s ear.

“Melissa wishes to know who is under your mask,” Aaron addressed the rabbit.

“I am The Rabbit,” the masked hare declared, as his head twitched. “I’ve spent most of my life onstage, but I was never alone.”

“Ooday moh groopah,” said Melissa, and Aaron translated, “That means in a group!”

“Now I pop up here, and I pop up there,” added the rabbit, bounding back and forth before Melissa’s platform.

“Oh, is it like a magician or an illusionist?” asked Audrey. “They’re popping up everywhere?”

“Synchronized singing is my forte,” the rabbit continued.

“Ohh, poopah groopah!” cried Melissa, pointing, and again, Aaron translated: “A pop group!”

“‘I pop up’... oh! I didn’t catch that!” chuckled her dim-witted father.

“It’s as if I’ve been training for this my entire life,” the rabbit went on.

“That means something,” said Audrey.

The rabbit cracked his knuckles through his white gloves. “Performed on stage? Check. Performed in a mask? Check. Have a voice? Check, check. This rabbit is here to win, and you better believe the last mask standing is gonna be me.”

“Win what?” Mr. Schuman wondered.

“Y’all must not have watched ‘The Masked Singer’ here on the Planet of Misfit Fans,” Lance Bass spoke up for the first time, stepping forward from one side of the room. “I know exactly who this is.”

“Magician Criss Angel?” guessed Audrey.

“Actor Jake Gyllenhaal?” added Jerry Schuman eagerly.

“What? No!” scoffed Lance. “C’mon, people. ‘Performed on stage?’ ‘Never alone?’ ‘Synchronized singing?’ ‘Pop up?’ ‘It’s gonna be me?’ It’s obviously my former bandmate, Joey Fatone from *NSYNC! He was on ‘The Masked Singer’ in this same costume, with these same clues. He must have come here to rescue me!”

“Um, hello, spoiler alert!” shouted Audrey, looking scandalized, as the rabbit simply shrugged.

Lance raised his eyebrows. “You literally didn’t even know this was a thing ten seconds ago,” he replied, “but sorry, my bad.”

“So who is The Rabbit?” Out of nowhere, Nick Cannon appeared, wearing a red turban wrapped around his head. “Stay tuned to find out which celebrity is under the mask… later tonight!”

***


Later that night, the rabbit, still in his mask, slunk into a shadowy corner of the queen’s chamber. The chamber was eerily quiet. Behind a closed curtain, Melissa and her minions were all asleep.

Hidden by the curtain, the rabbit crept toward the slab of carbonite mounted on the wall. Even in the darkness, he could clearly see Nick Carter contained within it, his face frozen into a painful grimace. His hands were raised in protest, the fingers curled like claws, as if he had tried to fight back against his captor.

Don’t worry, Nicky, thought the rabbit. I’ve come here to rescue you.

Flattening himself against the wall next to Nick’s frozen form, the rabbit looked around and listened, his head twitching in all directions as he tried to ensure he wasn’t being watched before he made his next move. Finally satisfied that he was, in fact, alone, he pressed a button on the wall to release the block of carbonite from its mount. The heavy slab slid to the floor with a dull thud.

The rabbit froze, his heart drumming in his throat, and held his breath, expecting at least one of the Misfit Fans to pull back the curtain at any second and find him standing there. But after a full minute had passed without any of them waking, he released his breath in a sigh of relief, relaxing a bit as he got back to work.

There was a small panel on the side of the slab of carbonite that controlled its temperature settings. Upon finding it, he fiddled with the dial and pushed a few buttons, until the display screen began to flash. The rabbit drew back, hoping he had done it right.

He watched as Nick’s body glowed red beneath the coating of carbonite. Holes began to appear, melding together as the frozen carbon quickly melted away to reveal human flesh. As the last of the carbonite that had encased him seemed to evaporate, Nick fell forward and collapsed face-first onto the floor, unconscious.

The rabbit knelt beside him and rolled him onto his back, relieved to find that he was breathing. Nick’s body was wet and cold, racked by violent shivers. As the rabbit pulled him into his arms, hoping to warm him, Nick started to come around.

“Just relax for a moment,” said the rabbit in the reedy voice the mask gave him. “You’re free of the carbonite. You have hibernation sickness.”

Nick looked around for his rescuer, rubbing his eyes in confusion. “I can’t see,” he replied, his voice shaking almost as much as the rest of him.

“Your eyesight will return in time,” the rabbit assured him.

“Where am I?” asked Nick.

“Melissa Schuman’s palace on the Planet of Misfit Fans.”

Nick frowned. “Who are you?”

“Who is The Rabbit?” said a loud voice behind them, as bright lights suddenly came on. Startled, the rabbit whirled around. The curtain had slid open to reveal Nick Cannon, who was still wearing his red turban, and an audience of Melissa and her minions, who were all very much awake.

“I know that voice,” said Nick Carter in a low voice. “What the hell is Nick Cannon doing here?”

“Nobody knows,” the rabbit muttered back, his heart sinking. He had a bad feeling about this. Again.

“Rabbit!” called Nick Cannon. “Show us all who’s... behind... the mask!”

“Are we on some kind of game show?” Nick Carter asked in a whisper.

“No - Nick Cannon just doesn’t know how to not be a host,” replied the rabbit.

But it sure felt like they were on a game show, as the lights began to flash and a song by The Who started playing in the background. “Whooooo are you… who-ooh, who-ooh?” Over the music, the Misfit Fans had started chanting, “Take. It. Off! Take. It. Off!”

The rabbit sighed, knowing he had no choice but to remove his mask. He took his time, stalling as long as possible, as Nick sang along with The Who. “C’mon, tell me who are you… you… you…”

In spite of the danger they were in, the rabbit couldn’t help but smile as he lifted the mask off his head, knowing Nick would recognize his real voice. “Someone who loves you,” he said softly.

“Howie!” Nick cried with relief.

“Ladies and gentleman, Howie Dorough!” announced Nick Cannon, as Howie kissed his friend’s forehead and helped him climb to his feet. Nick leaned heavily on him, his legs still shaky and weak. Howie put a protective arm around his waist to hold him steady.

“Ho ho ho ho ho!” laughed Melissa. Standing behind her, Lance Bass gave Howie an apologetic look. It had been his idea to loan Howie Joey Fatone’s rabbit costume, but the plan had failed. They may have freed Nick from the carbonite, but there was no way Melissa would let him go without being punished.

“Look, Melissa,” Nick addressed her. “I never meant to hurt you. How was I supposed to know you didn’t wanna have sex with me when you literally followed me from room to room like a little puppy, made out with me, let me go down on you, and then gave me a blow job? I’m sorry you regret it now, but that’s not my fault.”

Melissa muttered something unintelligible, and Aaron translated, “It’s too late for that, Carter.”

“Aaron?” said Nick in surprise.

“You may be a good singer,” Aaron continued as if he hadn’t spoken, “but you’re also a piece of shit.”

“Ah ha ha ha ha!” cackled Melissa’s father.

“Aaron, why the hell are you siding with her? I’m your brother!” Nick cried, his body quivering against Howie’s. “Bros before hos, dude!”

“You’re also a serial rapist who uses and abuses women,” replied Aaron coldly, speaking for himself this time. “You recruited your little BSB gang stalkers to start a smear campaign and take the heat off you by making wild accusations against me. But your gaslighting won’t work. I know I’m not crazy or any of the other things they say about me.”

Nick shook his head sadly. “You need help, Aaron. And I’m willing to get you that help, if you would just accept it. That’s why I got the whole family together for Christmas, so we could try to help you.”

“Ah-ha! So you admit it!” Aaron accused. “Your ‘fun old-fashioned Carter family Christmas’ was nothing but a way to stage an intervention on me! Well, guess what, Nick? I already knew that before I came because, you see, I’m very intelligent. Who do you think conspired with Queen Melissa to have you brought here? It was me! I’m the mastermind of all of this! I’m the Joker!”

“Oh ho ho ho ho!” laughed Melissa in the middle of Aaron’s rant.

“Ah ha ha ha ha!” cackled her father.

Aaron smirked down at his brother. “See, I’m not playing your game. You’re playing mine. You and your little BSB gang stalkers have got nothing on me and LMG or Melissa and her Misfit Fans. We’re gonna take you down, bro, and dismantle the Backstreet Boys, once and for all! Take them away!”

Howie’s heart sank as a pair of Melissa’s minions came to haul Nick and him to the dungeon. They were doomed.

“Melissa!” Nick called out desperately, as their clawed hands closed firmly around his arm. “We can record another song together! I’ll cast you in my next SyFy movie! You’re throwing away a huge opportunity here; don’t be a fool!”

“We have powerful friends!” Howie added, but this was an empty threat. Most of their friends were already in her custody. Kevin was the only one left who could come to their rescue.

He was their last hope.

***


End Notes:
Click here to see my funny photoshop creation that goes with this chapter.

Part VII by RokofAges75
The early morning sun flooded the castle’s dark entrance hall with light as the front door rose to reveal a lone figure, the hood of his sweatshirt pulled up over his head to hide his face.

“Halt! Who goes there?” cried the sentry, brandishing her spear.

Slowly, Kevin Richardson lowered his hood. “Hey there, Mariah… I mean, Audrey,” he greeted her cordially. “Remember me?”

The woman sneered. “How could I forget? You and your friends murdered our princess, destroyed our motherships, and wiped out most of us Misfit Fans. Like I told you last time... you’ll pay for this, Backstreet Boys!”

“Yeah… sorry about all that,” said Kevin with an apologetic shrug, “but you can’t really blame us for fighting back. Princess Kujo and her minions did blow up Sleeping Beauty’s castle and kill dozens of classic Disney characters, y’know. We were just trying to defend ourselves.”

“And we - those of us who are left, anyway - would love nothing more than to destroy you,” Audrey replied with a smirk.

“Aww, come on now,” Kevin cajoled her, his green eyes crinkling at the corners as he flashed her his most charming grin. “You don’t really mean that, do you? After we came all this way to play a concert here that one time? I thought y’all were part of the Backstreet Army!”

“Not anymore,” Audrey said hostiley, without the slightest hint of a smile on her smug face. “Our loyalty lies with another now. We have a new leader, one who shares our determination to take down the Backstreet Boys.”

“Yes… so I’ve heard,” said Kevin, his own smile fading as he pressed his lips into a thin frown. “I would like to speak with your leader.”

Audrey shook her head. “I’m afraid that’s impossible.”

“I must speak with Melissa,” Kevin insisted, his voice calm but firm. “I promise, I come in peace. I’m just here to negotiate to get Nick and the Boys back.”

“Queen Melissa is not interested in making any more bargains and does not wish to be bothered this early in the morning,” said Audrey dismissively. “She needs her beauty sleep.”

Kevin fought hard not to roll his eyes, which he kept fixed upon the Misfit Fan. “You will take me to Melissa,” he said in that same calm but firm tone, his eyes boring into hers. He knew the power he had over his fans, even the former ones - how his piercing green eyes could penetrate even the toughest exteriors and melt even the most icy of hearts.

Sure enough, it only took a few seconds of direct eye contact for Audrey to crack, swaying slightly as her knees went weak. She lowered her spear, holding it limply at her side as the hostility faded from her expression, and stared up at him, slightly open-mouthed.

“You serve your mistress well,” he told her, taking a step forward, as she turned and beckoned for him to follow her. “And you will be rewarded.”

Audrey led him down the same long hall he had seen only through the lens of Lance’s phone, to the large chamber where Melissa Schuman lay sleeping, surrounded by her many minions. Aaron was still chained at her side in his metal speedo, while Lance stood in the background. “At last, Kevin’s come to rescue us!” he cried gleefully, clapping his hands.

Melissa’s eyes popped open as Audrey leaned over to whisper in her ear. “Mistress… gabba nopez Kevin Richardson, Backstreet Boy.”

Aaron sat up to translate as Melissa replied angrily with words Kevin couldn’t understand. “She told you not to admit him!” he admonished the sentry.

“I must be allowed to speak,” Kevin said, locking eyes with Audrey again.

“He must be allowed to speak,” she told Melissa.

“You weak-minded fool!” Melissa hissed back, forgetting to use her trauma-informed language. “He’s using an old boyband mind trick.”

“You will bring Nick, Brian, AJ, and Howie to me,” said Kevin, stepping forward to address her directly.

“Ho ho ho ho ho!” Melissa laughed haughtily, as he looked into her eyes. “Your charms will not work on me, Backstreet Boy. Not anymore.”

“Nevertheless,” Kevin said coolly, moving closer to her, “I’m taking Nick and the rest of the fellas. You can either profit by this or be destroyed. It’s your choice, but I warn you not to underestimate our power.”

Ooahh...” murmured Melissa, her eyes narrowing as she seemed to consider this.

Lance looked worried. “Kevin!” he called. “You’re standing on a-”

“There will be no bargain, Backstreet Boy,” Melissa interrupted him loudly. “I will enjoy watching you die.”

Before Kevin could reply, the floor disappeared from beneath his feet, and he fell down, down into a dark dungeon. He hit the hard, stone floor with a wet splash, landing in a puddle of cold water.

“You okay, man?” asked a comfortingly familiar voice. A hand reached down to him, and as his eyes adjusted to the dim light, Kevin realized it belonged to his cousin. Feeling the slightest bit of relief, Kevin took it.

As Brian helped him to his feet, he heard someone else say, “Kevin? Is that you?”

“Nick?” Kevin replied hopefully, as a large body collided into his, nearly knocking him to the ground again.

“Kevin!” Nick cried, his arms coming around Kevin in a clumsy embrace. “I can’t see, bro.”

Awkwardly, Kevin patted Nick’s back. His shirt felt sticky - whether from sweat or melted carbonite, he wasn’t sure. “What’s going on?” he asked. “Why can’t you see?”

“He has hibernation sickness,” said Howie, emerging from the shadows.

Kevin swallowed hard, not bothering to hide his concern. “You okay, buddy?” he asked Nick as he hugged his little brother closer, ruffling his matted hair and ignoring the mildewy smell that clung to his damp clothing. The last thing Nick needed was to catch a cold down here, with his immune system already compromised.

Nick nodded. “I’m all right, bro,” he replied, though his voice sounded a bit shaky. “I’m all right.”

“Kev!” AJ’s voice drifted out of the darkness as he came across the dungeon.

“AJ!”

“Are you all right?” asked AJ, eyeing Kevin’s wet clothes.

“Fine.” Kevin flashed a grim smile as he looked around at the five of them, now huddled in a tight circle. “Together again, huh?”

AJ smirked. “Wouldn’t miss it.”

From far above their heads, they heard Melissa shouting at her minions to bring the Backstreet Boys to her. A few minutes later, five pairs of Misfit Fans, armed with spears, came down to escort Kevin, Brian, Nick, Howie, and AJ back up to her audience chamber.

“Where’s Aaron?” Nick asked, stumbling along blindly as they were brought before Melissa.

“I’m here,” said Aaron, smirking at Melissa’s side. As Melissa began to speak, reverting back to her trauma-informed language, he resumed translating for her. “Her Majesty, the great Melissa Schuman, has decreed that you are to be terminated. Immediately.”

“Good. I hate long waits,” Nick muttered under his breath.

“Oh ah ha ha ha ha!” cackled Melissa’s father.

Aaron went on without acknowledging his brother. “You will therefore be taken to the Desperation Desert and cast into the Pit of Metoo, the nesting place of the very thirsty Starlack.”

Nick squared his jaw. “Doesn’t sound so bad,” he said defiantly.

“In her belly,” Aaron continued, “you will find a new definition of pain and suffering, as you are slowly digested over a thousand years.”

“On second thought, let’s pass on that, huh?” said the older Carter, swallowing hard. Kevin could feel poor Nick trembling next to him.

“You should have bargained, Melissa,” he said, raising his eyebrows at her as he and his bandmates were roughly hauled away. “That’s the last mistake you’ll ever make.”

Melissa and her minions just laughed.

***


True to its name, the Desperation Desert was a desolate place with nothing but rolling sand dunes for as far as the eye could see. Melissa, Aaron, and most of the Misfit Fans traveled there on a floating sail barge, while a few of her minions brought the Backstreet Boys on a separate, smaller vessel.

“I think my eyes are getting better,” Nick said to Brian, as he squinted out over the railing of the ship. “Instead of a big dark blur, I see a big light blur.”

Brian smiled and shook his head. “There’s nothing to see. It just looks like the desert outside of Vegas.”

“No wonder Melissa wanted to move here. I heard she was looking at houses in Vegas a while back, you know.”

“Why’s she so obsessed with you?” wondered Brian with a frown.

Nick shrugged. “Beats me. I bet she’s gonna miss me when I’m gone.”

“Just stick close to Howie and AJ,” muttered Brian in Nick’s ear. “We’ve taken care of everything.”

“Oh. Great,” said Nick flatly.

Brian reached for his hand, giving it a reassuring squeeze. It was hard to feel hopeful when they were facing execution. His own stomach lurched as the small airship slowed to a stop. Looking down over the railing, he could see the head of the snakelike Starlack monster poking out of a large hole in the ground, its long tongue protruding thirstily. If the plan didn’t work, they were doomed.

One of the Misfit Fans extended a long plank out from the side of the ship, as Aaron appeared at a window of Melissa’s sail barge. “Victims of the Starlack!” he called, his voice carrying across the space between the two ships. “Her Majesty hopes that you will die differently from how you lived: honorably. But should any of you wish to beg for mercy, the multitalented Melissa Schuman will now listen to your pleas.”

Nick glared in the direction of his brother’s voice. “Aaron… you tell that attention-seeking piece of washed-up trash she’ll get no such pleasure from us!” he shouted back. “Right?” he added in a lower voice, looking around at the others. The rest of the guys nodded in agreement.

Watching from another window of the sail barge, Lance Bass could barely breathe. It didn’t look good for the Backstreet Boys. Nervously, he loosened the bandana wrapped around his neck, readying himself for what was about to happen.

“Melissa!” Kevin called. “This is your last chance. Free us… or die!”

Melissa, her father, and the Misfit Fans laughed and laughed.

“Move them into position!” Aaron announced.

Brian stepped forward first, walking to the very edge of the plank. His fear of heights prevented him from looking down this time. He sucked in a deep breath, praying everything would go as planned. He was followed closely by his cousin. AJ and Howie fell into position behind Kevin, leaving Nick as the last one in line.

Locking eyes with Lance, Brian tipped his chin in a tiny nod, as Aaron relayed Melissa’s next order: “Put them in!”

Brian took a deep breath. Before one of the Misfit Fans could prod him with her spear, he suddenly spun around and dropped backwards off the plank. “Yippee ki-yay, motherfucker!” he heard Kevin cry as he fell.

At Kevin’s signal, Lance hurled his carefully folded bandana out the window as hard as he could, hoping the weight of the objects hidden inside it would help carry it farther. Unfortunately, the force of his throw thrust his body too far forward, and before he could catch himself, he fell helplessly over the side of the sail barge.

Meanwhile, Brian had grabbed the sides of the plank between his hands on his way down, preventing himself from plummeting straight into the Starlack pit. He used his powerful arms to boost himself back up onto the plank as Kevin reached up and caught the little bundle Lance had thrown his way. He handed Brian one of the amulets wrapped inside the red bandana and quickly passed out the others to the rest of his bandmates, who were doing their best to dodge the Misfit Fans’ spears.

Once the last amulet had been haphazardly thrown over the last Backstreet Boy’s head, Brian felt his whole body begin to tingle, as he and the others were transformed into the world’s most unique team of superheroes - or so they had once been told. In the past, Brian had sometimes felt his own superpower - the ability to jump really high - paled in comparison to the others’, but he and his magic basketball had saved them from the Misfit Fans before. Praying for a repeat performance, he bounced off the edge of the plank like it was a diving board, launching himself up into the air as he flipped over the heads of his bandmates and the Misfit Fans they were fighting. He landed on the deck of the ship and lobbed his magic basketball at one of the women, knocking her overboard. Brian caught the ball as it rebounded off her head and hurled it at another Misfit Fan, taking out as many of them as he could this way.

Meanwhile, Kevin, the Power Lord, was using his super strength to throw the women around him straight into the Starlack pit, while AJ relied on his amazing marksmanship to shoot the remaining ones with the guns Howie, the Illusioneer, had imagined right into his hands. Ninja Man Nick fended off nearby Misfit Fans with his martial arts abilities, whipping his nunchucks around wildly, but his vision was still so blurry, he didn’t make contact with many.

“Help!” he suddenly heard a voice shouting in desperation from somewhere below the ship. Squinting as he looked down over the side, Nick could just make out the fuzzy shape of someone struggling to climb up the nearest dune. “Kevin! AJ!” the man cried, as he slipped and slid in the loose sand.

“Lance!” called Nick, as one of the Misfit Fans went tumbling head over heels past him and rolled right into the mouth of the thirsty Starlack. The monster lapped her up eagerly with its tongue, making a loud slurping sound as it swallowed the salty fan whole.

Halfway up the sand dune, Lance shuddered, hoping he wouldn’t be next. “Help me!” he hollered, as Nick extended a hand to him.

“Lance, grab it!” Nick shouted, dangling his nunchucks like a makeshift rope.

“Lower it!” cried Lance, reaching desperately for the end of the weapon, which was still hanging high over his head.

“I’m trying!” Nick leaned over the side of the ship, stretching out his arm, but the nunchucks simply weren’t long enough. The blast of a cannon suddenly rocked the ship, nearly knocking Nick overboard. “Grab me, Howie, I’m slipping!” he screamed, as he felt himself falling forward. Howie managed to grab Nick’s feet and hold him as he hung upside down over the Starlack pit.

Realizing the cannonfire had come from the sail barge, Brian took a running leap and launched both himself and his magic basketball over the sea of sand and onto the side of the bigger ship, which had descended into chaos the moment Melissa’s minions realized their queen had lost control of the situation.

As people panicked around him, Aaron remained chained to Melissa’s side, watching out the window with a sinking feeling of dread. Somehow, despite being outnumbered, Nick and the rest of the Backstreet Boys seemed to be defeating the Misfit Fans. Again. The second he saw Brian climb aboard the sail barge, Aaron knew the end was near. Melissa Schuman had been fighting against his brother for the better part of two years, but while she may have won some battles, she wasn’t going to win the war. Aaron Carter could see that now - and he didn’t want to end up on the losing side.

Making a split-second decision, he suddenly turned on his allies. First he whipped Melissa’s father out of the way with a length of his chain leash, lashing the little man across the face so hard, it knocked him out cold. Then, before Melissa could react, he went behind her back and wrapped the chain around the front of her neck, pulling it tight. She struggled against him, her arms flailing wildly as she tried to free herself, but Aaron only tugged harder. It took several minutes for him to finish strangling her, but finally, he felt her body go limp as the fight went out of her, and she slumped forward, dead at last.

Meanwhile, Nick was still trying to reach Lance. “Grab it!” he urged, as Howie held onto his feet. “Almost… you almost got it.” He extended his arm as far as it would go, but Lance’s fingertips were still inches away from the end of his nunchucks. “Gently now,” he added, as Howie lowered him further over the side of the ship. “All right… easy, easy. Hold me, Howie!”

Just when Nick thought they had it, one of the Starlack’s tentacles shot up out of the pit and wrapped itself tightly around Lance’s leg. “Eeyaah!” Lance let out a high-pitched shriek as it pulled him toward its gaping mouth.

“Howie! Howie, gimme a gun!” Nick cried frantically. In a matter of seconds, he felt the gun materialize into his free hand as Howie used his powers of illusion to imagine it there. “Don’t move, Lance!”

“No, wait, I thought you were blind!” Lance yelled back in terror as he tried to twist out of the Starlack’s clutches.

“It’s all right! I can see a lot better now!” Nick assured him. “Don’t move!”

“A little higher!” Lance guided, as Nick aimed for the creature’s tentacle. “Just a little higher!”

Holding the gun steady, Nick squeezed the trigger. He winced when he heard Lance howl with pain; the bullet had hit him in the leg. “Damn, I missed,” Nick swore, watching in dismay as Lance was pulled, screaming, into the Starlack pit.

“Happy trails, Lance,” Howie said sadly, as the Starlack swallowed the former *NSYNC member. It let out a loud belch of satisfaction before finally retreating back into the Pit of Metoo.

“I guess I should’ve left the shooting to AJ, huh?” said Nick with an apologetic shrug, once Howie had pulled him to safety.

Howie clapped a comforting hand down on Nick’s shoulder. “You tried the best you could, kid, and that’s what counts,” he said encouragingly. “When we get home, whaddya say you and I go get some ice cream?”

“Sounds good,” replied Nick, grinning.

As Kevin and AJ finished off the last of the Misfit Fans on the smaller ship, Brian was single-handedly fighting the ones aboard the sail barge, using his magic basketball as both a weapon and a shield.

In the midst of the fray, Aaron flagged him down.

“Brian! Look, I’m back on your side!” the younger Carter brother claimed, as he showed Brian what he had done to the Schumans. “Can you please free me from these chains?” Aaron begged, anxious to get away from Melissa’s corpse.

Brian cocked his head as he considered the request. After everything he had done to hurt Nick and try to destroy the Backstreet Boys, Aaron didn’t deserve Brian’s help. But Brian knew helping him was the Christian thing to do, and so he hurled his basketball through the chain leash, breaking it in half.

“Thanks,” said Aaron, offering a sheepish smile.

“You’re welcome,” growled Brian without smiling back. “Now it’s your turn to help me. Tell me where to find JP.”

“JP?” Aaron asked, a blank look on his face.

“The baby pandaskunk!” snapped Brian impatiently, shooting his basketball at one of the last Misfit Fans left fighting. He caught the ball as it bounced off her shattered skull and turned back to Aaron. “Well? Where is he?”

Aaron seemed genuinely puzzled. “I have no idea,” he insisted. “I only hired the bounty hunter for Nick. I swear, I didn’t even know he took the baby, too. Someone else must have hired him to do that.”

Brian gave him a long look before he decided he had no choice but to believe him… for now. “C’mon, let’s go,” he said grudgingly, offering Aaron his hand. Aaron took it, but instead of hauling him to his feet, Brian scooped Nick’s brother into his strong arms. “Hold on!” he barked, cringing at the skeletal feel of Aaron’s body. It was like carrying a bag of bones.

Aaron obediently wrapped his scrawny arms around Brian’s neck, and Brian leaped off the side of the sail barge, landing gracefully on the deck of the smaller ship, where the rest of the Boys were waiting. They watched with astonishment as Brian dropped Aaron unceremoniously onto the deck. One side of Nick’s mouth twitched in a tiny smile of gratitude as he met Brian’s eyes. Brian gave a brief nod back, as if to say, No problem. He’s still your brother.

Kevin’s brows furrowed as he frowned, flashing the younger Carter a look of pure loathing, but the only thing he said was, “Y’all ready?”

Brian looked around, realizing they were missing someone. “Where’s Lance?” he wondered.

“He, uh… he didn’t make it,” said Nick, his cheeks darkening as he lowered his eyes to the Starlack pit.

“Oh… I’m sorry.”

Before they sailed back to Lance’s spaceship, they bowed their heads and had a brief moment of silence for their friend and former rival, who had risked everything to help them rescue Nick.

“But hey, at least we can listen to some better music on the way back,” said Kevin to lighten the mood, as they climbed aboard the ship.

Everyone laughed with relief. Everyone except Aaron.

***


Part VIII by RokofAges75
A small crowd had gathered outside the Carter house in Las Vegas, anxiously awaiting the Boys’ safe return. When Nick landed Lance’s spaceship neatly on the front lawn, the group of people - plus one pandaskunk - broke into wild applause.

“Thank god you’re home!” Lauren cried with relief, launching herself into her husband’s arms the moment he set foot on the ground. “We were so worried!”

“I’m all right,” Nick reassured her, brushing his lips over hers. “Just glad to be back.” He let go of his wife, then bent down to hug his son and scoop his baby girl up off her blanket in the grass. Odin clung to his legs, while Saoirse burbled happily in his arms. Nick could hardly take his eyes off the faces of his family; by the soft glow of the Christmas lights blazing in the trees and bushes around them, he drank in every detail of their features, grateful that his vision had finally gone back to normal.

Beside him, Brian was enjoying a similar reunion with Leighanne and Baylee. Kevin, AJ, and Howie hung back, watching the scene unfold with smiles on their faces. Meanwhile, the rest of the Carter clan had gathered around Aaron, who was clearly enjoying all the attention.

“I almost didn’t make it,” Nick heard his brother’s voice rise above the crowd, “but I knew I had to keep fighting… you know, for Nick.”

Looking up, Nick locked eyes with Aaron, who shot him an arrogant smirk. Nick’s blood boiled. The two brothers had barely spoken on the long flight home; Nick stayed in the cockpit with Kevin as his co-pilot, while Aaron sat by himself in the back, giving the rest of the group a wide berth. After what he had done, Aaron should have been grateful to Brian and the other Backstreet Boys for sparing his life, yet here he was, acting like he had been the one to save them all.

To make matters worse, Nick realized he didn’t even recognize half the people who had enveloped his brother in a big group hug. Besides his mother, sisters, nieces, and brother-in-law, there were at least six others huddled around Aaron, all of them women. “Oh, Aaron!” he could hear them cooing in syrupy, high-pitched voices, as their hands roamed over his body. “You’re our hero!”

“What are all these random people doing on our property?” Nick asked Lauren, his upper lip curling in disgust.

His wife rolled her eyes. “I don’t know, but if I had to take a guess, I’d say your brother invited them here,” Lauren said, giving him an exasperated look as she pointed out the oversized sweatshirt one of the girls was wearing, which was emblazoned with a picture of a lion and the letters LMG. “They just started showing up on the street a few minutes ago. He must have given them the code to get through the front gates. I was about to call security when you guys landed.”

“I’m gonna kill him, I swear,” said Nick through gritted teeth, as he started across the grass toward Aaron. The Christmas lights his brother had helped him hang looked like colorful blurs in the corners of his eyes as he zeroed in on Aaron’s smug face, clenching his hands into fists. “You’re full of shit, Aaron!” he shouted at his brother. “You are literally a lying sack of shit!”

“Whoa, watch it there, bro!” Aaron warned, holding up his hands in defense as Nick approached him. His little circle of LMG girls tightened protectively around him, turning to glare at Nick, as if daring him to try touching one of them. “What the fuck are you talking about?”

“Don’t act like you don’t know what I’m talking about!” Nick replied hotly. He could feel a vein in his forehead throbbing as blood rushed to his face, his cheeks flushing bright red. “Why don’t you tell your adoring fans how you hired a fucking bounty hunter to come here and kidnap me for Melissa Fucking Schuman?! How you only pretended to get kidnapped yourself so you could keep playing the victim, like you always do! How you tried to have me and the Boys killed!”

“Aaron, is that true?” asked Jane Carter, crossing her arms over her chest as she frowned at her younger son.

Aaron’s mouth dropped open. “Of course not, Mom! How could you even think I would do something like that to my own brother? Don’t you know me any better than that?” he protested, looking scandalized. “Nick’s the one who’s lying!”

“Oh yeah? Ask any of them!” shouted Nick, flinging his arm toward his four bandmates. “They were all there to hear you threaten to have us thrown into the fucking Starlack pit to be slowly digested over a period of a thousand fucking years, so don’t even try to deny it!”

“My true fans know I would never do that!” Aaron insisted, as he looked around at the handful of girls who still supported him. “This is just another false accusation for the smear campaign you and your BSB gang stalkers have been running against me to distract people from the bad press you got for being a fucking serial rapist!” His own delusional fans nodded, adamant in their defense of him.

Watching their heads all bob in unison, Nick shook his own head in disbelief. “I don’t know if you’re actually as insane as you act, or if you’re just that desperate for attention, but one thing is clear: you’re still jealous of me, just like you’ve always been,” he hissed at his brother. “None of these girls would even know your name if it wasn’t for me! But I’m not out to ruin your career, Aaron; you’ve done that all by yourself. ”

There was nothing Aaron could say to counter this, for it was an undeniable truth. He never would have made it in the music business had it not been for his big brother and the Backstreet Boys, and everyone knew it. So Aaron tried a different tactic: “Yeah? Well, guess what, Nick? You and the Backstreet Boys are over! You’re nothing but a bunch of old, washed-up has-beens who rely on nineties nostalgia to sell tickets,” he sneered. “Meanwhile, I’m the best thing in music right now. Ruined career? Nah, bro - I'm just getting started! I’m the future! I’m the best Carter brother by far!”

Nick snorted. “Yeah, you keep telling yourself that, Aaron.”

Aaron raised his eyebrows. “Don’t believe me? Fine. Then let’s settle this, once and for all. I hereby challenge you to a sing-off!”

Nick couldn’t contain his laughter. “Challenge accepted,” he agreed, smirking. “Get ready, ‘cause you’re goin’ down, little bro!”

“Not on your life,” said Aaron, narrowing his eyes. He was totally serious about this, Nick realized.

Forced to choose sides, the fans, friends, and family members who had gathered in the front yard slowly drifted apart as the Carter brothers prepared to battle each other through song. On one side stood Nick, backed by Lauren, Odin, Saoirse, Angel, Corey, Harper, BJ, Bella, and the Backstreet Boys. On the opposite side were Aaron and his small group of supporters: the six LMG girls.

Jane stood by herself in the middle, unable to choose a side. “I love you both!” she insisted, as her eyes darted between her two sons.

“Love you too, Mama!” Aaron called back, blowing her a kiss.

Nick said nothing.

Their mother cleared her throat awkwardly and announced, “Let the official Carter Brothers Sing-Off begin!”

Out of nowhere, a jangly jazz tune started to play. Nick stepped forward first, feeling confident as he fixed his eyes upon Aaron.

“I’m Mister Nick Carter. I’m Mister Pop,” he sang, whipping off his hat and holding it over his heart. “I’m Mister Backstreet Boy. I’m Mister Back-on-Top.”

Performing a slick spin, he added,
“Fans call me a heartthrob, whoever I touch
Turns to mush in my clutch.
I’m too much!”

He blew a kiss to Lauren, who let out a loud teenybopper squeal as she pretended to catch it, looking admiringly at her husband.

Aaron snorted, rolling his eyes as he sang a scalding rebuttal:
“He’s Mister Nick Carter. He’s Mister Gross.
He’s Mister Gimme-a-Blowjob, even though no means no.
Girls call him abuser. Whoever he’s raped
Turned to tears on their date.
He’s no saint!”

Wagging his finger, Nick countered,
“I never would sleep with a girl without her clear consent.
I’d rather be alone than leave a woman with regrets.”

Behind him, Brian, AJ, Howie, and Kevin crooned in perfect, four-part harmony,
“He’s Mister Nick Carter. He’s Mister Frack.
He’s Mister ‘I Got You.’ He’s Mister ‘Backstreet’s Back.’”

“Fans call me a hottie,” Nick continued with a smirk. “Whoever I tweet.
Starts to melt through her screen.
I’m too sweet!”

“Tooooooo sweet!” echoed the Backstreet Boys, striking one of their classic boyband poses with Nick front and center, flashing an irresistible smile.

Aaron made a gagging noise, pretending to vomit before he swaggered forward to perform his own autobiographical number.

“I’m Mister Aaron Carter. I’m Mister Rap,” he started, flashing some sort of gang sign.
“I’m Mister Beat Maker. I’m Mister Remixed Crap.
I call myself Joker. Whatever I say
Makes the news the next day.
I love fame!”

Nick laughed and shook his head as he mocked Aaron with a verse of his own.
“He’s Mister Aaron Carter. He’s Mister Thug.
He’s Mister Bipolar. He’s Mister High-on-Drugs.
They call him a meth-head. Whatever he huffs
Starts to fuck his head up.
It’s too much!”

Glaring at him, Aaron argued,
“I don’t smoke crack or crystal meth. I swear I’m sober and clean!
I don’t use drugs or alcohol, except for whiskey and weed.”

“Oh, and air duster,” he admitted conversationally, as if he’d forgotten he was supposed to be singing. “Did I tell you my doctor says I’m developing esophagull cancer and don’t have long to live?”

Before he could put his foot any further into his mouth, his fans from LMG hurried forward and did an awkward kick line as they chorused, slightly off-key,
“He’s Mister Aaron Carter, best in the biz.
He’s not playing your game, but you are playing his.”

“I call myself Joker,” Aaron came back in on the beat. “Spinning my Black Web.
Just to mess with your head.
I’m the best!”

“Theeeeee best!” echoed his cult members, waving jazz hands on both sides of his head.

After the Carter brothers’ family and friends had finished clapping politely, they both turned to their mother and said, “Well??”

Jane raised her eyebrows. “Well what?”

“Who won?” Nick wanted to know.

“Yeah, Mom,” added Aaron, smirking. “You didn’t choose a side, so now you have to be the judge. Tell us, who’s the better son - I mean, singer. Me… or Nick?” He batted his eyes at his mother, then glared at his brother.

Shaking her head, Jane took a step backwards. “Oh, boys, I really can’t decide something like that. You know I think you’re both incredibly talented…”

“C’mon, Mom. Cut the crap already, and tell us the truth,” Nick interrupted her. “We can take it. Right, Aaron?”

Aaron returned his smirk with a simper of his own. “That’s right, Nick. We’re ready to hear it, Mom.”

Jane sighed, throwing up her hands. “All right, fine,” she replied flatly. “Of course, Aaron, you’re the better son. You were there for your family at your sister’s funeral, and you’ve been so supportive of me these last few months - well, except for when you stole my dogs and left me for dead on Uncle Steve’s doorstep. You’re still more considerate than your brother, who’s barely spoken to me in five years.”

She shot Nick a dirty look. He shrugged and nodded, not as bothered by it as he once might have been. Over the years, he had built up a defensive wall between himself and the rest of his family. Her words bounced right off it, no longer able to hurt him.

“All that being said,” Jane continued, before Aaron could start celebrating his victory, “Nick is clearly the better singer.”

Aaron froze in mid fist-pump. “Wait… what?!” he sputtered in disbelief.

“Sorry to burst your bubble, sweetheart, but he always has been,” added Jane with an apologetic shrug. “Why do you think we encouraged you to rap?”

Aaron’s face contorted into an angry scowl. “This is bullshit!” he spat. “Fuck you, Mom! Fuck you, Nick! Fuck you all! I hate this fucking family!” He stomped off down the street like the bratty teenager he had once been and never fully evolved from. As he stalked away, they could hear him mumbling under his breath, “I’m still the best thing in music. I’m a multitalented, motherfucking thug!”

Nick looked at his mother. “Thanks, Mom,” he said quietly, offering her a tiny smile.

Jane sighed, shaking her head sadly as she watched her other son disappear into darkness. “What are we going to do with him?”

“Um, excuse me, Mama Jane? I mean… Mrs. Carter?” One of Aaron’s fans approached her awkwardly, followed closely by the other members of his cult. “We’re sorry to interrupt, but Aaron promised us if we came to this address, we could pick up the custom hoodies he made for us, like, four months ago. Do you know where we get those?”

“So that’s how he lured you all here,” said Lauren with a smirk, shaking her head. “Sorry, ladies, but you’re never getting those hoodies. Your fearless leader has been scamming fans like you for months. Your best bet is to file a report with your bank and hope they’ll refund your money. Good luck.”

“No one asked you, bitch!” the girl replied, glaring at Lauren.

“Yeah, stay out of it, whore!” added another one of Aaron’s fans, as they turned and walked away.

“Cunt!” a third shouted over her shoulder as they hurried after him.

“Keep it classy, Love Money Gang!” Lauren called, rolling her eyes at Nick. “Come on… let’s get the kids inside. They’ve heard more than enough for tonight.”

As they all headed up to the house, Nick heard a soft set of footsteps rustling over the grass. From out of the darkness emerged Petunia the pandaskunk. In the midst of fighting with Aaron, he had almost forgotten about her.

“Petunia!” he exclaimed happily, throwing his arms around her big, fluffy body. “It’s good to see you, girl.”

“It’s good to see you, too, Nick,” Petunia replied quietly. “I’m glad you made it home safe. But…” She hesitated. “You didn’t bring back my baby, huh?”

“We’re so sorry, Petunia,” Brian apologized, coming up alongside Nick. “We couldn’t find JP anywhere on the Planet of Misfit Fans. But Aaron said he didn’t hire the bounty hunter to take the baby. He thinks someone else did.”

“Not that you can trust a word my shithead brother says,” Nick added, rolling his eyes. “Petunia, I saw little Pandakin on board the bounty hunter’s ship, right before he froze me in carbonite. I just don’t know where else he would have taken him.”

Brian frowned as they both considered the obvious question: Who else would be interested in a baby pandaskunk?

***


The Mandalorian had moved the egg-shaped cradle into the cockpit of his ship. As he approached the blue planet, he heard a small cooing sound coming from his passenger.

No, not my passenger, he reminded himself. My prisoner.

Still, he couldn’t help but crack a rare smile behind his helmet as he turned and looked at the baby pandaskunk, which had sat up on its hindquarters inside the cradle. He had to admit, it really was quite cute. He had never been commissioned to bring in such an adorable bounty before.

In the back of his mind, he wondered vaguely why his client wanted it so badly, but he cut off that thought before he allowed it to bloom. It wasn’t his place to wonder. His only purpose was to transport the creature to the client, no questions asked. Part of the reason he had become such a well-respected member of the Bounty Hunters’ Guild was because he could be counted upon to complete his assignments, to do the job he had been hired for and nothing more.

As he neared the end of his current mission, he heard a high-pitched beep coming from the control panel, signaling a message. He pressed a button, projecting a hologram of his guild master, Greef Karga, above the dashboard.

“Mando,” Karga greeted him. “I’ve received your transmission. Wonderful news. Upon your return, deliver the quarry directly to the client. I have no idea if she wants to stuff it or keep it for a pet, but she’s very antsy. Safe passage. You know where to find me.”

The hologram flickered and faded away at the end of the message. The Mandalorian glanced again at the baby pandaskunk, who had climbed out of its cradle and started pawing curiously at the control stick in front of the co-pilot’s seat. “It’s not a toy,” he said, frowning, and pushed the creature’s paw away. “Or food,” he added, as it tried chewing on the stick instead. Picking it up by the scruff of its neck, he tossed the pandaskunk back into its cradle. “Stay put,” he warned in his sternest voice possible. The baby just cocked its furry head at him and blinked its big, black eyes. The Mandalorian forced himself to look away.

Upon entering the planet’s atmosphere, he guided his ship toward a long, narrow peninsula, which appeared to point, finger-like, at a chain of islands off the coast of two large, interconnected continents. The vast ocean vanished from view as he made his descent, heading for a spot near the middle of the peninsula. As the ship lost altitude and came closer to sea level, he could see the sprawling complex, surrounded by green swampland.

After landing, the Mandalorian left his ship at Docking Bay 7 and made the long trek to his client’s headquarters, the cradle floating at his side. The baby pandaskunk sat placidly inside it, looking around with an expression of bright interest as they passed people and buildings. It seemed completely oblivious to the fact that the bounty hunter was leading it to a cruel fate - a fact not even the bounty hunter knew for sure, but feared nonetheless. He was all too familiar with the type of people who hired his kind to do their dirty work.

It’s none of my business what happens to it once it’s out of my hands, he thought, forcing himself to stay focused on the mission and the compensation he would receive once it was complete.

The scenery changed as he left the bustling outpost of Galaxy’s Edge and walked alongside a large and beautiful lake, which lead him to a land called Epcot. Before long, he was making his way through the winding cobblestone streets of a quaint, old-fashioned looking cityscape. Following the directions he had been given, he found himself standing in front of a narrow brick building. He looked up to double check the address of the townhouse before he rang the bell.

After a loud buzz, the door swung open to reveal a tall, bony woman in a tight, black dress and a long, white, fur coat lined in red satin. “Mando, darling!” she exclaimed in a posh British accent, flicking ash from her cigarette holder all over the front stoop.

“How are you?” he asked his client automatically.

“Miserable as usual. Perfectly wretched!” she replied, carefully patting her two-toned hair, half of which had been dyed black, while the rest was pure white. “Where is it?” she asked eagerly, craning her neck as she looked around. “Where is it? For heaven’s sake, where is it?”

The Mandolorian moved aside so she could see the cradle floating behind him.

“Yes!” the client gasped, her eyes gleaming in anticipation as she leaned toward the cradle. “Yes, yes, yes! How marvelous! How marvelous! How perfectly… ugh!” When she finally caught her first glimpse of the baby pandaskunk, she suddenly drew back, her upper lip curling in disgust. “Oh, the devil take it - it’s a mongrel! No stripes! No spots! No black fur at all! What a horrid little white rat! Ugh!” she scoffed, not bothering to hide her disappointment.

“It’s not a mongrel,” the Mandalorian said flatly. “It’ll get its markings in a few weeks. Just wait and see.”

“Oh... well, in that case, I’ll take it,” his client decided, her dark eyes brightening again. “Come in, darling, come in.” Waving her cigarette, she beckoned him inside.

As he followed her into a stuffy parlor, the cradle drifting along with him, his eyes lingered on the woman’s outerwear. “Is that a new fur coat?” he inquired. Initiating conversation was not something he often did; it felt forced and awkward.

His client didn’t seem to notice. She swelled with pride as she pulled the plush garment tighter around herself, her fingers sinking into the thick pelage. “My only true love, darling. I live for furs. I worship furs,” she declared, doing a little twirl. “After all, is there a woman in this wretched world who doesn’t?”

“I wouldn’t know, ma’am. I come from a galaxy far, far away,” the bounty hunter replied matter-of-factly.

“Your reputation was not unwarranted,” said the client, offering a thin-lipped smile as she perched herself upon a red settee.

Hidden behind the mask of his helmet, the Mandalorian’s eyes dropped to the white tiger skin rug lying on the floor in front of it, then drifted to the newborn pandaskunk. “What are your plans for it?” he asked before he could stop himself, struggling to maintain a conversational tone.

His client’s eyes narrowed, her smile fading into a frown. “How uncharacteristic for one of your reputation,” she responded, without answering the question. “You have taken commission and are about to receive payment. Is it not the Code of the Guild that these event are now forgotten?”

The bounty hunter hesitated for what felt like a long time, carefully considering his next words. Finally, he said, “I’m afraid I can’t give it up. Its poor mother… she’s probably heartbroken.” He was imagining how his own parents would have felt, had they lived to see him taken from them, instead of the other way around.

The woman’s eyes flashed with anger. “Mando, don’t be ridiculous!” she snapped, dropping her air of flattery. “Really, enough of this nonsense. I’ll pay you twice what it’s worth,” she added, as she took out her pocketbook. “Come now, I’m being more than generous. Such a large bounty for such a small package.”

“I’m sorry,” he said. “The kid’s coming with me.”

“Why, you horrid Mandalorian!” seethed the client, her nostrils flaring. “You… you… All right!” She threw up her clawed hands. “Keep the little beast, for all I care! Do as you like with it. Drown it. But I warn you, Mando, we’re through! I’m through with you!”

The bounty hunter had nothing more to say. He simply turned his back on her and headed for the front door, the baby pandaskunk floating beside him.

“I’ll get even. Just wait!” The deranged woman followed closely at his heels, continuing to threaten him. “You’ll be sorry, you fool! You idiot!” she screeched before slamming the door shut behind him.

The Mandalorian walked on without looking back.

***


Part IX by RokofAges75
Late that night, Nick stood alone in the dark living room, staring out the front window. The Christmas lights outside twinkled merrily, yet he felt no joy as he pictured Petunia restlessly pacing her den in despair over the disappearance of her son. His own mother was probably doing the same thing inside the RV parked in his driveway. Hours had passed since the sing-off, and Aaron still hadn’t come back. His fun, old-fashioned Carter family Christmas had completely fallen apart.

Nick sighed, raking a hand through his unruly hair. As much as he hated to admit it, he was worried about his brother. He kept watching through the window, hoping he would see Aaron wandering back up the street any second, but he wasn’t holding his breath. He knew it was just as likely Aaron was off getting high in a hotel room or driving himself home, even though he had hardly slept in days. It was only a matter of time before the kid ended up killing himself - though whether it would happen accidentally or intentionally, Nick couldn’t say. So much for staging an intervention, he thought sadly. Nothing had worked out the way he’d wanted it to.

“Santy Claus!” a small voice squealed behind him, causing Nick to jump. Startled, he whirled around to see BJ’s daughter Bella standing there in her pajamas, holding a raggedy teddy bear. “Uncle Nick, are you Santy Claus?” she asked earnestly.

“What? Oh… Whew, you scared me,” said Nick, wiping his forehead in relief as he remembered the last time someone had snuck up on him like that. At least this time he wouldn’t be frozen in carbonite and shipped off to a galaxy far, far away. “No, I’m not Santa Claus,” he lied, looking down at his red sweatpants. Not this year, anyway.

“I wish I was,” he added, and that much was true. He was starting to regret his decision to stay home, but it was too late to change his mind. It was already Christmas Eve on the other side of the world, and even if he wanted to deliver presents, there was no way he would be able to get everything ready in time or convince Petunia to pull the sleigh in her postpartum condition. It would be up to the parents to play Santa this year. He just hoped they would come through, or there were going to be a lot of disappointed kids on Christmas morning.

“Whatcha doin’ up, sweetheart?” he asked his niece, as he plopped down on the sofa. He patted a spot next to him, inviting her to sit. Bella climbed up and curled her body so close to his, he could smell the combination of grape-scented bubble bath and BJ’s cigarette smoke clinging to her skin.

“I couldn’t sleep,” said Bella, twirling a piece of her long, brown hair.

“Why not?” Nick wondered.

She looked up at him, her big brown eyes meeting his baby blues. “I’m nervous... because Christmas is almost here.”

Nick offered a knowing smile. “Nervous or excited?”

Bella sighed. “Shittin’ bricks.”

Nick had to bite his tongue to stop himself from laughing. “You shouldn’t say that,” he chided her gently.

“Sorry,” she apologized. “Shittin’ rocks.”

He blinked at her in surprise, not sure how to respond to that.

“I’m nervous because I don’t know if I’m gettin’ nothin’,” she went on honestly, failing to notice his reaction. Her admission stabbed at Nick’s heart, making him feel even more guilty for deciding to stay home that year. How many other kids in the world were worried about the same thing?

“I don’t think you should be nervous,” he assured his niece. “‘Cause if you’re good, Santa knows it. And if you believe in him, and you believe in your mom, and you believe in your… your grandma…” He swallowed the bit of vomit that had risen up the back of his throat. “...and you’ve been good all year ‘round, Santa Claus is gonna bring you something.” I’ll make sure of it, he added inwardly, vowing to find out from BJ exactly what Bella wanted and buy it for her. What was the point in having a rich, famous uncle if you couldn’t get some good presents out of it? He could do that much for her, even if he couldn’t do it for all the good little girls and boys in the world.

“Sometimes I think all that Santa crap’s just bull,” Bella confessed. “If he was so real, how come I didn’t get squat last year? I didn’t do nothin’ wrong, and I still got the shaft!”

Nick was slightly distubed by what he was hearing, but he tried to hide that from her. “Well,” he said, forcing a smile onto his face, “I happen to know for a fact that Santa Claus is real. And in the next couple of days, somehow I’m gonna prove it to you. You know, every year he comes to our house. I’ve seen him.”

Bella’s brown eyes widened. “It’s true??”

Nick nodded. “Cross my heart,” he said with a wink. “So… it’s a good idea you came to stay with us, isn’t it?”

“I love it here!” she exclaimed. “You don’t gotta put on your coat to go the bathroom, and your house is always parked in the same place.”

A lump rose in Nick’s throat as he realized how badly he had let Bella down by not being there for her and BJ. Filled with regret, he sighed and said, “I think you better go back to bed now.”

His niece nodded. “Okay.” She crawled off the couch, then turned to look back at him. “How come you ain’t sleepin’?” she asked suspiciously.

“Oh, I was just looking for something,” said Nick wistfully, glancing out the window again. He did a double take when he saw a tall, lanky figure staggering up the driveway. “Aaron??”

Bella’s face lit up. “Uncle Aaron’s back?!”

They both ran outside.

“What do you want?” Aaron muttered when he looked up and saw them.

Before Nick could answer, his brother tripped over the curb and crashed into the trash cans Lauren had set out earlier, knocking them over with a clatter loud enough to wake the whole street. Lights went on inside the house, as Nala, Igby, and I started barking and one of the babies began to cry.

“Smooth move,” said Nick with a smirk, extending his hand to help Aaron up. “You okay, bro?”

Aaron slapped his hand away. “I told you, I’m fuckin’ fine,” he snapped defensively, as he scrambled to his feet.

Nick watched him with a sinking feeling. He was clearly high as a kite; Nick could smell the weed and duster fumes wafting up from his brother’s bleach-stained clothes. “You’re not fine, Aaron,” he said sadly. “I just wish you would admit it so we can help you get better. You can hate us all you want, bro, but your family will still love you, no matter what.”

“That’s right, sweetheart,” said a soft voice behind him. For the first time in ten years or more, the sound of his mother’s voice didn’t make Nick cringe. At least, for now, they were on the same side. “We love you, and we’re here for you, Aaron,” Jane added, opening her arms wide. “Let us help you the way you helped me.”

Aaron scowled. “If y’all think I’m going back to rehab, you’re dead fucking wrong! I don’t even drink or do drugs, except for weed, and that doesn’t even count - it’s natural!”

“Don’t forget the computer duster you like to huff,” his mother reminded him with a reproachful look. “That stuff is definitely not natural.”

Aaron hung his head, mumbling something under his breath. Nick thought he heard the words “smear campaign” again.

“Look, Aaron, none of us is in a place to judge you. We’ve all been there,” he pointed out, waving his hand to include not only himself, but also his mother and BJ, who was standing on the front stoop with Angel, both of them still in their pajamas. “Addiction and mental illness run in our family, and neither one is easy to overcome on its own, let alone a combination of both. But with the right people around you and the right attitude, you can overcome this. You’ve got plenty of support here, and I’m willing to pay to get you some professional help, too… but only if you commit to following the treatment plan.”

“I don’t want your money!” Aaron spat, as if he had tasted poison. “It’s blood money! You’ve used and abused people to get where you are. You’ve hurt people!” His bloodshot eyes flashed, reflecting the colorful Christmas lights. “You are not a good person, Nick!”

Nick sighed. “I’ve made some mistakes in my life, I admit,” he acknowledged with a nod. “But I’ve never raped anyone. What happened between Melissa Schuman and me was consensual, at least the way I remember it. Maybe she remembered it differently. We had both been drinking; I don’t blame her if she woke up with regrets. But I swear, I never meant to hurt her or any other woman. I don’t appreciate the accusations you made about me and Mildred.” He gave Aaron a disapproving glance.

“Don’t try to gaslight me, dude; I saw what I saw!” Aaron insisted. “And I will always believe women instead of victim-shaming them the way you and your BSB gang stalkers do!”

Nick shook his head sadly. His brother had obviously been brainwashed by Melissa, indoctrinated with a barrage of flowery, trauma-informed language to further her own attention-seeking agenda. Nick feared Aaron was too far gone to be rehabilitated. But he had to keep trying. It was Christmas, after all, and if the last few years had taught him anything, it was that miracles tended to happen at Christmas time.

“You know, they could be part of your gang someday too,” he said, appealing to Aaron’s own desperate need for attention. “If you and I could just agree to set aside our differences and join forces, we could do some pretty amazing things together. With my vocals and your beats, I bet we’d make a kick-ass collaboration that both our fanbases would love. And just think - if even a third of my 1.5 million Instagram followers started following you, you’d have over a million followers, too!”

A faraway look came over Aaron’s face, his eyes gleaming with an expression of greed as he was seduced by the fantasy of having an audience of over one million members watching him on Instagram… donating money on his livestreams… ordering his overpriced, crusty, bleach-stained, customized hoodies…

“Your brother’s right, Aaron,” added Jane. “You two are both so talented… I would love nothing more than to see you make music together again. But before you can do that, you must get clean, sober, and healthy. I suggest a compromise between you and Nick.”

“A compromise?” the Carter brothers said in unison.

Their mother nodded. “A compromise. Aaron, you stop saying nasty things about Nick, stay off social media for the next ninety days, and instead focus on your mental health at an inpatient facility. In return, Nick will fund your treatment and record a song with you once you’re well again.”

The thought of spending three months off social media made Aaron’s skin crawl. It had only been a few minutes since his last Instagram live video, and already, he was experiencing withdrawal symptoms. Twitching, he moved one of his trembling hands toward his pocket, furtively reaching for a joint to calm his nerves. His fingers found the computer duster first and wrapped around the cold can, clutching it tightly. He was never going to get clean. Scowling, he shook his head. “I won’t do it!”

“Then me neither,” said Nick with a shrug, turning his back on his brother.

“Boys, please!” begged Jane, her desperate eyes darting between them.

Aaron felt a brief stab of guilt as he remembered what he had done to her dogs - accidentally, of course, but only because he had been high. Maybe she was right. Maybe he did need help. “All right, fine,” he sighed, his shoulders slumping. “I’ll try inpatient treatment if Nick pays for it. I need to save my money for a new Lamborghini when I get out.”

“And Nick?” prompted Jane, now looking at him.

Nick fought the urge to roll his eyes. “If he’s serious, then so am I. I’ll cover the full cost,” he agreed, somewhat grudgingly. It wasn’t like he didn’t have the money to spare, but he hated to waste it, especially now that he had a family of his own to support. Still, if the treatment center worked this time and saved his brother’s life, it would be worth every penny spent.

“Good. Now hug it out, you two,” ordered their mother, and reluctantly, the brothers embraced.

“Sorry to interrupt this tender Carter family moment,” said a new voice, “but do y’all see that?” Nick and Aaron broke apart as Brian walked over, his eyes fixed on a point far above their heads.

Glancing up, Nick spotted what appeared to be a red star glowing in the sky.

“Look! Look, look!” cried Bella, pointing at it. “It’s Santy Claus! Santy Claus! Uncle Nick, it’s Santy Claus!”

Nick shook his head. “That’s not Santa Claus…” he started slowly, catching Brian’s eye.

With a nod, Brian finished for him: “It’s a spaceship!”

“That ain’t a friggin’ spaceship, cuz. It’s a light on the sewage treatment plant,” said Kevin, his eyebrows furrowing as he studied the strange glow.

Nick frowned. “Sewer gas…” He suddenly remembered how his mother had emptied the RV’s toilet into his storm drain, and a terrible thought occurred to him. At the same time he turned to share it with the others, he saw Aaron lighting a joint. “Don’t-” Nick started to warn him, but it was too late. The air around Aaron suddenly ignited, and the younger Carter brother was blasted off his feet by a violent explosion.

***


“I’ll have a blue... Christmas... without you,” Petunia had been singing softly to herself as she lay alone in the back yard, pining for her baby. “I’ll be so blue… thinking… about you. Decorations of red... on a green Christmas tree… won’t mean a thing… if you’re not here with me…”

When she heard the blast, she lifted her head off her front paws and looked around in alarm. She didn’t want to leave her den, but she couldn’t just lie there. Her friends might be hurt! She hoisted herself up and hurried around to the front of the house, her paws plodding heavily over the cold, hard ground as she followed the acrid smell of smoke.

In the front yard, she found Nick’s brother Aaron being patted down by the five Backstreet Boys. The back of his bleach-stained hoodie was still smoking, but when added to everything he had already done to distress it, the burn marks almost looked like they belonged.

“Damn, you okay, AC?” AJ was the first to ask. “You could have been killed!”

“All good,” Aaron replied, brushing himself off as he got back on his feet.

“That’s a relief,” said Nick, rolling his eyes behind Aaron’s back. That was when he noticed Petunia. “Hey, Petunia. How are you doing?” he asked her gently.

Before Petunia could answer, Brian said, “Are y’all sure that’s not a spaceship? ‘Cause it sure looks like a spaceship to me.” Following his gaze, Petunia noticed a red light shimmering high above the roof of Nick’s house. It seemed to be coming closer.

AJ squinted at the sky. “You know, Rok, you might actually be right.”

Kevin frowned. “In that case, we should prepare ourselves for another fight, fellas,” he said, casting a wary look at the crimson orb. “Just in case.” He slipped his amulet around his neck, and Nick, Brian, AJ, and Howie all did the same. In a matter of seconds, they had been transformed back into the world’s most unique team of superheroes.

“Wish I had a costume,” Aaron muttered enviously, kicking at a clod of dirt in the grass. “Wish I had a weapon so I could help protect my family, too.”

Howie exchanged a significant glance with Nick, silently asking his permission to use his powers of mental illusion to give Aaron what he wanted. After a moment’s hesitation, Nick nodded. Howie approached Aaron. “And what kind of weapon would you like, little boy?” he asked with a wink.

Aaron’s eyes widened. “I want an official Smith & Wesson M&P15 .223-caliber AR-15 style semi-automatic rifle!” he blurted.

In the background, Angel cringed and shook her head. “You’ll shoot your eye out!” she shouted at her twin.

But Howie granted Aaron his wish anyway, gifting him with the gun. “Wow… thanks, Howie!” exclaimed Aaron happily as held it, admiring the way it gleamed in the glow of the Christmas lights.

“You’re welcome, buddy,” said Howie, smiling back. When Aaron wasn’t watching, he leaned in close to Nick and whispered, “Don’t worry. I didn’t imagine it loaded.”

Nick laughed with relief.

Next to him, Petunia sucked in a deep breath and held it as she watched the light swell and slowly take shape, dwarfing the stars around it as it descended out of the sky. She was afraid to get her hopes up, but nevertheless, her heart lifted as the large spaceship landed on the lawn.

A hatch opened on the front of the ship, clouds of dust billowing out beneath the door as it gradually lowered to the ground to become an exit ramp. As the dust settled, the silhouette of a man in armor appeared in the doorway.

“What are you doing back here?” Nick demanded, putting his hands on his hips. He looked almost as menacing as the Mandalorian in his own black body armor, his nunchucks swinging from one hand. “Melissa Schuman is dead… the Misfit Fans destroyed. Your business with my brother is done.”

“I’ve come to return the bounty I took,” said the Mandalorian, and behind him appeared the egg-shaped cradle Nick had seen inside the compartment of his ship. It drifted down the ramp after him, floating a few feet in the air.

“JP?!” Petunia bounded toward it, rising on her hind legs to peer inside. When she saw her newborn nestled snugly in a bundle of Celebrity Sheets from the Littrell Collection (endorsed and approved by Backstreet Boy member Brian Littrell), she cried out happily, “It’s him! It’s him!”

“Pandakin Skywalker?!” shouted Nick, rushing forward to have a look. “Yes! It’s a Christmas miracle!” Reaching into the space cradle, he scooped up the sleeping baby pandaskunk and placed him carefully between his mother’s front paws. He looked a little cuter than Nick remembered him - less like the Antichrist and more like how he had imagined a baby pandaskunk would look, albeit without the black patches of fur.

“Oh, my sweet baby Jeff, thank goodness you’re home!” Petunia gasped as she sat on her hindquarters and held her son tightly to her chest. “Thank you,” she whispered, looking up at the bounty hunter. “Thank you for bringing him back.”

The Mandalorian’s helmet bobbed as he gave a brief nod. “I made a mistake,” he admitted, turning his head from her to Nick. “I’m sorry.”

“Mistake?! You kidnapped our sons!” cried Jane, as she stormed past Petunia. “We could press charges and sue you for millions of dollars for our pain and suffering!”

“Relax, Mom,” said Nick, resting a hand on her shoulder. “It’s okay. We all make mistakes.” With a quick glance back at Aaron, he added, “All that matters is that we also make amends and try to move on from them.”

“How can I make up for this?” the bounty hunter asked quietly.

Nick considered this a moment, his eyes roaming over the Mandalorian’s space ship. He remembered Bella shouting, “Santy Claus!” when she had seen it in the sky. That was when he got an idea.

“I bet this ship goes pretty fast, huh?” he said, as he walked around the vessel, inspecting it from all angles.

“She’s fast all right,” the Mandalorian replied, following him.

“Fast enough to make it to every country on Earth in one night?” asked Nick.

The bounty hunter hesitated a second before answering, “I suppose so.”

Nick smiled. “Then I know exactly how you can make up for this.”

***


“But Nick, I thought you said you were taking a vacation!” protested Lauren when her husband told her his plan.

“A vacation?! Nonsense!” declared Nick, as he pulled on a pair of tall black boots, tucking the bottoms of his red sweatpants into their tops. “Well?” he added, looking around at the rest of his family. “Why’s everybody standing around? There’s work to be done! Find the Nice and Naughty List! Load up the ship! Fetch my coat!”

“But what about your exhaustion?” wondered Brian.

“And your hibernation sickness?” added Howie.

“And your AIDS?” asked Aaron.

“HIV,” Nick corrected him quickly. “I feel fine! My immune system’s never been stronger. Haven’t got a symptom any longer.”

“Yay!” everyone cheered.

“Now pile all those toys inside,” Nick told his friends and family. “There’s no time to waste. Tonight, we ride!”

“Here comes Nicky Claus, here comes Nicky Claus, right down Santa Claus lane,” they sang as they helped him pack all the toys his Elvises and showgirls had procured into the bounty hunter’s ship. “He’s got a bag that’s filled with toys for boys and girls again…”

Now that the Mandalorian was on his side, Nick no longer needed Petunia to pull his sleigh. The new mother pandaskunk stayed at home in her den, happily nursing her son, as Nick put his Santa suit on and jumped into the Razor Crest. He navigated from the co-pilot’s seat, while his new Mandalorian pal flew the ship around the world, making up for his past sins by delivering a bounty of presents to the good little girls and boys of planet Earth.

It wasn’t exactly how Nick had expected his fun, old-fashioned Carter family Christmas to go, but he couldn’t have asked for a better end to his holiday.

***


Epilogue by RokofAges75
Well, I’ve heard my humans often say
That there never was such a Christmas Day.
Despite their dysfunction, drug use, and grief,
The Carters were merry on Christmas Eve,
For they knew, that night, as they hung their stockings,
It didn’t matter if they’d been shit-talking.
Though they feuded and fought,
They forgave and forgot.
They went months, sometimes years, without seeing each other,
But still, they were blessed to be sisters and brothers.

The next morning, when Nick returned from his ride,
They opened their presents and sang side by side
And laughed at the Littrells’ gifts: Celebrity Sheets,
Autographed by Brian, Leighanne, and Baylee,
Plus a signed copy of Baylee’s CD.
It was the best Christmas ever for the Carter family,
And they all lived happily ever after...
Except for Aaron, who died of coronavirus three months later.

The End


This story archived at http://www.accidentalchaos.net/viewstory.php?sid=11560