“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.
“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.