"I guess you are wondering why I've gathered you all here," Nick intoned with a deep voice.
"Cut the crap, Nick. Answers. Now," AJ growled.
Nick cast him a look. AJ looked like he was about to explode, and Nick didn't blame him. He, Jay and Kat had managed to stonewall the others for several days, refusing to answer any questions until they could all get together in one room and tell the whole story. Now that Howie had stabilized it seemed like this was the best time to do that. Howie was still in ICU and couldn't be here, which was probably a blessing considering the tale that Nick was about to tell, but at least with his life out of immediate danger the others could focus on what Nick was about to tell them without jumping at shadows every time they heard footsteps outside the door.
He glanced at Kat, who was sitting by the far wall. She met his gaze, swallowing nervously and nodded, flashing him a quick smile as she did. He looked over at Leighanne, who was sitting beside Brian, but leaning away from him. Her pale face was even whiter than usual, and he could see the signs of strain around her eyes. Still, she returned his look and nodded as well.
He cleared his throat. He'd given a lot of thought to how to present this… and he really hoped that he was taking the right approach. He knew he was going to get some grief from the others, but it was the only way he could think of to tell the tale as plainly, yet sympathetically, as he could.
"Once upon a time there were these five princes…"
"Jesus Christ!" AJ exploded up from his chair and almost launched himself at Nick, not caring about his leg setup. Fortunately, Kevin was there to hold him back. "You have got to be fucking kidding me!"
"This may not be the best method of telling the story," Brian said carefully.
Nick sighed. "Probably not, Rok. But it's the best way I can think of." He turned to AJ. "Look, man, what I have to say, like, sucks, ok? So I am trying to say it nicely. I just wanna say it kindly, you know? Just let me do this my way, ok?"
AJ looked like he was going to protest again, but Jay's voice broke in. "Just tell the story, Nick. Any way'll do. Just tell it."
He waited until AJ sat down again, letting out a disgruntled huff of air as he settled down, before starting again. "Once upon a time there were these five, umm, guys. Who were kind of stuck together by circumstance. The oldest was a bit of a control freak, but then he was the eldest."
Kevin rolled his eyes.
"The next was a real sweetheart. Supposedly." He put special emphasis on the last word, which made AJ scowl.
"Next was self-professed, and kind of self-righteous, guy. Funny, but pretty loud about his 'morals.' Which was part of the problem."
Brian frowned at that, and Leighanne slid him a furtive glance.
"There was also this kinda hot-headed one. A 'bite first, bark after' guy." Nick flashed a quick grin. "So he's just gonna have to sit there and shut up until the final guy in the five some finishes talking."
AJ snorted, crossing his arms across his chest.
"And then there was the youngest. He was a majorly hot, wonderful kind of guy…"
"Pompous as hell," Jeanne said drolly.
Nick chuckled. "Yeah. That too. Anyway, this guy, he loved the others like crazy. Thought they, what is the saying? 'Hung the stars.' Yeah, that's it. They were like his brothers and he'd do anything for 'em."
"Which is why, when he found out one of them was doing shit he shouldn't have he knew he had to do something about it."
Brian frowned. "But we all know that Howie was doing drugs. I mean, we only found out a few days ago."
"Sadly," Nick replied, shaking his head, "this is something that was going on a lot longer than that. And it affects us all."
"Jesus, Nick. Now I am losing patience too. Just tell us what the fuck is going on." Kevin said.
"Maybe I can take over for a sec," Jeanne interjected. She looked around the room, quickly making eye contact with the three Boys. "Might as well start as an introduction. Hi, guys. It me. Kat. Kat Morgan." She gave them a little wave and then blushed. Force of habit, that.
Brian looked quizzical for a moment as he tried to place the name, then his eyes widened. "K,-K-Kat?! No way. Kat was…"
"Fat?" she supplied.
Brian blushed. "Well, I was going to say…"
"Totally fixated on Kevin," AJ said with a slight sneer. He looked her up and down. "You sure as hell don't look like Kat. And who the fuck is Jeanne then? And Nick? What you trading up or down?"
"Up," Nick said, while Kevin chuckled, "down."
"Jeanne is my middle name, AJ. And yeah, I did do some changing." She pointed to her nose. "This was really the only invasive thing. Look - its straight now. Other than that it was pretty much a lot of dieting and stuff." She rolled her eyes. "Rice cakes are the Devil's work."
"Doesn't explain anything," AJ retorted. He started to pat his jacket then remembered that he couldn't smoke there. "Fucking hospitals," he muttered.
"You left the tour pretty suddenly," Brian said thoughtfully. "Something happened. Something with Howie. That's what this is about isn't? Something that happened back then?"
Kat nodded. "Howie told me something that freaked me out a little. A lot. So I took off and then Nick…"
"Nick bumped into her," Nick said. He gave her a look that told her that he really didn't want to get into the 'how' of the bumping into each other piece. Leave that for some other time - if it ever became an issue. He couldn't see how it could, so whatever. "And he asked her why she left and then almost decked her when she told him."
"And keeping us in suspense is going to make me deck one of you too. So cut the crap and the fairy tales and spill."
"Well, AJ, what I told him was what Howie told me. That you all did girlfriend swapping," Kat said.
"Actually, he put it out as worse than that. More like girlfriend raping and then blackmailing."
This time it was Kevin who surged to his feet. He caught himself before he launched himself at her, but the look of anger on his face was enough to scare her. "You better be fucking joking. You say shit like that again and I'll…"
"See?" Nick said, trying to keep his tone light. "That was pretty much my reaction too. Kat told me that Howie said we did this thing where one of the others got to sleep with whosever girlfriend was new and then they held that stuff over their heads. So they wouldn't sell crap about us to the tabloids. Howie said it was a protecting tactic. You know, so nasty shit was out there."
"That's bullshit and you know it," AJ growled.
"It is," Nick nodded. "Only it also isn't. See, there was a game like that going on. Only the only one playing that game was Howie."
The shocked silence in the room was almost worse than if they had started shouting.
"I told Nick that and he, well, yelled at me. So I told him to get lost and that I wasn't gonna tell anyone about it so not to worry. I figured it was all over and that was that. Only he called a few weeks later and said that he'd found out it was true."
"I bumped into, well it doesn't matter right now who I bumped into. Just say I found someone who agreed with what Kat had said. And then I started looking around and found a few more. He'd done it with one of your exes, AJ. One of mine." He paused. "Yours too, Brian."
"Me?" Kevin whispered.
Nick shook his head. "Sorry, man. I didn't check. Figured that four chicks was enough. Didn't want to know more."
"Four?" Brian gasped. "He'd done that to FOUR of our ex-girlfriends?"
Nick nodded. "Yeah. I asked them all myself. Personally. Four that I know of. Probably more. Like I said, four was enough."
"I don't believe you," AJ said. "This is all bullshit."
"Its true," Kat said. "I was there for two of the, umm, confessions. Nick's not lying."
AJ snorted. "Yeah, like I'd believe you."
Leighanne quietly cleared her voice. A single tear trickled down her face. "Would you believe me then?"
She turned to Brian. "It's my fault. Nick and Kat were trying to help. Protect me. I couldn't tell you. I just couldn't."
"Leighanne?" Brian whispered, moving forward awkwardly, unsure whether to comfort her or not.
"It happened a while ago. After your surgery. I was just so… That's no excuse. Howie was there and offered some comfort and I took it. It was wrong, but I did. And then afterwards… he said what Nick and Kat are saying. Not as nasty, of course. Just that I better be true to you or else."
She wiped her tears away quickly. "So I didn't tell. But I also couldn't marry you. Not after what I did. But I couldn't tell you. I love you so much, and I wanted to be with you. But I couldn't. Not with this." She was sobbed brokenly.
Nick looked at her with deep sympathy. "That's kind of what came next. I found out it was true, told Kat to come down and then we asked Leighanne if it had happened to her. When she said yeah… well, I already knew I had to do something about it, but that just sealed it, you know? I mean, she was threatening not to marry you, Rok. I couldn't let that happen. You were already freaking 'cos she kept postponing. She said she wasn't going to go through with it at all. So I promised her I'd fix it."
"How?" AJ asked huskily. Brian may be still sitting there in shock, but he had come to Leighanne's side and was holding her as she cried.
"Plan was to give him a new girl to go after, and then catch him. At least that was the plan I was told about," Jay rumbled.
Kat nodded. "That was pretty much it. Catch Howie and then blackmail him. Make him stop doing it. Doing all of it. Then make him promise to never let anyone know about him and Leighanne. So she could be protected and she and Bri could get married. All okay."
"'Cept it kind of got complicated," Nick said.
Kevin snorted. "'Complicated'? Fucked up is more accurate. Why didn't you just confront him?"
Nick looked down at his elevated leg, swathed in plaster. "Hindsight, I probably should have. But at the time I thought this would be better. I mean, just telling him to quit it… he might stop for a while. But confront him when he is caught. Scare the crap out of him. THAT would work."
"Yeah. So well," Brian murmured sarcastically.
"Hindsight, Rok." Nick said with a shrug. "Anyway, I conned Kat into agreeing to be my 'girlfriend' so we could catch him. I figured I couldn't just go out and start dating someone. Someone who didn't know. She knew. So she would be the best one. And she'd already changed a lot since you all had seen her before. So we just change a few more things, new clothes, little accent, good, what is it called? Good back story. We'd be covered. A month or so and, bam, all done."
"Only it took a little longer than that," Kat said drily.
"Yeah, well that wasn't my fault. He was doing those freaky drug things then. They kind of fucked with the plan."
"So this whole thing, this whole time, its just been a game? A thing to catch Howie?" Kevin asked.
Nick and Kat exchanged glances. "Yeah," he said. "Only things got a little… complicated."
AJ snorted. "That's you, Kaos. One big complication."
"So you two aren't in love or whatever?" Brian asked.
"Umm…" Kat and Nick looked at each other again and it was pretty clear what the answer to that question was.
Still, Kevin, being Kevin, had to point that fact out. "Oh yeah. They are. Man, you two are majorly fucked up, aren't you?"
"Thanks so much for that vote of confidence," Nick grumbled.
"You were going to let them shut him up and then marry me still? Without telling me?" Brian had held it in as long as he could.
Leighanne lifted her head from AJ's shoulder. "Honestly? No. I thought I could… but it was so wrong." She looked at Nick and then Kat. "I am sorry, guys. Even if it had worked I still couldn't do it. I'd have held on as long as I could. Then I'd…"
"Just dump me? No fucking explanation? Just leave me like that?"
"What the hell was I supposed to do, Brian? Say 'oh, by the way, baby, I slept with one of your group mates. What kind of flowers do you want at the reception?' I couldn't do that. If I told you it would have been over anyway. And I'd rather you hate me because I just couldn't go through with it rather than that I'd made this kind of huge mistake. I wish it never happened."
"You think I wouldn't have understood?"
"Would you have?" Leighanne's voice was sharp and the way Brian's face flushed it was obvious he would have had - was having - a hard time dealing with it. If he ever could.
"Yeah, but if what Nick is saying, Howie was gonna go after you anyway," Kevin said.
Leighanne shrugged. "Probably. We'll never know. I fell into it too easily as it was. If I hadn't been so scared then… I would have had enough sense to tell him no. He may have insisted, which would have made it different. But it was as much my fault as his."
"I don't get why he told you," AJ said, looking at Kat.
Her cheeks got a little pink. "Well, like you said earlier. I had it bad for Kevin. Howie said he'd arrange it so I could sleep with him. All I had to do was help him get, umm, someone else. One of the other girlfriends."
"Whose?" Kevin asked sharply. "Nick and AJ weren't seeing anyone then. He'd already done Leighanne. Who was he after?"
"Answer's kind of obvious, Kev," Nick said sadly.
"He was after Lana, Kevin," Kat replied. "He said it would be a straight swap. I get you and he gets her."
Kevin swore loudly.
"Okay, so Howie is a fuckwad. How'd we end up here?" AJ asked.
"He finally got around to going after Kat," Nick said. "And I freaked. When Howie found out who she was, well, then he freaked. Decked me and then took off with her. Jay and I went after 'em and they crashed."
The big man nodded. "Nick'd told me what was up a while back. Got me to promise to be extra backup for Kat in case Howie went after her when Nick couldn't be around. So when he called and said he was sure Howie was going to go after her, I drove out to his place. Howie was just taking off so Nick jumped in and we chased 'em."
Kevin's head rose from his hands, and he waved off Brian who had opened his mouth to say something. "Then this I have to know," he said slowly, but firmly. "Did you have anything to do with the accident?"
"No," Kat said immediately. "Howie was driving erratically. He bumped up against some other car and we went over the construction barricade. I - we - didn't even know Nick and Jay were following us. Not until they showed up and tried to catch us as the car was crashing. They had absolutely nothing to do with the crash."
"But you did."
Kat locked gazes with AJ. "In that I was in the car when it crashed? Yeah. But other than that? No. Howie was going on about how he sorry about what had been happening and," she glanced at Leighanne, "sorry, Leigh, but he didn't even remember about what had happened with you."
Leighanne gave a loud sob and then started crying again. This time it was Brian who gathered her in his arms while she cried.
"He said he'd forgotten about it. And was never going to tell even if he did remember. Said he was just like Nick and I - determined to see that she and Brian got married. Said they were just that right for each other. He was talking about how the whole game thing had gotten out of control and he didn't know what to do when he lost control of the car."
She took a deep breath. "He threw me out of the car. He told me to tell you all that he was sorry and he just shoved me out."
Nick looked at her, his eyes glistening with tears. "You didn't tell me that."
Kat shrugged shyly. "Haven't really had a chance to talk much. 'Sides, a lot of it was kind of blurry for a little while."
They sat quietly for a little while, each trying to come to terms with what they had learnt.
"Why? Why did he do it?" AJ finally asked.
"Kat has a theory about that," Nick replied. "Said it had to do with us, mainly."
"Nick, I told you it was a far-fetched theory. Not sure it is even close to right."
"I'd still like to hear it," Kevin drawled. "I'd like to hear an answer. Any answer. Howie sure as hell can't give us one right now."
Kat thought about the man who was unconscious in the ICU. Since his surgery and was doing a lot better. They'd had to remove his spleen, which had been perforated, and stopped a lot of internal bleeding before closing up and strapping his broken ribs tight. He was far from out of the woods, but the prognosis was improving hourly. She knew he'd woken a few times, and spoken to his family and even to AJ a little - mostly asking what had happened. His memory of the events seemed to have come back a lot faster than her own; when he'd been told about the accident he'd apparently told AJ to tell Nick that he had to tell them the truth. Tell them all. And then after that, if they still wanted to talk to him, then could.
"It's just a theory. Really. It just that… well, when we talked before, he said he had to protect you all. But he'd also go on about how jealous he was of all of you. How he wished he could be like each of you. So I kind of thought that maybe that was why. For a time, one time at least, he got to pretend he was you. At least with your girls. You know, sort of a 'boldly go where Kevin or Brian Or AJ'd gone before' thing."
"Yeah, right. That makes sense," AJ snorted.
"Actually it does kind of," Nick said. "Especially 'cos of the other thing."
"There's more?" Brian whimpered. "I don't know if I can take more."
"What other thing?" Kev asked, ignoring his cousin.
"Well," Kat blushed. "It seems that, umm, when he, ah, when Howie came… he liked to call out your names. Like I mean, when he was with Tina he called out Nick's name. And with…"
"I think we get the idea," Kevin cut her off.
"That's just sick," Brian said. "That's a horrible theory."
"I didn't say I liked it. I just said it was a theory."
"He didn't go after Micheline," AJ said. "I mean, she would have said something. He didn't. Did he?" He looked at both Kat and Nick in turn.
She shrugged. "He never mentioned anything to me. Back then he said it was Lana. But, I mean, Micheline was around then. But I think you two'd only started going out. So maybe wasn't on his 'list' yet."
AJ shook his head. "He never did. I would have known. She'd have told me. Oh fuck. Oh fuck. I think you are right. I mean your theory. I think you are right." He had gone deathly white and Kat reached out to him, worried that he was going to pass out or something. He flinched back from her touch.
"Why? Why am I right?" Kat asked, withdrawing her hand.
"Cos of me. Cos he didn't need to go after my girls. Cos he'd already slept with me."
There was sudden silence.
"Okay, correct me if I'm wrong, but did J just said he'd slept with Howie?" Nick asked incredulously.
"Yeah, dumbass. I did. He did. We did. A while back. When I was… when I was drinking. We'd been talking, and, well, one thing let to another. He fucked me."
AJ glared at Brian. "No. Just. Just, wanted the experience, you know? Wasn't for me. Him either. But the only one I've dated since then was Micheline and he didn't go after her, right? He didn't need to - he'd already hit the jackpot. He'd fucked me so he didn't need any of my chicks anymore."
"Aje, I am not sure…" Nick started but AJ turned his glare to him and Nick choked off quickly. "Umm, okay. So whatever. He was doing it. Not sure why. But he was. So now we all know. What now?"
"You're the one with the Grand Plan, Nick. You tell us," Brian said angrily.
"Now what is that I leave," Kat said.
"Leave?! What? No way!" Nick said pushing himself up in his bed which only served to strain his leg. He fell back into his pillows swearing up a storm.
"Leaving. Yes way. I'm sorry, Nick. But I have to go away. You guys have gone through a big shock. And you all have to figure out how to work things out with Howie. I can't been here for that - it'll only make things worse. You all have to heal. Together. And having me here, as constant reminder of how bad things got. It just won't work."
"But he loves you," Kevin said softly.
"And I love him too, Kev. But can you honestly tell me that me sticking around won't make things harder?"
"It won't! It won't, right guys?" Nick asked.
It was clear that it wouldn't. AJ turned away from Nick's gaze, playing nervously with his watchband. Brian and Leighanne looked at each other quickly, still gingerly holding each other's hands. The tension level in the room was so high Kat was sure that people outside the door could feel it.
"See?" she said gently to Nick. "It won't work. I have to go, Nick. Just for a while at least. Just so you can all heal."
"What if you don't come back?"
She smiled softly, willing the tears that had filled her eyes not to spill over. "I will. I think I'll have to eventually. I mean, part of the recovery process and all. But for now what you guys need most is each other. I have to go, Nick."
"She does," Kevin said quietly. "We need Howie. We have to fix shit with Howie. But Kat's right; we have to do that just the five of us." He glanced at Leighanne. "Six." Then he looked at Jay. "Seven. Oh fuck, however many of us there is. We gotta do that."
"But he's gotta make it up to her too," Nick replied petulantly. "He hurt her too."
"He did," Kat agreed. "But that hurt isn't urgent. Yours is. Mine can wait a while. Yours can't."
"When?" AJ asked.
"No time like the present," Kat replied before turning to Jay. "A while back you promised me that if I asked you would take me straight to the airport. No questions asked, no trying to stop me. I'm gonna take you up in that. Now."
"Now?! You can't just leave now," Nick shouted. "Kat, no! You can't just leave now."
She rose to her feet, a little unsteadily, and walked over to his bedside. "I have to, Nick. If I wait until later… it'll be too hard." She raised his hand to her lips, kissing it. "It's better now."
"No it isn't. Can't it wait a few days? Your shoulder's still sore. Can't you just stay here for a while? Stay with me? Just for a little while."
Looking into his pleading blue eyes she almost relented, but, at last, she shook her head. "No, Nick. No. You know I'd do anything for you. I love you so much. But not this. You need to heal. You all need to heal. The Backstreet Boys have to heal. I'm not as important as that. Not right now."
"We could probably manage," Brian said, concerned about the tears that were now spilling down Nick's face as he clenched Kat's hand tightly in his.
"You could," she replied gently. "But it wouldn't be as good. It's better this way. Too much has happened and you all need to come to terms with it."
Brian dropped his head, knowing that he agreed with her, he just didn't want to Nick to hurt anymore than he already did.
Kat turned back to Nick, leaning over and kissing him quickly. "I'm gonna go."
"No," he replied, pulling her down into a deep kiss. She could feel it all through her body, feel his love, and the answer of her own. All she wanted to do was collapse into it. To hold onto him, never let him go. She let him know that, know all that, through the kiss. But still she finally pulled away.
He was already standing at the door and opened it wide as she said his name. Pulling her hand from Nick's grasping one, she wiped the tears from her face as she briskly walked through the door.
And kept on walking, even though she could hear Nick yelling for her not to go. Could hear him swearing as he obviously pulled his leg again in his determination to make her stay.
Kept on walking as the door shut and Nick's sounds were cut off.