“Kev, I’m so fed up. I can’t take it any more!” Nick is close to tears.
“Nicky, it’ll be ok. We are with you. You are not alone!” Kevin tries to calm him down.
“Why? Why do they always come after me?”
Silent tears run down his cheeks.
“I thought being on tour with you all would stop all the gossip. But they just continue!”
Kevin kneels in front of Nick, he leans into him, holding Nicks clasped hands and kissing his finger tips gently.
“Sweety, they don’t know you as we do.”
But Kevin feels that his words are not enough. He feels sad, unable to help his friend. And he so much want to take the pain away.
“A couple more concerts here and then we go to Europe. We’ll be far away from it all.”
Nick chuckles over Kevin’s naivety as he looks up again.
He smiles and caresses Kevin’s gentle features.” Sure it will”
But Nick knows better.

~~ A year later ~~

Half way through September and the weather was still wonderful.
It had been a long day at the office and she was glad to get home. As usual her puppy was awaiting her happily. After feeding him, she went for a long walk around the neighborhood. She was half way when she saw him again. The last couple of weeks he’d been sitting there, begging for a few coins. All his sign said was: I’m hungry. Thank you.
He had scared her at first. But one day she had looked into his eyes. She had never seen anyone as sad as he was. From that day onward she had given him some coins each day. Just enough so he could get himself a bowl of soup round the corner. She knew the lady who ran the shop and after talking to her, together they made sure it was a big bowl of soup.

So today, as usual, he was sitting there with his sign. Her dog had gotten used to him and made sure to go and great him. He man seemed pleased to see them again.
“He loves people. He always wants to say hello” she said apologetically.
He just smiled, stroking the puppy, enjoying the attention. He didn’t talk and she walked on.

From that day onward, they stopped each day to say hello to the man but it still took another week before she heard his voice.
“I should introduce this puppy. He’s called Echy. And I’m Catherine.”
“Johnny, Johnny No Name.” was all he said. And they shook hands.
“How you doing today?”
He looked in his cup and then showed it to her.
“Want to join me for a coffee?”
He just nodded and got up slowly.
Without saying anything they walked on. When they reached the little café, she walked in and found them a table.
“How do you like your coffee?”
“Milk and sugar, please”
He seemed a bit uncomfortable in her company so she kept quiet.
When the coffees were brought, he held the cup for the longest time, slowly drinking the hot liquid. She looked at him, studying his face. She knew he called himself Johnny but the name didn’t seem to feel right. Through his long hair, he finally looked up at her. He had beautiful blue green eyes.
The eyes . . . the freckles on his face. Even the long hair, dirt, beard and mustache could not hide it. And of course the name. In that instance she knew who he was.
“Thank you” he whispered.
She smiled at him.
“You are welcome”
She had also ordered him a hot meal and he ate it silently.
After a while she left him with his dinner. As she left he squeezed her hand. And she knew exactly what he was saying.

Over the next couple of weeks, they regularly shared coffee and a bite to eat. He never said a lot. But then she made up for that.

Even warm autumns come to an end. The weather turned and even though it was not yet cold, the rain turned everything sad. The season seemed to follow the mood he was in.
She didn’t know where he stayed at night as he was never there in the morning when she went for her walk with the dog. Except this morning. It was raining and still he lay silently on the ground. Worried, she approached him.
“Johnny, you OK?”
He did not answer until she touched him.
“Leave me!” he whispered in a hoarse voice.
“I can’t. You are sick. You are burning up. Get up!”
Reluctantly and with difficulty he did as he was told. Leaning heavily on her, she walked home. In front of her door, he stopped.
“I can’t go in”
“I’m not asking you to move in. Just stay until you are better.”
He was feeling to sick to argue with her.
Once inside, she prepared her sofa and gave him some old PJ’s.
While he lay asleep, she called a doctor. As it turned out, he had a bad flu.
A week he stayed on her sofa and then one morning she got up and he was gone again. Only a simple note was left: Thank you. And underneath lay a drawing he had done of her. She hadn’t noticed him doing that but it was beautiful.
For a week she had not been lonely. But now he was gone again, back to the streets. And that is where she found him again in the evenings, joining up for coffee and a bite some times.

One day she was really exited. He could see she was dieing to say something but she tried to keep it in until they reached their usual table in the café.
But when they finally sat with their coffee, she put an envelope on the table.
He picked it up and looked at her.
“My favorite group is coming to town and I got us tickets.”
He looked at her from under his hair and smiled slightly.
“Me, go to a concert?!” he looked down at his raged clothes.
“Look, I know you sleep on the streets but please. I really want to go with you.” She pleaded.
“Who is this group?”
“The Backstreet Boys” she said with a big smile.
But his disappeared completely.
Slowly he put the envelope down again and got up. Without saying anything he left the café.
She sighed.
“Oh, Nick, when will you see what you have done?”

She didn’t see him over the next couple of days and she was afraid he’d run off again.

Two weeks before the concert and everywhere in town posters started to appear. One also on the pillar he used to sit at.

That evening, as she walked the dog, he was back. Not sitting and begging but staring at the poster. Carefully she approached him but the dog gave her away.
Absentmindedly he picked up the exited puppy but could not keep his eyes of the poster.
She saw what he was looking at. It was a picture of all 5 of them from over a year ago. But underneath his was written in pleading words: Nick, Call Please!!!!
“Since when?” he asked.
“Since when have they asked to call? Ever since you disappeared. In the beginning they went to all the talk shows, trying to explain why you weren’t there. Often you’d see tears in their eyes when they looked at the camera and asked you to call. I think Kevin feels guilty he lost you. He was never fat but he really became skinny.”
“And now? Who is replacing me?” he asked apprehensively.
“No one. It’s just the 4 of them and you on tape. And pictures of you. And of course the poster. Everyone knows the poster.”
He turned to her.
“And you?”
“I recognized you from that first cup of coffee. Can’t deny those eyes. But I figured you had your reasons.”
Reluctantly he turned away from the poster, put the dog on the ground and started walking. Silently they walked to their usual spot in the café and ordered their coffees.
Nick stayed very quiet. He was thinking of his next move and he was struggling with it.
“Don’t run off” Catherine said quietly.
Startled he looked up.
“Promise me.”
He saw fear in her eyes.
“Why?” he asked, glad not to have to think of his own trouble.
She was quiet. It was a difficult subject for her to talk about.
“I think of you as a good friend. And I don’t have to many of those . . . actually none” she smiled nervously.
Nick’s eyes twinkled.
“I won’t go without you knowing it.” He promised. She visibly relaxed.
“So what are you going to do?” she changed the subject back to his problem.
“I don’t know.”
“Are you still so angry with them?”
He startled at her words.
“Angry? That’s interesting. Why would you say I’m angry with them? With whom?”
“Angry with Kevin, Brian, AJ and Howie.”
“Why would I be?”
“Tell me: why did you run away. Why did you disappear?”
Nick visibly had to think about his answer.
“Shall I tell you?”
He just nodded.
“There are 5 men in the Backstreet Boys but each time you did something, the whole press was all over you. All your life it has been like that. But Kevin, he hardly got any bad press, even when filmed drunk. AJ got in the news but even with all his problems, it never got as bad as with you. And Brian and Howie, have they ever gotten bad press? None of them were persecuted like you were. You could have stayed and let them help you. But you wanted them to feel what it was like to be scrutinized, watched. Am I right?”
For a long time Nick was quiet. She could see he was struggling with it. And when silent tears ran down his face, she knew she had been right.
The silence lingered but it was not a bad silent, just one of realization.
Slowly he got up and for the first time he kissed her on the cheek.
“See you around.” And he left.
After paying for the coffees, she walked home. He had promised he wouldn’t leave without seeing her. Still she was worried that the next time she saw him would be the last time. And would it be before BSB arrived or after?

For three days she had not seen him but when she turned the corner that evening, there he was, sitting with his cup and sign, underneath the poster. As soon as he noticed her, he smiled. She liked seeing him smile, it lit up his eyes so much.
“Coffee?” she asked.
But he was already up and ready to go.
With coffees in front of them, he seemed at ease.
“You ok?”
“Yes. You know, you were right. I was very angry with the guys, the press, the world. But so much had happened . . . . “

Over the next couple of evenings, he told her all that had happened: the lies, the truths, the loves, the pain. He was taking stock of his live so far.

And then it was the night before the concert.

“They’ll be here tomorrow” she stated.
“Yeah,” he seemed nervous.
“Have you decided what you want to do?”
He let out a long sigh.
“I’m going to go see them. I don’t know if they’ll have me back but I owe them an explanation at least.”
She smiled. He had changed since they first met. No longer was there sadness in his eyes. It had been replaced with hope and strength.
“Well, why don’t you come home with me tonight so you can have a good rest and a nice shower before going to see them.”
“Are you sure?”
“Sure you need a shower? Absolutely!”
They laughed.
“Thanks.” He turned serious again.
“I didn’t do anything.”
He just smiled. She paid for the coffees and they walked out together.
“Do you mind we pass by the station? I need to collect some stuff.”
In one of the secured lockers he had kept his passport, cell phone and PDA, his only link to his previous life.
“Batteries died on me long ago but I kept them” he explained.
“You’ll be able to recharge them tomorrow when you get back to being Nick.”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
Silently they walked home. It was late already and they both wanted to get their rest.
“I have a day of tomorrow so you know where I am if you need me.” She said before giving him a goodnight kiss.

7am. He could wait no longer. He had been up for hours already. He had showered and put his hair in a tidy pony tail. Catherine didn’t have a razor but he was sure one of the guys would let him use one of theirs.
Quietly he left the house and made his way to the hotel. At least, he hoped he had the right hotel. This was the one they had stayed at last time.

The hotel was busy with guests leaving and arriving. He didn’t want to go in yet until he was sure the guys had arrived. So he walked around near the entrance.
“Clear off!” one of the security guys was coming at him.
“I said clear off! Did you not hear me?”
“I’m waiting for someone”
“Likely story. Go on, we don’t want your kind here.”
And he pushed Nick away. Nick didn’t want any trouble so he started walking away.
He walked around the block, getting back to the hotel from the other side.
Carefully he looked in. But he didn’t see any of the guys or their security. No sign they had arrived.
“Are you back!” a booming voice said behind him.
Nick crouched away from the threatening voice.
“But . . . I’m waiting for someone.”
“Look. I don’t want to see you any more. We have important people arriving in 10 minutes.”
Again he pushed Nick away.
10 minutes. Could it be them? If he quickly went around the block again, he’d see them arrive.

And indeed, when he turned the final corner, he saw them walk into the hotel. And there was Marcus as well. Keeping an eye on his friends, he had not seen the three security guys coming out of a side door.
Suddenly he was grabbed from behind. His arm was pulled back to breaking point.
“Ah!” he screamed. But one of the men put his hand over his mouth.
They pulled Nick in the side alley and threw him against the wall.
“We told you not to come back! But you lot never listen.”
Nick was very scared as he faced the three men.
“No, please. I’ll go.”
“You will and with a message!”
All three came at him. One grabbed his arm again and pinned it against his back. The other punched him hard in the side. Nick went through his knees immediately. And as he did the man holding his arm let go and kicked him hard on the shoulder. His whole arm felt numb and painful at the same time. As the third man came at him, Nick tried to protect himself with his other arm. But the man didn’t hit him.
“You are not worth it. Check his pockets.”
They soon found his passport, phone and PDA.
“And a thief as well!”
“No, those are mine.”
And he tried to grab them but got pushed back on the ground and the man’s foot landed hard on his back.
“I’ll get these things back to their rightful owner.”
And with that they left Nick. Tears running down his face as everything seemed to hurt. How was he going to get closer if this happened already here.

Back in the hotel, the security man went to the front desk.
“What was all that?” Marcus asked.
“Nothing to worry about, Sir. Just A thief we caught. He has been dealt with.”
Marcus nodded and continued checking in.
“Mary, dear, can you check if this is one of our guests’ passport? I took it from that man.”
“Sure, Don. What’s the name.”
The security guy opened the passport and read out:
“Nicolas Gene Carter”
Marcus dropped the pen he was using and grabbed the passport.
“Where did you find this?”
This time Don was a bit uncomfortable.
“The thief had these things” and he showed the phone and PDA.
“Nick” Marcus whispered as he recognized it all.
“Where is he?”
They ran out to the alley but by the time they reached it, it was deserted.
“Sir, the man we took this from looked nothing like this picture.”
For a moment Marcus had hoped he had found Nick. But again it looked like a dead lead.
“I'll keep this stuff” he just said. Carefully he put it in his pocket not yet sure if he was going to tell the guys at this point. He’d keep an eye out for a beggar with the description the security guy had given him.

She heard someone at the door and opened it carefully. Nick stumbled in.
“Nick, what happened?”
“Security made me leave. They took my stuff as well. How am I going to get close to them?”
Nick sounded desperate.
“Come sit down first and let me have a look at you.”
His whole body seemed to hurt. Carefully he took his jacket and t-shirt off. They had handled him well. He was covered in bruises. She could clearly she the mark of a boot on his back. His side was black and blue. He could not lift his right arm at all anymore.
Using some warm water, she cleaned him up again.
“I think you need to go to the hospital. I don’t know if that arm is broken or not or anything’s been damaged on the inside.
“No. It’s not broken. I’ve had things broken and it is not the same. I don’t want to go to the hospital. I want to see them.”
Nick was getting upset. Having made up his mind, nothing was going to stand in his way. But he was not as strong physically as he had been a year ago.
“OK, Sweety. Don’t worry. Let me put that arm in a sling. Then you can rest up. I have tickets for the Sound Check Party this afternoon at 4. I’ll get you in.”
That seemed to relax him at least a bit again.
He put his t-shirt on again and Catherine put his arm in a sling, keeping it immobile. Nick settled on the sofa and was soon asleep again.

Catherine went out. He could hardly show up in his beggars clothes. She’d have to guess his seize. She walked around the corner to the second hand clothes shop and found him some jeans, t-shirt, jacket and cap to wear.

After a couple of hours sleep, Nick felt better already. He still felt sore and his arm was pretty useless. But knowing he’d see the guys in a few hours got him all exited and nervous at the same time.
Catherine had left him with his new-ish clothes while walking Echy. When she got back he was ready to go.

It was a short drive to the venue and when they got there a crowd had already gathered at the entrance.
Sound check party winners were let in through a side door. As they walked in Nick held her hand. He was visibly shaking now.
After 15 minutes they were let through the doors and Nick felt all his blood drain from his face as he heard the music, the voices and especially as he saw the 4 men on the stage. He had to sit down.
“Johnny, are you ok?” Catherine asked worried.
“I’ll be fine. You go ahead. I need to sit here for a moment.”
Reluctantly she left him sitting in the back. After a while, Nick also came a bit closer but still stayed away from the stage. Marcus and some of the others were tossing the football to Brian and back. Nick was sitting half way up the ramp of the standing places area. And that is where Marcus nearly fell over him.
He tossed the ball to Brian and then looked at the man to apologize for tripping over him. But as he saw the face, Marcus nearly had to sit himself.
“Nick” he whispered.
“Marcus, don’t say anything.”
Marcus was still trying to grasp that Nick was sitting there.
“Meet me around the side after this” Marcus whispered and turned just in time to catch the ball.

Half an hour later Catherine ran back to where she had left Nick but he was gone. She walked out of the concert hall.
“Johnny?” she called.
“Here” Nick signaled her around the corner.
From the other side, Marcus came through a door and rushed to them.
“Nick!” he was so please to see him, he just grabbed him in a big bear hug.
“Ah” Nick moaned.
“What’s the matter?” Marcus startled.
“I got hurt earlier.”
“So it was you at the hotel!”
Nick nodded.
“Have you told the guys?” Nick wondered.
“No. I was not sure if it was you or indeed a thief.”
He took the phone and PDA out of his pocket.
“I’ve charged them up. Just in case . . . .”
“Thanks.” Nick was really pleased.
“Nick?” Marcus asked hesitantly. “are you staying? Are you going to see them? Have you any idea what it has been like for them?” Marcus was getting angry and upset.
“Marcus, calm down. I know. I’m back. I just don’t know how to handle this.”
“Why don’t you meet up with them after the show tonight. You are not fit enough for a whole show.” Catherine suggested.
Marcus looked at her apprehensively.
“She’s ok, Marcus.”
Nick was quiet for a while, thinking of his next move.
“Marcus, don’t tell them yet. We’ll be back tonight. Just keep a microphone with you and an eye on your phone. I’ll send you a text. I have a plan.”
Nick already smiled at the thought.
Reluctantly Marcus let them go.

Nick and Catherine left the building.
“I need to get rid of this beard. I don’t want them not to recognize me.”
“There is a shop here. Let’s pick up some stuff and go home.”

A couple of hours later Nick was again clean shaven. You saw even better now how much weight he had lost. Catherine helped him cut his hair. It would need a professional tidying up but it looked ok, it looked a Nick haircut.
Catherine also made him eat something but Nick was very nervous and could not sit still for a moment. By 8 they were back at the venue.

The crowd was enormous. Nearly all the seats were taken and Nick and Catherine found a place in the standing only area. Nick made sure to keep his cap on and his jacket collar well up. With his arm in a sling no one seemed to notice them.
While the warm up act was on, Nick send a quick text to Marcus letting him know they were in the house.

And finally the concert started. A cut out Nick was used by the guys to sing with. Between sets photo’s were shown of all the years gone by.
It brought so many memories back to Nick, tears were silently running down his face. He was so proud of them all, how they had not forgotten him but worked it in the show. He owed them a lot. And as he realized just how much he loved those men on stage, he became very calm and determined.

They knew from Marcus that the show ended with some songs sang around Kevin’s piano. So when it was rolled out, Nick and Catherine made their way to Marcus. Carefully so nobody would see them, Marcus handed Nick his microphone.
“Wait, help me get this jacket of and the sling as well. I don’t want them to freak out completely.”
Marcus chuckled.
“And you think they won’t now? I’m just glad they are all sitting down!”

The guys were on stage again, sitting around the piano. Kevin started the first notes of Weird World, one of Nick’s songs really.

“The sun is over the city . . . “

Kevin tapped his ear piece. There was something funny with the sound. He heard Nick sing those first words but then it was the tape again.

“There is reason for looking up . . . .”

There it was again. He looked at the others. They seemed to have noticed it as well.

“You see I’ve go to catch a plane . . . . “

Kevin looked around now, sure someone was playing a trick on them and he didn’t think it was funny at all.

“Cause it’s hard to just stop when you’re spinning around . It’s a weird world, don’t you know it?”

And with those words Nick carefully walked on stage singing.
Kevin nearly lost his place on the keyboard, he was so startled.
As Nick walked from one to the other, you saw how difficult it was to keep going. Nick needed all his strength for his singing so he made his way around to Kevin and sat down next to him, leaning into him while turning his attention to the fans who were going wild by now.
As the song ended and 6000 fans screamed out, Nick turned to the guys. They had not moved, stunned as they were. For a moment Nick felt the urge to run away again.
“Say something” he whispered.
Kevin turned to him, taking in every line of his face. Carefully he reached out. Unsure if it was really Nick or again just a dream he was in. But as he touched solid, Kevin grabbed Nick and held him close, letting the tears run down his face. That seemed to shake the others awake as well and they all joined in the hug.
“Don’t ever go away again.” Kevin finally said.
They had so many questions but the show had to be closed. With a last song, they all said their goodbyes and left the stage.

Backstage Marcus and Catherine were waiting for Nick. Pulling him away from the others, they disappeared around the corner. Catherine could see Nick was exhausted, both from the emotion and the singing. And he was in pain. How wonderful the hug had been, it had also hurt his arm enormously.
“Put your sling back on” she helped him.
“Now go on and talk to them.”
She was happy he was happy.
“Come with me!”
“No, this is your time. I’ll wait out here.”

In the dressing room confusion reigned. Where was Nick? Had they just dreamed it all?
But then the door opened and Marcus walked in supporting Nick.
And all was quiet again. Everything and everyone stopped to look at Nick.
“Can we get a chair for this man!” Marcus shook them awake once more.
But Nick did not want to sit yet. He walked over to Kevin, Howie, Brian and AJ.
“I’m sorry.” Nick said quietly, dropping his head.
He had a feeling he wasn’t as welcome as he had hoped. They didn’t say anything.
Marcus quietly got everyone out of the room. When the last person had left and it was just the 5 of them, Howie took a step closer.
“Have you got any idea what it’s like, being called at 2 in the morning by the police, saying they have fished your body out of the water? Do you know what it’s like to see one of those bodies, and how you survive each time because it doesn’t have the same fucking tattoos as you!”
Slowly Howie’s voice was rising. So many emotions were running through him, he didn’t know what to do. He was standing right in front of Nick. His eyes moist, desperate for some reaction from Nick.
Nick saw the pain, the anger, the worry, the myriad of emotions and he pulled Howie closer and held him. Howie let go of all the stress and clang to Nick, crying. One by one, they came closer until they were all touching Nick, surrounding him with their love, their strength, their compassion, even their understanding.
Nick started to feel a bit light headed.
“Guys, I need to sit down.”
That’s when they finally seemed to notice the sling and just how pale Nick was. Kevin made him sit down and they all found a chair to sit.
“What happened?” Brian asked.
“Hotel security.” Nick explained.
“Wait, are you telling us you were at the hotel?” AJ asked.
“I was. Saw you guys arrive. But I kind of looked a bit scruffy.”
“And you don’t now? Who cut your hair?” AJ joked.
“Up until a few hours ago I had long hair, a beard and mustache. You would not have recognized me. In fact, only Marcus did this afternoon.”
“You were here this afternoon?” Kevin was startled.
“Why didn’t you come then?” Brian asked.
“I nearly did but as I said you would not have recognized me.”
“Nick,” Howie was very serious, “are you back to stay or . . . “
He was afraid to finish the question.
“I’m back . . . if you’ll have me.”
He looked from one to the other.
“Darned, I was so getting used to cardboard Nick!” AJ laughed.
“Let’s pack up and get back to the hotel. We have a lot of talking to do.” Kevin said.
Nick nodded.
Walking out of the dressing room, Nick stopped for a moment to look for Catherine. But she was no longer there.
“Come on, Nick. I’m not letting you out of my sight!” Kevin hugged Nick and together they walked to the buss.
Catherine watched it all from the recess of a door.

Next day she went walking with the dog again. This time there was no Nick sitting, begging, joining her for a coffee. And quietly her heart broke a little at the thought of a good friend lost. She knew his life lay somewhere else. But it would have been nice to say goodbye.
As she approached her house, a bus was parked in front. And as she walked passed it, the door opened.
“I told you I would not leave without saying goodbye.”
“Nick!” she smiled.
He helped her on the buss where she met the others.
“We need to go now. Thank you for everything you did for me.”
“That’s ok, Sweety. I loved our time together.”
He leaned towards her to kiss but she stopped his lips from touching hers.
“I just may not let you go if you do that.”
Instead she kissed him on the cheek and turned to exit the buss.
The door closed behind her. And while waiving goodbye, she desperately held on to the memories of their time together.
Nick was back where he belonged. And that warmed her.

The end.