Comforting Lie
Chapter Seven
Chapter One
Chapter Two
Chapter Three
Chapter Four
Chapter Five
Chapter Six
Chapter Seven
Chapter Eight
Chapter Nine
Chapter Ten
Chapter Eleven
Chapter Twelve
Chapter Thirteen
Chapter Fourteen
Chapter Fifteen
Chapter Sixteen
Chapter Seventeen
Chapter Eighteen
Chapter Nineteen
Chapter Twenty
Chapter Twenty-One
Chapter Twenty-Two
Chapter Twenty-Three
Chapter Twenty-Four
Chapter Twenty-Five
Chapter Twenty-Six
Chapter Twenty-Seven
Chapter Twenty-Eight
Chapter Twenty-Nine
Chapter Thirty
Chapter Thirty-One
Chapter Thirty-Two
Chapter Thirty-Three
Chapter Thirty-Four
Chapter Thirty-Five
Chapter Thirty-Six
Chapter Thirty-Seven
Chapter Thirty-Eight
Chapter Thirty-Nine
Chapter Forty
Chapter Forty-One
Chapter Forty-Two
Chapter Forty-Three
Chapter Forty-Four
Chapter Forty-Five
Chapter Forty-Six
Chapter Forty-Seven
Chapter Forty-Eight
Chapter Forty-Nine
Chapter Fifty
Chapter Fifty-One
Chapter Fifty-Two

Sort it, sort it all out
Just give it back
No thank you

Nick's eyes snapped open with the force of fear, and he gripped the covers tightly before the effects of his nightmare subsided. He couldn't remember the last time he'd had such a dream, but they came occasionally, always foreshadowing a bad day. He flinched at the thought. Oh, and what a perfect time to have a bad day. That damn presentation starts in... He leaned over to check the alarm clock, pleased that it had dragged him back into consciousness and away from his nightmares, and sighed when he saw the time. Three hours. At least I woke up on time.

He closed his eyes slowly, mentally fighting back unwelcome images as he stretched and yawned. He wasn't looking forward to the day ahead, but his previous experience had taught him to ignore his own needs and focus on getting the job done. Luckily, some of his old habits still remained, despite the vast differences in his present demeanor. With another sigh, he hauled himself out of bed and trudged into the bathroom to brush his teeth and wash his face. With a tired glance in the mirror, he noted that his hair could use a comb as well.

The daily routine took mere minutes, and he pulled a shirt and shorts on before stumbling out into the hallway and towards the kitchen. He paused when he heard voices, suddenly curious as to what the other three discussed when he wasn't around. He leaned against the wall, and he could just barely make out the forms of both Cara and Aaron in the dim light of the early morning. Six o'clock is too early for anyone. Aaron spoke first.

"You ready for rehearsal?"

Cara shrugged lightly. "Ready as I'll ever be. I really hope Terry looked over our duet, 'cause Cal hinted around at running through it today."

Aaron smirked at the thought, and Nick caught himself smirking with his younger brother. He had come to like the blonde woman, as she seemed the most laid-back of the group. She was definitely the most friendly, though Aaron had been kind. There was something about Cara, however, that intrigued Nick.

"That should be interesting. The two of you are pretty crazy together."

Cara shot him a pointed look. "A, we'll be singing. You can't be crazy when you're supposed to be acting heartbroken."

His smirk grew. "Yeah, well, you can if your name is Theresa. She's going to drive Cal nuts if she's in one of her dramatic moods."

Cara laughed easily. "Yeah, that she will. Actually, we could use a practice like that..."

Aaron nodded his agreement, and the two stood in silence for a moment, each sipping coffee and staring reflectively into space. Nick was about to interrupt the moment when Aaron spoke again.

"You think Nick'll be better this morning?

Cara looked up in surprise, but quickly recovered. "Honestly? A part of me hopes that he is, and a part hopes that he isn't. He's on a one-way track to self-destruction with smoking and drinking like that. I still can't believe that he went out last night too."

Aaron sighed. "Yeah, me either. I hope he's all right, though. This work stuff means something to him, I think. It's the most direction I've seen him have in a long time."

Cara arched an eyebrow at the thought. "That in itself is pretty sad. He's a wreck."

Nick's features darkened in half-surprise and immediate protest as he watched the two discussing him. He hated that Aaron was even analyzing him with someone else, but he didn't understand why Cara disliked him with such force. He clenched his fists in anger, but warned himself mentally to keep his temper in check. After all, he wasn't even supposed to be listening.

"He could be worse," Aaron pointed out, and Cara sighed.

"I guess so, but I think he's pretty bad as it is." She stared down into her coffee cup and swirled the liquid around for her own entertainment. "And I'm sorry, but the ego has got to go. If he expects me to be his little slave, he's got another thing coming..."

Nick's eyes widened at the venom in her words. He hadn't realized that he'd made such a negative impression on the girl, but he couldn't help but wonder why Theresa didn't react to him in the same way.

Aaron laughed and growled playfully. "Ooh, sharpen those claws, girl." He giggled even harder when Cara shot him a disapproving look. "Seriously, though, I've never seen you get this riled up over someone. You're usually the peacemaker."

Nick's eyes widened at the new information, and he watched as Cara shrugged. "I don't know. He gets to me. I guess...there's not as much music in him as I thought there would be."

Aaron nodded his understanding and furrowed his brow inquisitively. "Not as much passion?"

Cara shrugged again. "Something like that."

All at once, Nick couldn't stand to listen to any more. Cara no longer sounded furious with him, but more disappointed in him, and it aggravated him that he even cared what she thought. Not to mention the fact that Aaron's entire character was unfamiliar to him. How come I don't even know my own brother?

He shook his head and discarded the thought before entering the kitchen, vowing to try to become at least a more impressionable person. He'd quit smoking, a habit that he'd always detested anyway, so that had to count for something. As he walked through the doors, both of them looked up in alarm, and Aaron finally nodded his greeting.

"Hey, Nick. What's up?"

Nick shrugged lightly and let his eyelids droop a bit, causing Aaron to stifle giggles. Cara, on the other hand, looked at him with an expression he couldn't read.

"Morning. You get a choice today. Toast and fruit, or cereal?"

Before Nick could answer, Aaron handed him a glass of water and two Tylenol, offering a smirk as he did so. "Be impressed, Nick. Cara only cooks breakfast on rare occasions."

Nick nodded his thanks to his younger brother before downing the two pills. Once he had swallowed, he turned to Cara and cleared his throat. "Toast and fruit, thanks." He didn't even bother to hide his flinch when the gravelly whisper squeaked. So much for thinking optimistically. A quick glance in Aaron's direction, and he saw that his brother had the same expression. He felt his temper flare at the site.

"Oh, don't cringe," he snapped angrily as he took the plate that Cara had handed to him. "You knew it wouldn't fix."

Aaron's eyes widened as he felt his own temper flare. "What the hell? Nick, this isn't my fault, okay?"

Nick's eyebrows shot up. "Oh? You made me quit, Aaron. How is this not your fault?" He flinched as he squeaked again. Oh, shit. This is going to be one hell of a presentation...

Cara's brown eyes darkened in Nick's direction. "You're the one who started smoking in the first place, Nick. Leave Aaron alone."

Nick whirled around to glare at her. "Look, stay out of this. This is between me and Aaron."

Cara rolled her eyes, but Aaron shot her a look. "C, he's right. Leave it alone, okay?"

She started to say something, but Nick saw something in her eyes soften when she looked at Aaron, and she turned to leave the room. "I'm going to get Terry out of bed. If she doesn't hurry, we'll be late, and Lord knows she won't hear that alarm clock..."

With that, she made her exit, leaving the two men to glare at each other. Aaron spoke first.

"Say whatever you want to me, but be nice to Cara. The idea is to make a good impression, Nick."

Nick rolled his eyes heavenward and groaned inaudibly as he sat down at the table. "I don't give a flying fuck what she thinks. She doesn't have to present today."

Aaron looked at his brother pointedly. "You could've thought about that before you went out last night, you know."

Nick looked up from his breakfast and glared at Aaron again as the younger man made his way to the table. "Oh, please. You have no right to baby me, Aaron Carter. I'm a grown man."

"Living under my roof," Aaron shot back. "You live here, then listen to me."

"I quit, didn't I?" Nick retorted, wincing at the effort of trying to yell. "Look where it got me! You're the wise one, then tell me how to get out of this mess."

"You are getting out of this mess," Aaron said calmly in return. "Don't you get that? You'll be better off once this thing wears away."

"Yeah, if I can talk then," Nick muttered, swallowing a bite of toast to refrain from saying anything else that he'd regret later. He didn't really want to be so hostile towards Aaron, but he hated the superior attitude that his younger brother had taken on. I'm the older one, dammit. And doesn't that make me wiser?

Aaron slid off the counter and rinsed his mug out before looked pointedly at Nick. He shook his head, rolled his eyes, and threw his arms up. "I give up! I don't know why I bother anymore." He sighed, and his gaze returned to his older brother. "Look, good luck with the presentation. We might have something in the medicine cabinet that could help you, but you might as well just relax. Stressing over it is only going to make things worse. Meanwhile, I've got a rehearsal to go to. I'll see you tonight."

Before Nick could offer a sarcastic reply, Aaron had left the room. A few moments later, Nick heard the front door to the apartment slam shut, and a lonely silence crept through the place. He shuddered involuntarily and let his arm fall onto the table.

He hadn't meant to yell at Aaron (not that he'd been very successful anyway) but being in the presence of his younger brother made him think about things that he would've much rather forgotten, things that he'd buried deep in his psyche years before. He didn't want his new roommates to hate him, but he didn't want those things to surface. After all, self-preservation was more important than social acceptance.

With that thought in mind, he went to get dressed.

* * * * *

Aaron sighed tiredly as he pressed the buttons to his stereo remote. Finally, the powerful alto vocals of Etta James came tumbling from the speakers, and he smiled in satisfaction. It had been a long day, and a bluesy song was exactly what he needed to end the day properly. He wasn't used to being alone in the apartment anymore, and Theresa and Cara had gone out together for a night on the town. He'd allowed them to take the car (they all shared a single car for the sake of expenses) with them, opting instead for a peaceful walk home. By the time he'd arrived, his legs were burning and his eyes were drooping. He was nearly asleep when the door finally opened and Nick slipped in. Opening one eye lazily, Aaron glanced at his brother's ragged appearance and decided to be cordial.

"Hey. How'd the presentation go?"

Nick turned to look at Aaron dully as he dropped his coat on the stand. When he spoke, his voice was a high-pitched whisper. "It went."

Aaron flinched involuntarily. "Is that good or bad?"

Nick shrugged and flopped down onto the couch beside Aaron. "Honestly? Don't know, don't really care anymore. I'm exhausted."

Aaron nodded his agreement. "Yeah, that makes two of us. Rehearsal took forever today. Cara and Terry had to work on their duet for something like two hours while they drilled the rest of us on choreography." He let out a pitiful whimper at the memory. "I thought my legs were going to fall off. If I have to practice that damn dance one more time..."

Nick chuckled lightly. "Yeah, dance rehearsals are never fun."

Aaron rolled his eyes. "They're nuts to want to go out after a grueling rehearsal like that. How they have any energy left is beyond me."

Nick frowned. "Who's 'they'?"

"C and T. They went out for the evening. They'll be back sometime around midnight, I'm guessing."

Nick nodded slowly. "Do they do that a lot?"

Aaron's head swiveled to face Nick. "Go out?" Nick nodded again, and Aaron shrugged. "Sometimes. It depends on what mood they're in. There's a club downtown that T likes a lot, so that's probably where they're headed."

Nick's brow furrowed in confusion. "I thought Cara was allergic to smoke. Won't that bother her?"

Aaron leaned back against the couch cushions and shook his head. "Not if she took all her meds before she left. 'Sides, they don't smoke much over there. It's more dance-oriented."

"They like to dance a lot, I take it."

Aaron laughed at the thought of Cara and Theresa at their favorite club. "Yeah, they like to dance. Watching C is pretty funny...she's usually so shy and quiet, and then she gets out there and grinds like there's no tomorrow."

Nick made a face at the mention of Cara. "She's nice and quiet? Since when?"

Aaron laughed again at the look on Nick's face. "Something about you gets to her, I guess. She sees you in a different light than Terry does."

Nick's features twisted inquisitively. "Why's that?"

Aaron shrugged. "Hell if I know. She's funny that way. She usually takes to people, but something about you sets her off."

Nick let out a light laugh. "Well, she's quite a character."

Aaron stared at Nick for a moment, studying him intensely until Nick began to feel uncomfortable under his brother's gaze. It was as though Aaron was reading too deeply into him, and he wasn't thrilled at the prospect of having to explain anything to Aaron. Finally, however, Aaron shook his head slightly and gave a terse chuckle.

"Like I said, man, Cara sees you differently. I think that she had expectations as to who you are and what you're like." He paused a moment to give Nick a pointed look. "You're very, very different from what people perceive you to be, you know?"

Nick nodded. Once upon a time, that hadn't been true, but he'd changed a lot since his image no longer required maintenance. He hadn't really thought too much of the change--in his eyes, it hadn't been all that great of a change after all. "Why would she have expectations?"

Aaron's expression turned incredulous, and he leaned towards Nick with wide eyes and a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. "You honestly don't know?"

Nick rolled his eyes and shook his head. How would I know? All I know is that her opinion matters too much. "If I knew, I wouldn't ask."

Aaron laughed again before leveling an odd gaze on Nick, his eyes twinkling in the amusement as he bit back more laughter. "Nick, Cara used to be a Backstreet fan."

At the mention of Backstreet, Nick felt a mix of emotions course through him, none of which he much enjoyed. For some reason he couldn't explain, though, the thought of Cara as a Backstreet fan explained a lot of things and intrigued him further. It would certainly explain the nasty looks she gave him every now and then. However, he was more at ease knowing that he shouldn't take her too seriously. After all, the fans would criticize, but they never meant the criticism in a mean way. Suddenly, he wasn't so offended by the comments Cara had made that morning. "What do you mean?"

Aaron shrugged. "She was a fan. There's not much more to it than that."

Nick nodded. "Yeah, it definitely explains her. I really hope she doesn't start stalking me though..."

Aaron's smile faded immediately and he rolled his eyes, reaching out to smack Nick on the shoulder. "Don't be a retard. She won't stalk you. Quite the contrary, she's probably going out of her way to avoid you."

Nick groaned. "Oh, gee, that's flattering..."

Aaron glanced briefly at the ceiling. God, give me strength to resist the urge to punch Nick right smack in the face... "Nick, weren't you listening? I said that she used to be a fan."

Nick sighed sadly, unable to keep the tone of distress out of what remained of his voice. "Didn't they all used to be fans? There's nothing to be a fan of anymore."

Aaron gave him a pointed look. "That's not necessarily true."

Nick glared at him. "Don't give me that 'the legend lives on' bullshit that the reporters love. I don't buy it."

Aaron groaned inwardly. "Look, Nick, I wasn't talking about the legend living on. Cara's not a fan anymore, but the reasons aren't what you'd think. If you want more detail, then ask her." He fought the urge to snicker and settled for a smirk. "I'm sure she'd love to provide you with an answer."

Nick's eyebrows rose considerably at the thought. "All I have to do is ask her?" Granted, he hated talking about anything that pertained to Backstreet, but if it would give him insight into Cara, maybe it wouldn't be so bad. He watched as Aaron nodded affirmatively.

"Yup. Just ask."

Nick sighed again and let his gaze drop to the carpet, already curious as to when and how he could corner Cara to get the answers he was after. "Maybe I will."

"Comforting Lie" - lyrics and music by No Doubt, on the album RETURN OF SATURN