Comforting Lie
Chapter Thirteen
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

Nick could hear laughter all the way down the hall as he stumbled towards the apartment. It had been a long, hard day at the office, and he was fully prepared to lounge around and watch his three new roommates goof off as per usual. Of course, he was also praying that Cara had chosen that evening to cook something more substantial than Ramen noodles, because he was starving.

As soon as he opened the door, though, he had the feeling that productivity in the kitchen had dropped to an all-time low. To say that the scene in front of him surprised him would have been a drastic understatement. Though he wasn't necessarily saddened by Theresa's apparent absence, he was horrified at the fact that Cara--sweet, innocent, Southern belle Cara--was draped across Aaron's lap,
wearing an extremely coquettish expression.

I always knew, I always said
That silk and lace, and black and red
Would drive a man right off his head
It's easy

Nick continued to watch in a state somewhere between awe and fear as Cara lifted herself from Aaron's lap and began to move seductively around the room, acknowledging imaginary admirers as she went.

So many men, so little time
I want 'em all, is that a crime?

Aaron's hasty shout of "No!" from the couch caused Nick's eyebrows to climb considerably higher on his forehead, which was quite a feat in itself. Cara gave a very girlish, very un-Cara-like giggle, and winked in Aaron's direction, to which he responded with a wide smirk as his friend continued to sing. It was obvious by the exaggerated edge to Cara's actions that she was completely unaware of the Backstreet Boy standing in the doorway.

I don't know why
They say that I'm too easy

They make me laugh
They make me cry
They make me sick
So God knows why... *

At that point in the song, Nick was shocked by the sheer volume and clarity in Clara's voice. He had never pictured the girl as an alto, but both the strength and talent with which she delivered her vocals were astounding. Of course, before he could watch her launch into the chorus of the famous solo, she had whirled around to acknowledge another imaginary admirer. Unfortunately, her eyes landed on his open mouth and raised eyebrows, and her knowing smirk faded to match his expression exactly. Before he knew it, the confident, sultry songstress that had taken over the living room was replaced with the shy, calculated woman he'd come to associate with his younger brother, and she was blushing profusely.

"Oh, wow...I had no idea you were here...we were just goofing around, because Aaron missed the rehearsal where I had to work on that choreography, and he made me promise to give him a show later, because..." She trailed off, blushing an even deeper crimson when she realized exactly how bad her explanation had sounded. "Shit. Nevermind."

Nick's eyes widened in amazement as an amused smirk graced his features. "Did Saint Cara just curse?"

Cara's eyes were equally as wide. "You're disregarding that entire display because of a single curse word?"

Nick laughed. "Well, on second thought, we can always go back to the display..."

Aaron grinned mischievously from the couch. "I most certainly wouldn't mind going back to the display..."

Nick expected Cara to let loose with a feminist lecture, but instead she turned to Aaron with amusement. "I'm sure you wouldn't. However, I'd really like to maintain that nice, respectable image that your brother has of me right now."

Aaron rolled his lower lip out in a pout. "Can't he just think that you're a really good actress?"

"'Cause it takes so much talent to act like a whore..." Cara continued sarcastically, rolling her eyes in the process.

"Actually, the brother was thinking about how much talent it takes to hold a note like that," Nick admitted. He was still in awe from having walked in on such a scene, and he was having trouble processing the image of Cara acting seductive and the sound of her powerful voice at the same time. He swallowed forcefully, and a tiny part of him acknowledged that, in those few seconds that he saw her performing for Aaron, he was jealous of her confidence and her ability. An even smaller part of him allowed the whisper that he missed it. But I can't miss it, and I don't miss it, because it wasn't what it could have been. It wasn't good anymore...

Aaron eyed the crimson Cara and giggled. "Well, the brother has succeeded in making Cara blush with that observation."

Nick was still staring at the brunette in awe. "Cal reprimands you for singing and dancing like that?!"

Aaron laughed. "'Reprimands', dear brother, is not the word."

Cara rolled her eyes. "You aren't kidding. He yells, he screams, he rants, and he lectures. He does not 'reprimand'. Cal is not, and will never be, that kind when it comes to performing in one of his shows. He takes nothing less than perfection."

Nick shook his head slowly. "It certainly sounded perfect to me."

Cara's cheeks flushed a deeper red, and Aaron grabbed her hand and began swinging their arms playfully. "Yeah, that's our C. She's practically perfect in every way."

Cara snorted at the comment. "Yeah, now I just need the talking umbrella and the bottomless carpetbag, right?"

Aaron stroked his chin thoughtfully and pretended to ponder the matter a moment. "Nah, it's okay. We'll let you off as long as you sing that 'Spoonful of Sugar' song."

Cara smiled sarcastically. "Gee, thanks."

Nick watched the two with wide eyes, looking at each of them in turn as the conversation progressed. Finally, he cleared his throat loudly and sighed. "Okay, halt a second. I'm lost."

Cara stared at him incredulously. "Nick, how can you be lost? It's Mary Poppins!"

Nick shrugged. "Never saw it."

Cara frowned. "You never saw Mary Poppins? So you don't know the story?"

Nick shook his head sadly. "Nope." He knew that he'd missed out on much of the normal childhood regime because of his profession, and he hated the fact that he no longer cared.

Aaron was soon frowning with Cara. "How can you not know the story, man? Mary Poppins is, like, classic. Like, it's as classic as..." He trailed off for a moment and his gaze moved to Cara as his eyes danced mischievously. "It's as classic as Jekyll & Hyde, dude."

Nick laughed at the disgusted look on Cara's face. "I can't say that I know that one either..."

With that, Cara's eyes widened and she turned to face him with shock. "Whoa, hold your horses a sec. You're saying that your brother's about to star in a Broadway musical, and you don't even know the storyline of the musical that he's about to star in?"

Nick winced. "Well, shit, when you say it like that..."

Aaron laughed. "Dude, it sounded bad even before she said it." He pouted, his expression clearly reminiscent of his older brother's infamous puppy dog face. "I feel so unloved!"

Nick groaned. "Man, I don't gotta do homework on Broadway just because you're starring in a musical..."

Cara smiled knowingly. "Actually, Nick, I think my parents have the entire Jekyll & Hyde CD collection now. They went and cleared out the record store whenever they first got the news."

Aaron rolled his eyes. "Of course, C's family is fucking perfect, so it doesn't surprise me that they went to such an extreme..."

Nick gave Cara a very obvious once-over before another groan escaped him. "Somehow, the knowledge that your family is perfect really doesn't surprise me."

"She was raised in the second fucking Brady Bunch," Aaron continued to whine. "It's not fair, you know?"

Cara snorted. "Yeah, and a lot of good it did me. I still got screwed up in high school."

"But they forgave you, and they're still proud of you, and they care about your musical endeavors, unlike my family," Aaron countered. "There's real love at your house. Our 'real love' is stuck somewhere in one of the overflowing bank accounts my mother cares so much about. No one in my house cared about this thing. It was fucking expected, and they're just glad that I'm busy and out of their hair."

Nick stomach twisted in response to the angry words coming from Aaron. Theresa's words from earlier weeks ran through his head, but he tried desperately to clear the thoughts away. Despite the tightening in his chest, he forced himself to study the expression of contempt on his face, and he inwardly cursed himself for emotionally isolating himself from his brother. Suddenly, he was overwhelmed with the urge to make it up to Aaron somehow, but he knew that his usual, casual apology no longer held meaning for the younger man. Man. Aaron's become a man. He grew up, he wisened up, he matured, and I missed it all. He cleared his throat awkwardly.

"Aaron, man...we do care. Really. Or, at least, I do."

Cara smiled softly at Aaron. "Yeah, A, don't take it personally. He doesn't even know the story of Mary Poppins. Either he was dropped on his head as a kid, or he's just clueless and deprived by nature."

"Or both," Nick offered with a tiny smile, glancing gratefully at Cara when a small smile appeared on Aaron's features. He made a mental note to thank her later for clearing the air. Something about her always seemed to bring out the best in Aaron, and Nick was slowly learning just how lucky he was to have her present.

Aaron turned to Nick with a sad smile. "But, man, I understand. You don't want to do the homework, and I don't blame you. It's cool."

Nick groaned aloud at the thought of homework, but turned a sacrificial grin on his younger brother. "Tell ya what, bro...for you, I'll make the sacrifice and fry a few brain cells, okay?"

Cara turned to Aaron with a solemn expression. "Whoa, A, that's a major sacrifice. We all know just how few brain cells the older Carter has to lose..."

Aaron, however, was seemingly unaffected by Cara's attempt to lighten the mood. Instead, he gazed imploringly at his older brother. "Are you sure you don't mind? I mean, you'll understand everything eventually when you see the show." He paused, considering another thought. "You are coming to see the show, right?"

Nick gave Aaron a pointed look. Only days ago, he would've been hesitant to agree, but now...things were different. "Absolutely! Why would I miss something like that?"

A thousand reasons entered Aaron's head as quickly as the question registered, but the hopeless look in Nick's eyes warned him against mentioning anything. A silent understanding passed between the brothers at that moment, and Aaron accepted the fact that, though Nick wasn't anywhere near the man he used to be, he was trying.

Cara grinned at Nick. "So you really want to be educated in the ways of Jekyll & Hyde?"

Nick laughed and sat down, making himself comfortable. "Absolutely. Educate me."

Cara arched an eyebrow at the term and smirked at the older Carter. "Word of advice, Nick."

Nick frowned. "Hmm?"

"Don't ever dream of using that phrase on Theresa, okay?"

Aaron burst out laughing at Cara's "advice", and Nick's features took on a frightened expression.


She smiled. "Good. So, do you know ANYTHING about the story, or are we starting from scratch?"

Nick shrugged. "There's a good guy and a bad guy. Jekyll and Hyde..."

Cara smirked. "Yeah, hence the title."

Nick rolled his eyes at the sarcasm that was beginning to bleed through her innocent, Southern belle image. "Yeah. I think I had to read the book at some point."

Aaron finally spoke up. "Do you know which guy is which?"

Nick looked sheepish. "Um..."

Cara groaned. "Oh, Lordy, we're going to be here for awhile." She sighed heavily and focused on Nick's perplexed countenance. "Okay, here's the deal. Jekyll's the good guy, and Hyde's the bad guy."

"Hyde's an asshole," Aaron offered, before sharing a knowing smile with Cara. "Well, according to Cal..."

In the older days, Nick would've teased Aaron about having to play such a character, but the thought barely crossed his mind before he dismissed it. He knew that he would come off sounding cold, and then Aaron would be offended. The lack of interaction between him and his younger brother, however, made him realize just how fragile the ground beneath them was.

He sighed heavily, trying to process the information. The pain in Aaron's eyes was more than he could handle, and the guilt that stirred within him as a result was already threatening to break the strength he had created for himself so long ago. "Okay, so there's a good guy and a bad guy."

"Yeah, but they're the same person," Aaron interjected, and Nick's features contorted. Cara immediately burst out laughing at Nick's expression, and she turned a knowing smile in Aaron's direction.

"Why don't we start from the beginning? He looks like his brain is going to explode."

Nick frowned. "It's not that, okay? You guys are giving it to me in pieces, and it doesn't fucking make a lot of sense. Don't make fun of me..."

Aaron rolled his eyes. "Chill with the temper, okay? We'll start from the beginning. We rehearse it in pieces, though, so we've started thinking in pieces. Just be patient."

Nick sighed again and leaned back into the armchair he had taken. "Okay, shoot. I'm willing to learn."

Cara nodded. "Well, basically the story is about good and evil, and the battle between the two forces inside each and every one of us."

Aaron adopted a deep, suspenseful voice and somber expression as he began to recite. "In each of us there are two natures. If this primitive duality of man--good and evil--can be housed in separate identities, life will be relieved of all that is unbearable. It is the curse of mankind...that these polar twins should be constantly struggling..."

Nick's eyebrows rose in appreciation. "Wow, man, that was deep."

Cara, on the other hand, rolled her eyes. "Yeah, imagine that..."

Nick frowned. "Well, hell, Cara, this is Aaron we're talking about. He doesn't say intelligent shit like that every day, you know?"

Cara laughed. "Yeah, and I would hope not, because that's not exactly his passage to claim..."

Nick directed his frown at Aaron. "It's not?"

Aaron grinned. "Nope. Robert Louis Stevenson. It's from the opening narration."

"Yeah, the only part of the entire thing that Aaron has perfectly memorized," Cara retorted. Aaron stuck out his tongue as a response, and she arched an eyebrow skeptically. "Childish much?"

"Very much," Aaron chuckled, winking at her. Nick rolled his eyes at the bond that the two had obviously developed, hating that he was slowly becoming jealous of Cara.

"Anyway, so it's about good and evil."

Cara snapped to attention. "Yeah." She smiled warmly. "So our story begins with a scientist named Henry Jekyll, who's trying to work on this hypothesis that you can actually separate the good and evil in one person."

"That's me," Aaron interrupted with a winning smile. Cara's eyes went skywards, but Nick couldn't help smiling at his brother's obvious pride in his role.

"So he's a research freak when we open up, working in his lab."

"And he sings this really cool song called 'I Need To Know'," Aaron added.

"But, low and behold, the freak actually has a social life..." She leaned in. "And this is where Aaron and Jekyll differ. He's got this social life, and he stops working to attend his own engagement party with all of these really annoying, loud, gossipy townspeople that get really annoying after an hour or so of rehearsal."

"They're supposed to be annoying, though. They sing these little songs called 'Facade' and 'Bitch, Bitch, Bitch'--which is one of Theresa's favorites--to give people a feel for the time period and the nature of the town. In general, they're just nosy neighbors in abundance," Aaron finished. Cara looked at him in surprise, and he groaned. "What now?"

She giggled. "Did you just say 'abundance'?"

Aaron leveled her with a breadbox look. "Yeah..."

"When did you learn how to use a dictionary?"

Aaron smirked at her. "When you learned how to emulate someone out of a strip club."

She rolled her eyes. "Touche."

Nick, though amused at their banter, glanced at the clock and frowned. He had to be up early the next morning for a meeting, and though he wanted to appease his younger brother, he knew that he couldn't stand to listen to the story for too much longer. "Um, hello? Tweetle Dum and Tweetle Dee? What happened to the storyline?"

Aaron laughed. "Sorry. Okay, so he's getting engaged to this rich guy's daughter, Lisa Carew. She's prim, and she's proper, and she's really girly, and she's T's character."

Nick burst out laughing at the image that came with Aaron's explanation. "I can only imagine what an interesting picture that's going to make..."

"You should see it," Cara agreed, eyes twinkling. "It's hilarious to watch the transformation."

"Anyway, he's all emotional, and she's a big sap, and he's kind of paranoid, because his entire career rests on her father's shoulders..."

"Her father controls the Board of Governors, to whom Jekyll has to present all of his research the next day, and they'll either grant him respect or ditch his ideas. Needless to say, Jekyll has a reason to be paranoid," Cara interrupted. Nick nodded, but she was silenced by a glare from Aaron.

"So, yeah, they sing a song, and then the next day, the Board of Governors rejects his proposal anyway and he ends up looking like a jackass, but he's a pretty stubborn guy, so he decides to go for it regardless of what the bastards think."

Cara leaned conspiratorially towards Nick at that point and smiled. "Can you tell Aaron's a bit passionate about this role?" she whispered, and Nick nodded.

"Absolutely. It's kinda scary," he joked in return. The two shared a smile, and then turned back to Aaron as the younger man continued his narration.

"He's still ticked, though, and so he pulls a Nickolas and goes into the local dive pub, the Dregs," Aaron added, grinning mischievously. Nick was about to protest, but Cara interjected first.

"Where he meets me, Lucy. I'm a whore down at the pub that puts on a show for the guys every night, and when he meets me, I'm singing the song you heard when you came in, 'Bring On The Men'."

"It's Cara's favorite," Aaron informed his brother, "because she gets to be as provocative as she wants, and no one gives a flying fuck. In fact, Cal encourages it."

Cara rolled her eyes at the grin on Nick's face. She could already feel his teasing coming on, and she decided to fill the silence again before he could formulate an insult. "So Lucy meets Jekyll, and they become friends. It's kinda cool, totally unexpected, and it gets his hopes up enough for him to sing 'This Is The Moment', which is a really Celine Dion-type ballad."

"It's very touching," Aaron agreed, but he burst into laughter before his sincere tone could take effect. "So, anyway, Jekyll starts this journal narration in the lab, and he puts this formula shit to work. Of course, with this huge, booming song
called 'Transformation'--which I've had to rehearse fifty catrillion times because I'm supposed to go into this rage where I break glass--Jekyll turns into Edward Hyde, which is his evil side."

Nick nodded, finally understanding the previous comments. "Gotcha."

Aaron grinned. "Cool. Yeah, so, Hyde goes back to the Dregs, because he can't get enough of C over there, and he buys her for the night. He turns out to be a total ass, she gets scared, gets the hell out of the bar, and he fights with the morons in there. After the fight, he chases Lucy, scares the hell out of her again, and sings the 'Alive' song, which is my ABSOLUTE favorite."

"He gets really into it," Cara testified. "It's actually pretty amusing. We like to tease him about it."

Aaron groaned. "It's not my fault, man! It's a cool song, okay? You'll see,'s the best one in the whole show."

"Except for my ballad," Cara grinned. She turned to Nick, the smile still firmly in place. "But that doesn't come until later. After Hyde freaks Lucy out, he turns back into Jekyll, and Jekyll becomes a recluse. Lucy goes to see him to show him the wounds that Hyde caused, and he plays doctor for her. She finds the situation terrible romantic, and leaves his house to sing 'Someone Like You' into the dark of night..." She sighed happily.

Aaron, on the other hand, was stifling giggles in attempt to pull of a look of sadness. "Tear..." he teased, trailing his index finger down his cheek. When Cara glared at him, however, he couldn't hold the giggles any longer. "Good God, you were so freaking serious!"

Her brow furrowed. "I happen to like that song, thank you very much."

Nick, sensing that another verbal battle was about to ensue between the two stars, quickly stepped in with a small smile. "Cara, after what I heard earlier, I'm sure it's lovely."

She returned the smile, seemingly satisfied. "Thanks."

Aaron rolled his eyes skeptically at his brother's sudden change in demeanor. "Kiss-ass."

"Hey!" Nick cried, holding up his hands in innocence. "I thought that teenybopper Cara wanted to kiss my ass..."

Cara gave him a look of warning, and her brown eyes flashed. "Carter, what did I tell you about Backstreet jokes?"

Nick smiled innocently. "Shouldn't we be getting back to the storyline and your beautiful ballad?"

Not even Cara could conceal her smile. "That's the end of Act I. I get to close the curtain."

"Act II is a lot shorter," Aaron began. "When it opens, the gossipy, annoying townspeople are singing about how Hyde's been killing people in London--more specifically, members of the Board of Governors. Anyway, while Hyde's causing problems, Lisa's dad..."

Nick frowned. "Lisa?"

Cara started laughing at the confused look on his face. "Oh, Lordy, T would kill you for forgetting her character..."

"Jekyll's wife-to-be," Aaron explained with a warning look in Cara's direction. "So Lisa's dad gets all wigged out about the fact that she's marrying this psycho guy..."

"I mean, would you want your daughter marrying Aaron?" Cara supplied, and Nick bit back a smile. His brother's expression tightened, but Aaron didn't address her comment as he continued.

"But Lisa's all about Jekyll, and Lucy's all about Jekyll, and so they sing this song together about how much they love him that Cal absolutely hates because T sucks at being lovesick."

"That she does," Cara sighed. "But, back to the storyline--Hyde goes back to the Dregs to torment Lucy, and she falls for him. She sings a bunch of songs with the other nifty girls that work there, and decides that she's in trouble as long as she's hanging with Hyde."

"Smart girl," Nick muttered with a roll of his eyes, and Cara frowned.

"Okay, you know what? You try living the life of a pauper that has to sell herself every night. You'd probably be jumping for any kind of love as well."

Nick shrugged, but he couldn't hide the smile that her words evoked. He found it increasingly adorable that each actor or actress was so quick to defend his or her character.

"And, back at the lab, Lisa starts reading through Jekyll's stuff, totally invades his privacy, and ticks him off," Aaron explained. "So Jekyll freaks out about the experiment, making sure that no one knows. After he freaks, he becomes Hyde again and goes BACK to the Dregs, 'cause he's still really strung out on C, and he sees her reading a letter from Jekyll."

Cara sighed. "It's actually kind of sad. Hyde is in love with Lucy, but she's in love with Jekyll. He gets really jealous, and he stabs her to death, so I make my exit in the whole thing."

Aaron sighed in turn. "It is sad. He becomes Jekyll again and sees what he's done and freaks to the point that he burns the hell out of his lab, and runs into his lawyer, who has a pretty minor part in this until the end. His lawyer meets Hyde, wants to see Jekyll, and so Jekyll comes out and confesses about killing Lucy. He drinks the rest of his formula deal and looks in the mirror, hoping to beat Hyde out once and for all..."

Cara smiled softly, loving the irony and hidden meaning in the scene to which Aaron was referring. "But he sees Hyde when he looks in the mirror. He's devastated, and there's a really rowdy song called 'Confrontation' that A's been busting his ass with."

Aaron cracked a smile. "That's the one I almost lost my voice over the other night. Cal is absolutely determined to make that song work, because of the hidden meaning in the whole thing. Essentially I've got to play two people at once, and if I don't do it perfectly, everything is lost, you know?"

Nick nodded. "Yeah, I do know. It sounds like quite a moment." Truth to tell, he was in awe at how much the two knew about their characters and the storyline in general. They had gotten to the hearts of the people they were supposed to play, and he was sure that the results would be nothing less than incredible.

Cara sighed heavily. "So a month passes, Jekyll marries Lisa, and then Hyde shows up at the ceremony. Hyde almost kills Lisa, and so, instead of risking her life, Jekyll's lawyer is forced to kill Jekyll/Hyde."

"And I make my exit," Aaron finished with a laugh. "Not quite in a blaze of glory, mind you, but I think the point is pretty much made by the time the curtain closes."

"And that's the story?" Nick prompted, cocking his head to the side. He exhaled forcefully when Cara nodded.

"That's the story."

Nick shook his head and kept his widened eyes on the carpet beneath his feet. "And that's what you guys go and rehearse every day?"

Aaron nodded. "Yeah, that's kind of the idea."

Nick finally looked up, his stormy blue eyes meeting first Cara's soft brown pools, and then Aaron's chocolate-colored orbs. "How does that not drain you?"

Cara laughed. "I think A will agree that, a lot of the time, it does. But--and this is going to sound corny, so bear with me--as you play these people, you become them, and you kind of learn to love them."

"Sometimes," Aaron added. "I'd even go so far as to say that you're allowed to escape your own life, so it's all worth it in the end. I mean, if I had to live a life as Henry Jekyll and Edward Hyde, I'd go fucking nuts, but being in their shoes for at least eight hours a day gives you a chance to appreciate their situation."

Nick nodded slowly, trying to absorb all of the information at once. The story itself had amazed him, and he already had an enormous appreciation for the job his brother had acquired. "Yeah, I guess I can see that." He shook his head again, and Cara laughed.


Nick shrugged. "Just wow, I guess. It sounds like hard work, and that story is so...painful."

Cara smiled slowly. "We love it, which makes everything different. When you love something, it's not always work." She caught his gaze and her eyes bore into his. "I'm sure you can relate."

He gulped when he realized that he really couldn't relate. It scared him that he could no longer remember what it felt like to love his job, but he wasn't about to admit that to Cara. "Yeah."

Aaron laughed at the silence that had suddenly descended. "So, Nick, do you think you're any better for knowing the story of Jekyll & Hyde?"

Nick's raspy laugh was soft and broken. "Yeah, actually, I think I am."

"You mean you didn't know the story?!"

All three of the room's occupants looked up at the new voice, and Nick managed a small smile for Aaron's other roommate. "Nope."

Theresa let out a loud groan and dropped her bag on the floor with a thud. "Consider yourself fucking lucky, Pretty Boy, because, right now, I wish to HELL I didn't know it."

Aaron clucked his tongue. "Melodrama, anyone? Theresa's got enough to go around tonight..."

Theresa growled at him. "AC, I do NOT want to hear it. You've been to one of Cal's extra practices, and you know damn well how painful they can be."

Cara seemed much more sympathetic. "What happened, T?"

Theresa laughed bitterly. "Well, there won't be ANY more problems with 'Take Me As I Am' from now on. I think I'll be hearing that song in my sleep for the next hundred years."

Cara frowned. "That bad?"

Theresa arched an eyebrow in disbelief. "C, I sound like I scrubbed my vocal chords with sandpaper. Do you really need to ask?"

Nick flinched at the imagery. "Sounds like a shitty night."

Theresa rolled her eyes. "Yeah, least we got it right. I didn't think I was ever going to get out of there."

Aaron laughed. "I definitely know the feeling. He was the same way with me the other night."

Cara groaned. "Shit. That means that I'm next, doesn't it?"

Theresa chuckled hollowly. "If you are, I'd be glad to go for an ice cream excursion when you're done. You're going to need a hell of a lot more than a pick-me-up. Shit, you'd need a Backstreet Boy at your door with nothing but roses, a smile, and an offer to serenade you..."

As soon as the words were out of her mouth, her hand flew to cover it. For a moment, she'd been completely lost in familiar banter and unaware of Nick's presence. Of course, the silence that quickly followed was enough to make her all too aware of the fact that one of the Backstreet Boys--or what had been the Backstreet Boys--was sitting less than five feet away.

That particular ex-Backstreet Boy was just as stunned as Theresa had been. Theresa's comment had brought forth a thousand painful memories, and it was all he could do not to physically recoil as each one ran across his subconscious, causing his heart to thunder in his chest as his blood rushed in his ears. He hadn't thought about the Boys as the Boys in a long time, and he honestly preferred not to think about them. Every time they came up in conversation, he was shocked by how much the memories and the faces and the conversation and the broken brotherhood actually hurt. Remembering caused him physical pain, and he closed his eyes for a moment so he could forget again. Focus on the story, dammit. Remember the musical? Focus on Aaron. He may hurt, but he doesn't hurt near as much as this does...

"Shit, I'm sorry," Theresa's voice slipped into his darkness. "I wasn't thinking. It's been such a long day, and C and I used to joke about it, and..."

Nick finally opened his eyes and cracked a small, painful smile to reassure the blonde in front of him. "Hey, it's totally fine. No worries. Shit happens. I'm not breakable, you know. It happened years ago."

She smiled thankfully at him, and he knew immediately that she bought into his crap excuse. He could feel Cara's eyes on him, however, and he also knew that she didn't believe him for a minute. Damn her and that sixth sense...

"You're sure? I didn't do any major damage?" Theresa re-affirmed, and Nick sighed and pasted on the smile he had worn through a thousand press conferences.

"Not at all. I'm cool."

But, in reality, it was becoming painfully obvious to him that he wasn't "cool", and he hadn't been in a long time. He knew instinctively, even as he laughed and carried on with the other three that he was coming to befriend, that everything he'd tried so hard to forget was eventually going to catch up with him, and he wasn't anywhere near prepared for the effects.

Cara's laugh invaded his thoughts, though, and he turned his attention back to the conversation, falling into the ease of the facade. As long as he didn't let it bother him, it wouldn't bother him.

He sighed. Maybe, if he kept telling himself that it didn't bother him, he'd start to believe it. Of course, what really bothered him was that he knew better than to think he could ignore things forever. He knew better than to convince himself that the past would stay buried in the past. He knew better than to convince himself that he didn't really have to feel, and he could go on living the way he had been since his life came crashing down in front of him.

Even if he could go on believing that he didn't need to feel, though, he wouldn't be able to live the lie much longer. Because, truth to tell, he was really starting to miss his relationship with Aaron, the music that had helped so many people, and the absence of the pain his past caused.

Bottom line, he was really starting to miss himself.

* "Bring On The Men" - performed by Linda Eder, lyrics by Leslie Bricusse, music by Frank Wildhorn, from JEKYLL & HYDE