Comforting Lie
Chapter Eighteen
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

Within moments, the brisk air of the city vanished in a whirl of flashing lights and loud music. A heavy bass pounded in his ears and against his chest, and a sultry heat suppressed the goosebumps on his arms. As the doors closed behind him and the horns and hollers of the city faded to black, the smell of alcohol and sweat assaulted his senses and the club surrounded him hungrily.

It took him under ten seconds to remember exactly how much he enjoyed the feeling of being surrounded by people who were just as screwed up as he was.

That thought, however--the one of the people and their faults, and how their faults related so closely to his faults--sent him straight to the bar, and he cut through the crowd swiftly with one intention.

"Jack Daniels," he told the bartender brusquely. The name had been on his lips all evening, and he couldn't wait to forget why he'd shown up at the club in the first place. Within moments, a glass of Jack appeared on the table, and he downed it in one gulp before motioning to the bartender for a refill.

So here we are again. Back at square one. Just you and Jack and lots of pretty ladies. It's a shame AJ isn't here. It'd be just like old times.

Old times. He sucked in a breath at the thought.

Shit. That calls for another glass.

He glanced at his watch with a smirk and mentally shook his head at himself. Three drinks in under five minutes. He had the feeling that that was some kind of record, somewhere. Of course, he also had the feeling that he'd beat that record before the week was out. He'd been coming to a different bar every night in hopes of drowning his sorrows and unwelcome memories in a drink or two, and he hadn't yet been successful.

He certainly wasn't through trying, though.

"Make the next one a shot of tequila if you would, please," he called to the bartender. Last night, he'd come to meet a few girls and get laid. Mission now accomplished, he's altered his plans a bit for this particular evening. He was going to get completely and totally smashed. In his mind's eye, he deserved it. After all, it's been one hell of a week. Trying to be perfect, letting everyone down--again. Dammit, I'm getting really good at disappointing people. Wonder if I could turn it into a sport. Maybe they give you an award for fucking up more than anyone else in the world.

He allowed himself a heavy sigh and surveyed the dance floor with cool detachment, looking for an excuse to leave the bar, if only for a moment.

Well, maybe not ANYONE else. There's always Michael Jackson. Or OJ Simpson. Of course, they forgave OJ.

Shit, that calls for another drink.

He whisked the tequila shot off the bar and tossed it back quickly. He didn't even feel it burn his throat as it went down. Shouldn't be a surprise, though. I'm numb. And I'm a fuck-up.

Back at fucking square one indeed.

After the second shot of tequila settled in his system, he decided he'd had enough temporary anesthesia. He wasn't necessarily looking for a woman that evening--not that he'd find a woman in this place anyway--but he wasn't looking to stand around by the bar all night either. He was already starting to feel a buzz, and he figured that he'd make the best of it by finding himself a pretty girl to dance with in between drinks and dramatics.

Somehow, he figured that he'd be much better with the dramatics than with the drinks.

He shook his head at himself and moved through the crowd to get a feel for the music. Somehow, an old Eminem track had ended up on the turntables, and everyone in the room was bumping and grinding to the MC's smooth beats and witty lyrics. He began to mouth the words with Eminem as he kept a watch for a girl to sew to his side for the night. Almost immediately, he caught sight of a pretty blonde that reminded him a lot of Theresa.

Shit. Do I steer clear or jump in? I mean, hell, if she looks familiar, maybe I'll be able to let loose and have a good time.

Regardless of how long it had been since he'd had to watch out for himself in a crowd, he still hadn't gotten used to making cheerful chitchat with complete and total strangers. He was always suspicious of people, and he didn't trust himself when he was under the influence.

Hell, maybe that's the problem. I just shouldn't trust myself at all. I mean, look at how much I've managed to fuck up Aaron's life.

He winced at that thought and groaned. He had promised himself that he wasn't going to think about Aaron or the girls or the apartment that he had referred to as "home" only five days ago. It wasn't worth fretting over when he had his pick of the ladies and a bar full of beer waiting to absolve him.

He snuck up behind the blonde he'd spotted earlier and began to grind his hips against her butt, finding a rhythm almost immediately. Feeling him behind her, she pushed her backside closer to him, and they began to dance in the primal way that he was most used to. She was a tease, and his hands found her hips soon enough that she was pressed against him by the end of the song.

God, I hate my life.

"Hey, babe."

And there it went. Her voice in his ear, her hands on the back of his neck. When he looked down at her, he realized that she was facing him, and her emerald eyes burned into his gray depths.

"What's your name?"

Her hand on his crotch reduced his voice to a raspy breath. "Nick. You?"

The left corner of her mouth curled in a smirk. "Esmerelda. You like to dance?"

He gulped as she fondled him. "Sometimes."

"But you'd rather get sloshed first, am I right?" The twinkle in her eye allowed that she was kidding, but he couldn't muster a smile. She'd hit him directly.

"You got me," he admitted.

"In more ways than one, it seems," she chuckled, a throaty laugh that came as she eyed the area below his waist, where her hand was wandering freely.

"So it seems," he agreed. The alcohol was beginning to loosen his tongue, and he reached up to grope her breast through the thin silk of her camisole. "But things aren't always what they seem."

The other corner of her mouth rose to meet the first, and she appeared to be grinning coyly at him. "Then we're even, aren't we?" She winked at him and reached her hand back, grapping a generous amount of his but and rolling it around in her hand. "I like you. And I love this song. Shall we dance?"

His mind was screaming for a drink, but other unseen areas were screaming for more of her touch, so he stayed firmly planted. "Hell, yes." His large hands found the curves in her waist, and the two of them proceeded to grind as 50 Cent's old school hit "In Da Club" pounded through the speakers. He knew conversation was over at that point, but he couldn't help initiating further discussion.

"They seem to be pretty fond of hip-hop tonight, don't they?"

The blonde beneath him shrugged as her thigh pressed against his. "I'm not complaining. This is the kind of music that I prefer to dance to."

He arched an eyebrow. "Oh?"

She nodded. "Definitely. I like to get close to my men."

He wanted to retort, but he wasn't drunk enough yet to remember how to flirt correctly. It had been too long and he'd grown too cold to let loose in the ways necessary to make the girl between his legs melt the way that he knew she wanted to. Thankfully, the song ended without any further talk between the two of them, and a slow ballad replaced it. The dancers on the floor broke into pairs, and he took the opportunity to grab her hand and lean over, knowing that the cologne would do what his wit and his voice couldn't anymore. "I'm not much for the mushy love songs. You want to go grab a drink?"

She grinned sexily at him. "Sounds like a plan. I'm not much for the ballads either."

He chuckled. "Can't get close enough to your men?"

She laughed with him. "Something like that. That, and a ballad is like the off switch for every really good erection."

At the blunt nature of her words, he sucked in a breath. Thankfully, they had reached the bar already and he had no need to reply. He laid a hand on the bar and the bartender appeared.

"What can I get you, man?"

"Scotch on the rocks," he intoned before turning to his new date. "You?"

She licked her lips slowly and pretended to mull over the matter for a moment. "Screaming orgasm."

Nick gulped.

Apparently, she sensed his surprise, because her voice was in his ear again. "Look, honey, you need to relax. You've been uptight since your hips hit my ass. Now, either you can order a bottle of tequila and finish it by the time this song is over so we can REALLY dance, or you can tell me what's up with you." She let that sink in before pulling back. "I swear I'm a good listener. 'Sides, you never know--I might be able to take care of you."

I'm sure you could. "Look, it's nothing. Family shit. I'm trying to forget about it and get on with life, but they're making it hard."

She nodded. "Can't take you for you?"

He rolled his eyes. "Can't take me for anything but perfect." The drinks arrived then, and he took the opportunity to drown himself a bit. "It's just the basic bullshit."

"Sounds like a blast."

"Yeah, well..." He shrugged. "That's life, right? You've got the people there to screw you over and the people who want to help, but end up screwing you over anyway."

She shook her head. "Listen--Nick, was it? You might need that bottle of tequila anyway."

He shrugged, but ordered another shot to calm his already racing nerves. "So what about you? What brings you here on a weeknight?"

She laughed. "Just the usual. Sex, drugs, money, merriment. Spending the evening sober, though. I've got a shitload of work to do tomorrow."

He frowned. "What do you do?"

She laughed lightly and sipped at her drink. "I run the backroom of an adult video parlor. How about you, Cowboy?"

He sighed and gulped back another shot of tequila. "Work in a recording studio."

She arched a curious eyebrow. "Yeah? You sing?"

He nearly spit out his drink with the force of his laughter. At that point, he was buzzed enough that his past didn't matter. "Hell no. I mess around with the board and make other people sound good."

She rolled her eyes. "So I've got you to blame for disasters like Britney Spears?"

He shrugged. "Yeah, I guess you could say that."

She cast a reproachful glance in his direction. "I'm not so sure I want to dance with you anymore, man."

He held up his empty glass. "Drink with me, then? It's not good for a fellow to get wasted alone. I might end up spilling my life story to the bartender, and how cliché would that be?"

She chuckled. "Well, if it ended in sex, it'd be cliché enough for me to file your video away within the next few months."

He winced. "Something tells me I'd rather stay off your shelves."

"Might be better for your reputation."

He laughed bitterly. "Nah, I think it might actually add to it. One more way in which I've managed to fuck up my life."

She raised her glass to him. "Here, here. Dammit, if that ain't the story of us all..."

He shook his head. "It's hopeless, I'm telling you. There's no way to get out of it. Some of us were just made to fuck up."

She nodded her agreement. "No shit."

He sighed heavily. "See, I wish everyone else could just accept that as opposed to waiting for perfection to dawn."

"Accept that we're a world full of fuck-ups?"

"Yeah, sure. I mean, hell, I spent the past week trying to please everyone, and it just isn't working."

Esmerelda waved at the bartender for another drink and arched a curious eyebrow. "It isn't working for them, or it isn't working for you?"

Nick smiled demurely. The chick was, ironically, rather intelligent for someone who spent every night on a dance floor half-dressed. "Not for me. I know the way they see me, and I know the way I see myself, and things just don't match up, you know?"

Esmerelda's laugh was bitter. "Hell, yes, I know. My 'rents are the same way. To them, I'm just an angel with crooked wings. Not exactly a bad image, but definitely not an image for a bad girl." She paused to drain her screaming orgasm before smiling seductively in his direction. "And I'm a bad, bad girl."

He returned her smile with one of his own, grateful for the alcohol and its effect on his nerves. "Doesn't surprise me in the slightest. You look like a bad girl."

She smirked at him. "And if you knew me better, you'd agree that I taste like one too."

Not even the alcohol was enough to keep him from gulping. "So, do you come here often?"

She nodded. "Every night. Like you said, it's a place to be me. I don't have to bullshit people here, because they aren't looking for perfection." She paused and glanced expectantly at her companion. "I take it you understand."

Nick nodded. "Definitely. I've never been here before, but it seems like a nice place to take a break, and I damn well needed one."
She looked up with obvious interest. "Really? You got the problem with the parents too?"

He shook his head. "No, it's my brother and his fucking female roommates. He's never had a problem in his life, and the girls that he lives with are squeaky clean. Needless to say, they spend the majority of their time with me staring me down and wondering what the hell went wrong."

Her seductive smirk returned, and he had the sudden urge to order another drink as she licked her lips before answering. "Sounds hauntingly familiar." The words were followed immediately by a glance at her watch, at which point she gave a loud groan. "Fuck, I'm gonna be late. Listen, meet me back here at this same time tomorrow night, and I'll see if I can't get you something to make you forget your brother and his hellish roommates, okay?"

He nodded, gulping down the last of another glass of Jack Daniels. Esmerelda's face was beginning to blur together, but he gave her a nod nonetheless. "Definitely."

"Great. Gotta jet." She stood and began to walk away, but glanced over her shoulder once more. "I expect to see you tomorrow, Nick."

He smiled a coy smile of his own. "Oh, I'll be here."

"And I'll be waiting. Trust me, you'll get a night you won't soon forget."

With that, she was gone, and he was forced to watch as the room began to spin before his eyes.

*      *      *      *      *

"I know you, don't I?"

A deep breath and a sinister smile met the damsel's look of confusion.

After tonight, my little love
You will never forget me
I am destined to be your guardian angel
Your guide to salvation
In this world of madness

A gentle frown met a devilish grin, and the game continued, a chase as old as existence--that of the hunter and the hunted.

"So what's yer name, then, sweet'eart?"

"Hyde...Edward Hyde."

A toast to the night!
A toast to romance!
To those unafraid
Of taking a chance

The gentle frown turned thoughtful, and the devilish grin became a look of pure, unchallenged evil.

I must admit that I like your approach
It's one that I've not seen before

A dastardly deep chuckle preceded the next bit of song in the conversation.

Why should you settle for less, dear
When there's more?

Cara shook her head and flopped onto the couch. "No. No way in hell is that going to fly. You can't look at me like you're going to eat me Aaron, or I swear to God, I'm going to ruin the whole thing and burst out laughing."

Aaron's bottom lip rolled out in an impossibly familiar pout. "But I'm trying to be sinister!"

Cara's response was deadpan. "You failed, man."

He folded his arms in a huff reminiscent of VH1's finest divas. "You just don't appreciate my skills!"

Cara gave him a pointed look. "I think I might appreciate it more if you didn't make me crack up. The second I laugh, I look like a masochist, okay? It's like I get a kick out of having strange-looking men with long, frizzy hair and demented grins harass me."

"But he's not really harassing you yet," Aaron pointed out. "I mean, technically, he's just meeting you right now."

"Regardless, you need to forget the grin of the madman act. You're not Dr. Frankenstein insane. You're more sadistic."

Aaron nodded, finally accepting the criticism. "Okay, I'll work on it. You can't be so afraid, though. I mean, I know it sounds bad, but there's no way in hell Lucy would end up with this guy if she weren't fearless and a tiny bit masochistic, you know?"

Cara grimaced at the thought, but took the words under consideration nonetheless. "Yeah, I know."

Aaron grinned. "Good, so we're set, then. You want to take it from the top, or do you want to just pick up where we let off?"

Cara laughed and stood up, getting into position so that the practice would actually benefit Aaron and her for the next day. "You can pick up where you left off, Hyde."

Aaron nodded and took a breath, resuming his hauntingly evil expression.

I am the man fate has decreed
Destined to be all that you need
I can give you everything you desire
You can give me all I need

Cara stared thoughtfully at the ceiling before dropping her sultry gaze to Aaron and giving a curt nod.

Sounds like a nice bit of business
Yes, indeed

Aaron began circling her with calculated steps, but stopped just behind her to belt his next few lines, still in character.

I am the man
Mark my words well
With whom you'll share
Heaven or hell

Gradually, Cara's expression changed from sultry and seductive to amused as she brought a hand to her throat and turned to face Aaron in all of his evil glory.

Heaven, I fancy, has no place for me
And I can find hell on my own

Aaron looked hungrily at her with an evil glint in his eye and reached up to stroke her cheek.

Like it or not, you will never be alone!
After tonight, you will never be alone *

"Ooh, I'm scared," Cara taunted, pretending to tremble. "Don't hurt me, Mr. Hyde."

Aaron feigned confusion and disbelief. "Oh, but Lucy...if I don't hurt you, how are you going to get to your precious Jekyll? How are we going to get you out of the show? We can't have your part going on forever, now, can we?"

Cara put her hands on her hips and arched an eyebrow doubtfully in Aaron's direction. "You die too, you know. It's not like you get to see the end of the thing either."

"Ah," Aaron laughed. "But, see, I get a few more songs before I die. I have more stage time."

"Only so you can turn schizophrenic and start beating yourself up with your own fists."

Aaron shook his head sadly. "Oh, forgot beating my vocal chords up! How could you?"

"Man, I'll tell you what," Cara began, a mischievous glint in her eye. "You beat my eardrums up when you sing 'Confrontation'. That song is lethal."

"HEY! Quit hating! You're just jealous because I get the coolest role."

Cara chuckled. "You may get the coolest role, but I get all of the coolest songs."

Aaron gave her a breadbox look. "Hello? 'Alive'? Need I say more?"

Cara rolled her eyes in perfect imitation of Aaron. "Hello? `A New Life'? Need I say more?"

Aaron shook his head. "No way can you defend having the coolest songs with that title. It's great, beautiful, awesome, sure, but you die right freaking after it!"

Cara grinned wickedly. "And I'm the jealous one? I seem to detect some bitterness here, A. Are you mad because I've got the hottest role, the hottest songs, AND the hottest death scene?"

Aaron's voice was monotone as he responded. "Oh, yes, Cara. Because we all aspire to be a whore with a dramatic ballad and a psycho who stabs her."

Cara tossed a friendly arm over his shoulder, knowing that all of their banter was indeed in jest. "Keep in mind, dear Aaron, that you ARE the psycho who stabs her."

"I do. I do keep it in mind. And I treasure it," he wailed, breaking down into a wave of false tears. "I treasure it so much!"

Theresa stepped out of her room with a skeptical frown etched into her sharpened features. "I thought you two were supposed to be rehearsing?"

"We are!" Cara grinned. "But we're done now, so we're just clearing a few things up between the two of us."

Aaron took up Cara's cue and tousled her hair. "Yeah, just the two of us. You know, the psychopath and the whore."

Theresa's curious gaze shifted to Aaron. "Did you eat one too many sugar cubes again?"

Cara shook her head. "Nope. I made sure. Besides, he only does that after we watch Beavis & Butthead Do America."

At that point, even Theresa cracked a smile. "Right. My bad. I knew there was a reason we hid that videotape..."

Cara returned the grin warmly, despite Aaron's pout. "So, what's up with you? You were holed up in that room for quite some time, you know..."

Theresa wrinkled her nose in distaste. "Weekly phone call to the 'rents."

Cara's grin immediately turned sympathetic. "Ick. How'd it go?"

Theresa shrugged indifferently. "Eh, the usual. It went. Mom's still suspicious as to whether or not I've really got my life together, and Dad just wants to know what's going on with the musical and whether or not I've visited any pubs lately. They both asked how much money I've spent in the last week. It's just the usual absence of faith. I am the daughter that screwed up, and they haven't forgotten it yet."

Cara frowned. "No mention of the little sister, then?"

Theresa's smile was nothing if not bitter. "Not at all. I'm the oldest, so all of Tracy's problems automatically become my fault. She's not a punk of her own accord--she's a brat because I somehow brushed off on her and cursed her promising future."

Aaron rolled his eyes. "T, that's complete and total bullshit."

Theresa shrugged. "Yeah, well, try telling that to my parents. They may not live together, but they certainly agree that I've fucked up their lives for good."

Cara arched an eyebrow doubtfully. "I take it that the messy divorce and your father's criminal charges held no leverage concerning your outcome?"

Theresa's smile grew sarcastic. "Of course not! Besides, as he tells it, laundering money is white collar crime, and hardly as despicable as a college-age drug addiction."

"But you're clean now!"

Theresa sighed. "According to them, it won't last."

Aaron's countenance was stern. "Fuck them, then. What do they know anyway? It's not like they made an effort to bring you up in a proper household."

That statement was definitely true. Out of the three roommates, Theresa had the most difficult relatives to deal with--and thus the most unpleasant of pasts. She had grown up in Memphis, Tennessee, only a block from Cara. Their households, however, were as different as night and day. Whereas Cara's parents were happily married and had been for twenty-five years, Theresa's parents had been more than happy to divorce once her mother was pregnant with her younger sister. Unfortunately, the court battle for custody lasted throughout the pregnancy, and it wasn't until a bit after the baby came that Theresa's father was able to claim that her mother was insane and thus gain custody of the two girls. He had kept them for three years in the house of their childhood, but his absence had made the years rather drab for Theresa. At the end of three years, however, her father was arrested and taken into custody for stealing money from his company, and Theresa and her younger sister Tracy were forced to live with their mother. She spent the remainder of her school years in a tiny apartment with her mother and sister, with whom she had never really been able to find a common ground. Upon entering her freshman year in high school, she also entered the party scene, and by college, she was a full-fledged alcoholic. College served to free her from the bonds of Tennessee by bringing her to New York University and the city, where she learned to replace alcohol with ecstasy and cocaine. By sophomore year, Theresa had exhausted all resources and all faith and was forced to enter a rehabilitation clinic. She'd kept the remainder of her college years fairly sober, but her parents still hadn't forgiven her for her stint in the drug clinic.

"Yeah, but it's not like I made an effort to cope with that kind of childhood either."

Cara sighed. "That's not true. You made an effort to cope--you just chose the wrong substance to help you."

Theresa shrugged again, already tired of the situation. She had come to accept long ago that her family life would never be as healthy as the home she had found with Aaron and Cara, and she knew that she was better off ignoring the predicament. "Well, whatever it was, it made enough of an impression that they're still on my back about it. I'm used to it, but I still hate talking to them."

Aaron nodded his understanding, thinking of the problems that still existed in his family. "That's understandable. They've never really sounded like pleasant people."

"That, and it's frustrating that the situation with them never seems to get better," Theresa added. "I mean, no matter how hard I try to make amends, they're never going to forgive me."

Cara frowned. "You'd think that, given the way they treat you, they'd have reservations about Tracy's behavior as well."

Theresa shook her head with a bitter laugh. "Honestly? I think they've given up. Neither one of them ever was especially good about communicating with us."

Cara smiled ruefully. "Yeah, I remember." Her expression turned curious just as quickly, though, and she leveled an inquisitive eye on Theresa. "When did you last talk to Tracy?"

Theresa groaned and dropped her face in her hands. "Too long ago. It bugs me too much. I'd like to help her, but I know that she's got to make mistakes to figure this shit out for herself. It's like I can see her going down the path that I tripped down, and I know that she's screwing herself up, but there's nothing that I can do to stop it."

Cara sighed. "There wasn't anything we could do to stop you either."

Theresa nodded, but directed a grateful smile at Cara before responding. "Yeah, I know. And it's just my luck that she'd fit in my footsteps, right?"

Cara laughed. "You're her role model, I guess. I mean, hell, you're the only one in your family that she ever bothered to talk to about anything."

Theresa groaned. "She picked one hell of a role model. I haven't exactly been the best example."

Aaron shook his head vehemently in disagreement. "Yeah, you have. You cleaned yourself up, T, and you got your life back together. You're about to star in a Broadway musical, for God's sake! Hell, you're your own E! Success Story! Tracy has it a lot better than I do. My role model is still knee-deep in bullshit and conflict."

Both girls shot sympathetic glances in Aaron's direction, but as always (or as it usually happened where Aaron was concerned), Cara spoke first.

"A, I really am sorry about Nick's sudden change of heart."

Aaron shrugged. "Yeah, well, so am I. It's like Terry said, though. There's nothing I can do to stop it, and that's what sucks the most."

"You just get to watch the destruction run its course, right?" Theresa intoned. "Yeah, that part does suck the most."

Cara cast a knowing glance in Theresa's direction. "Yeah, tell me about it."

Theresa gave her a small, pleading smile. "You know, for what it's worth, I really am sorry I put you through all of that."

Cara winked at her. "Hey, that's what friends are for. Besides, I'm really proud of the way you ended up."

Theresa laughed. "Me too. Regardless of what the 'rents think about things, I know I've changed. It doesn't make them any more bearable, granted, but it does help me keep things in perspective when they hand me the one-way ticket on the infamous guilt trip."

Aaron sighed. "I hope I'll get to be proud of Nick some day."

Cara wrapped an arm around his shoulder for one of her famous southern hugs. "You know, A, for what it's worth, I hope so too. I think we all do."

Before the three roommates could continue their bonding session, the door to the apartment swung open, and a very tall, very inebriated blonde staggered in with a goofy smile and a tousled head of hair.

"Hey, people!"

At first glance, it would've been difficult for a spectator to judge whether Cara or Aaron was more disgusted by the tall figure that was suddenly swaying back and forth in the middle of the room. Aaron's frown was lethal, but Cara's kind smile had turned to stone within mere seconds of Nick's arrival. Theresa, however, remained safely neutral, staring between Aaron and Cara and silently wondering which one of them was going to blow up first. She hadn't ever expected anything from Nick, but it was obvious that Cara and Aaron had, and she knew by the angry countenances they were sporting that they wouldn't hesitate to tell him exactly how short he had fallen of their expectations.

Surprisingly, Aaron spoke first.

"Well, you look like you had fun."

It was bitter and it was full of pent-up rage, but Nick didn't seem to notice. Instead, he grinned in Aaron's general direction and nodded his head enthusiastically.

"Aw, hell yeah. It was great, man. I can't even..." He stopped and waved his arms out to gain balance, as the force of his nodding had almost knocked him over.

Cara arched a rather annoyed eyebrow. "Can you even see straight?"

Nick laughed gleefully. "Nup! But that's the point, right? Can't see nothing, don't feel nothing..."

"Can't do nothing right..." Aaron continued, his tone colder than Theresa could ever remember. Her eyebrows rose in surprise at seeing Aaron so angry, but Cara didn't even blink. The two girls shared a silent glance, and Theresa realized that Aaron's anger went far beyond Nick getting drunk.

Nick's smile faded, and he stumbled forward and squinted in Aaron's direction. "What the hell's tha sposed to mean?"

Aaron rolled his eyes. "To you? Probably nothing. To me? To me, Nick, it means that you're no different than you were four years ago. You still don't know when to stop, and you still don't notice when you're hurting the people around you."

He couldn't see Aaron very clearly, but he could hear him, and he didn't necessarily like the memories that Aaron's words brought to the surface. "Bullshit."

Aaron shook his head. "Yeah, that's right, Nick. Bullshit. You should know it. Hell, you're full of it. And I've dealt with it for a long time and, quite frankly, I'm sick of it. What exactly do you think you solve by coming home piss drunk every night?"

Somehow, despite the feelings that were swirling so quickly in his head that he was sick to his stomach, he managed to form a coherent answer. "You wouldn't understand."

Aaron threw his arms up in exasperation. "Of course not! Why the hell would I understand? I mean, shit, I'm only your younger brother. I've only known you for my whole life. Why in the hell would I understand something as close to me as your character, right?" He narrowed his eyes in Nick's direction and jabbed his index finger pointedly in the air. "I tell you what, Nick. Right now, you're right. I don't understand you. At this point, I'm not sure I want to. There's nothing enticing to me about a boy who drowns himself in liquor because he can't face himself."

Nick's trembling fists clenched at his sides, and he blinked repeatedly to try and get a good grip on his surroundings. He had drunk enough that night to sink a small ship, but Aaron's words had hit something behind the alcoholic fog, and he was suddenly angrier than he had been in a long time. There was too much truth to what Aaron was saying, and he was in no condition to listen to it.


"Why?" Aaron snapped, venom dripping from the word. "Because I'm right?"

"Because you don't know what the hell you're talking about, that's why!"

Aaron groaned. "Dammit, Nick! Cara wants to help you. T wants to help you. I really want to help you. However, it's extremely hard to help you when you refuse to help yourself!"

Nick's lip curled in a sneer. "I never asked for your fucking help!"

Aaron chortled. "Yeah, well you sure as hell need it."

Nick shook his head from side to side, holding his arms out for balance. "No, Aaron, that's where you're wrong. Because I don't need your fucking help, and I don't need you."

With that, he swaggered toward his bedroom door, fiddling with the doorknob for a minute before opening the door. Despite his drunkenness, he did manage a dramatic exit, and it was moments before the echoes of the door slam settled.

"Well," Aaron breathed, flopping onto the couch with a weary countenance. "That went well."

For a moment, neither Cara nor Theresa was sure what to say to remedy the situation. Neither one of them had seen the argument coming, but it didn't seem as though anyone could erase the tension. The two girls exchanged worried glances before Cara finally gathered enough courage to speak. She joined Aaron on the couch and cast a sympathetic look in his direction.

"A, I'm sorry. I...It's not about you. He's just screwed up right now, and he's not really sure how to deal with it."

Theresa nodded her agreement. "For what it's worth, Air, he really had no right to take his frustration out on you. I know you're concerned, and you have every right to be. He's just not thinking clearly right now."

Aaron grimaced. "Yeah, no shit."

Cara, unable to think of anything else that would be remotely helpful, wrapped an arm around her friend and resorted to her first tactic. "I'm really sorry, A."

He gave her a sad smile. "I'm sorry too, C. Sorry for me, sorry for the two of you, and sorry for that stupid fight. Most of all, though, I'm sorry for Nick."

It wasn't until Aaron was buried deep beneath his covers that evening, though, that he acknowledged exactly how sorry he was.

* "Lucy Meets Hyde" - performed by Linda Eder and Anthony Warlow, music by Frank Wildhorn, lyrics by Leslie Bricusse on album JEKYLL & HYDE