Comforting Lie
Chapter Twenty-Three
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

They barely had the door open when Aaron announced the end of the evening.

"I'm going to bed."

Theresa took a deep, calm, before-the-blow-up breath, but Cara erupted before Theresa had the chance to start screaming.

"Like hell you are. You're going to sit down and explain what the hell just happened onstage first."

Aaron turned a pair of tired, pleading brown eyes on his friend, but Cara wouldn't hear of it. He wasn't exactly surprised, either. Cara was a true Southern belle, and he could probably count on one hand the number of times he'd seen her angry enough to use two curse words in one breath. Deep down, he knew that the evening's last performance was something that needed further examination, but he didn't want to look into it. Didn't want to dig that far down, because digging that far down meant acknowledging how angry he was at Nick, and he wasn't ready to do that yet.

Cara, of course, was too angry to be cautious of breaking points.

"Absolutely not, A. I'm sorry you're tired. I know you want to go to bed. Hell, I want to go to bed too, but you just scared the shit out of me! I thought you were going to collapse on that stage, okay? You're a polished performer, and I was worried about whether or not you were going to finish the fucking number! There's no way you're going to bed without giving Theresa and I some type of explanation."

Aaron groaned and fell onto the couch in surrender, but Cara was hardly finished.

"Look, man, we live together here. I know things have been tense lately, but that's hardly an excuse. We can't afford to quit communicating a month before the show opens. Especially not when we've got your older brother here, living it up in our extra bedroom. Is this sinking in?"

Aaron lifted a tired hand to cover his grimace. "If I say yes, will you quit yelling at me?"

"Maybe she will," Theresa began, "but I won't. We're not going to sit here and watch you destroy yourself on his account, Aaron. I know he's being a shit, but it's so not worth this much of your energy."

The living room was silent for a moment before Aaron rand a hand through his hair in a motion frighteningly similar to his older brother's and sighed.

"You know what I don't understand?"

It was amazing how easily they fell together, how easily Cara crossed her legs and sat on the floor, how easily Theresa curled into the corduroy armchair. Cara tilted her head curiously to the side, and all of the angry words from her previous tantrum dissipated as she watched Aaron with obvious concern.

"What's that?"

"Why everything always has to be about Nick."

For a brief second, the girls exchanged looks because they'd known each other longer and didn't need words. Neither of them knew how to respond, but it didn't seem to matter, because Aaron continued without prompting in the same defeated tone.

"Because it's not. All about Nick, I mean. Me having a bad day doesn't always have to do with him and the way he reacts to me. Believe it or not, I haven't had a stable family for some time now, and that's okay with me. I've learned to live with it. I don't even really miss it, because I never had it." He paused long enough to lock gazes with Cara and Theresa in turn, oblivious to the way their hearts broke at the innocent tone of his voice. "You can't lose what you never had."

Cara spoke then, cleared her throat awkwardly and blinked back the tears that were threatening to surface. "You've got us, A."

His smile was almost as tired as the slump of his shoulders seemed to be. "I know. Really. I'm grateful for that, too, but...sometimes things don't fit together as well as I'd like. There's a lot of shit that no one ever bothered to deal with, and it gets to me sometimes. Something about that song...I can't explain it, man. Cal lectured me the other day about letting my frustration go, about singing it out, and I'm just so pissed off lately that I've got to learn to control how much I leak out at once." He stopped and furrowed his brow, glancing at his two best friends with obvious uncertainty. "Does that make any sense, or am I rambling?"

"No, it makes sense," Theresa answered quietly. "It's like that for me too sometimes. Things just get overwhelming, and it's like the second you let any small bit of it out, it suffocates you."

"You try to feed a stream and end up with a waterfall," Cara supplied with a smile, and Aaron laughed lightly.

"You and your southern phrases..."

Cara rolled her eyes. "Shut up."

"Seriously," he chuckled. "It's not a bad thing. And, yeah, something like that. A waterfall. It was just too much at once. And the theme...I mean, God. The world has gone insane? Could it parallel my life any more?"

Theresa sighed heavily. "It'll get better, A."

He laughed bitterly. "No. No, it won't, and that's the thing. I've been around long enough now to know that it gets a hell of a lot worse before it gets better, and I'm almost living in fear of what's going to come next. It's not just with Nick, either. The musical, us,'s just so much pressure to live under right now."

Cara adopted a concerned countenance. "Is it too much?"

Aaron groaned. "God, no. Have you met my mother? It's never too much. There's never too much going on. It's not too much until the whole family drops by for a visit and I've got to smile and pretend like we really are the next generation's Brady Bunch."

"That doesn't make it any easier, though," Theresa pointed out, and Aaron shrugged.

"Maybe not, but it's all I've got right now."

Cara frowned. "You make it sound so hopeless..."

"I know it's not," Aaron interrupted, dismissing the thought with a wave of his hand. "It just feels that way right now because I'm tired, and because singing that song tonight made me remember exactly how angry I am with the whole family situation right now."

"The whole Nick situation, you mean," Theresa interjected matter-of-factly, and Aaron groaned.

"That too." He paused for a moment before letting out a little laugh. "You want to hear something funny?"

Cara's expression was skeptical. "Is this ironic funny or 'ha-ha' funny?"

Theresa rolled her eyes skyward. "Think about it, C. Is Aaron really in a position to think of anything 'ha-ha' funny right now?"

Cara glared at Theresa long enough to make her point. "Anyway, Aaron...something funny."

His laugh was hollow. "I have a hard time calling him Nick. He's not anything like the Nick I remember. And even when he lapses and acts somewhat decently, he looks too different for me to call him Nick. He's just...I don't know. He's some other person standing in place of my older brother. He's a shit. The Nick Carter I knew was so not like this."

"You want to tell us what he was like?" Cara asked tentatively. Truth to tell, she wasn't really sure what to do anymore. Usually, she knew all the right words when it came to Aaron, but she was too close to the situation this time. Nick was her problem too, and while she understood Aaron's desperation, she had no way how to remedy it.

Aaron shook his head. "Not now. It'll just make me miss the old days that much more, frankly. Right now, I want to make dinner so we can go to sleep."

Theresa laughed. "You know, for the first time in a long time, I totally forgot about dinner."

"Then it must have been a stressful rehearsal," Cara cracked. The other two smiled slightly, grateful that one of them could maintain a sense of humor when they were completely spent.

"Glad to know you guys care so much," Aaron chuckled, nudging Cara in the process. In truth, he was only half-joking. Cara and Theresa had given him a sense of security that he couldn't remember having before his career.

She returned the nudge with a warm hug. "Always, dude. You know you can count on us."

Aaron turned to her with a semi-distressed expression. "I know. I really do appreciate it, too. I don't want you guys to think that I'm taking your presence for granted. I know I whine a lot about Nick, especially since he's gotten weird again, but I really am glad that I've got you guys around. It means more than you know."

Cara laughed genuinely. "We're glad to have you around too, kiddo. I know Terry doesn't say it too often, and I probably say it too much, but we love you. We're always gonna be here if you need us."

"Brother Backstreet won't be though," Theresa muttered angrily from inside the kitchen. "You guys might want to take a look at this."

Cara frowned in concern and made her way towards the kitchen quickly, but Aaron merely sighed in exasperation and trudged after her. He was past the point of worry. He couldn't pinpoint exactly when it had happened, but he'd become strangely indifferent to Nick's actions. The older man had put him through so much turmoil, so many ups and downs, that he had resigned himself to the fact that his relationship with his brother was always going to drift awkwardly between tense and nonexistent. It's just one thing after another these days. There's no reason to hope, because it's futile. If this stupid visit of his has convinced me of anything, it's that he's never, ever going to change. Things can't go back to the way they were.

Thankfully, Cara's fretful tone pulled him out of his pessimistic reverie. "T? What's going on?"

Instead of beginning her inevitable rant, Theresa thrust a piece of torn notebook paper in Cara's direction. The brunette retrieved it with a sigh and began to read. Aaron watched tiredly as Cara's inquisitive from quickly became a look of disgust.
Eventually, she handed the letter back to Theresa and Aaron expelled another sigh.

"What is it, guys?"

Cara, the calmer of the two, spoke first. "He's going to LA for the weekend."

"Good fucking riddance," Theresa spat, but Cara was quick to contradict.

"Not necessarily..."

Aaron rolled his eyes. "I knew this was going to happen."

Both girls looked up in obvious confusion. "What?"

Aaron groaned and plopped onto one of the kitchen chairs. "He's running, man. He's sick of everyone nagging him, and so he's going off to party and be an ass where no one can call him on it."

"How responsible," Theresa retorted, and Aaron shrugged indifferently.

"You can't tell me you're surprised."

"Well, no, but..." Theresa paused. "Wait. How did you know he was going to jet?"

Aaron cracked an ironic smile. "I'm related to the guy, remember? I've been dealing with Nick the shit for awhile now, and his patterns of immaturity are fairly predictable."

Theresa opened her mouth to say something else, but Cara cut her off with a shake of her head.

"Then there's no reason to discuss it, right?"

Aaron's relief was palpable. "Exactly. What are our dinner options?"

Cara buried her head in the pantry to hide the tears that had begun to blur her vision. Regardless of how familiar she became with the Carter brothers and their warped relationship, she couldn't help but hurt for Aaron.

"Spaghetti or Hamburger Helper."

"I vote the latter," Theresa chimed in finally. "We need the protein, and it's a lot faster than spaghetti."

"In that case," Aaron began, removing himself from the chair with obvious difficulty, "I'll go ahead and defrost the meat."

As soon as his back was turned, Theresa and Cara exchanged a look that dictated they talk later. They continued to boil water and brown beef with a casual--albeit slightly exhausted--disposition, but as soon as Aaron closed the door to his bedroom and retired for the evening, the two women dropped all facades and exchanged grave expressions.

"So this isn't getting any better," Theresa began, and Cara shook her head.

"Definitely not. The good news is that it seems like Aaron's reached a point where he doesn't care."

Theresa sighed. "C, I don't think it's that he doesn't care."

"More that he can't afford to care," Cara finished. "Shit, T, did you see his performance tonight? Cal managed to laugh it off pretty nicely, but that kind of emotional abandon is dangerous. He wasn't kidding when he said Aaron's going to kill himself if he keeps performing like that."

Theresa groaned. "I know. Watching him tonight made me hurt."

"You and me both," Cara countered. "As brilliant as it was, it was also really freaking painful."

Theresa sighed. "Makes me wonder what kind of shit he's carrying around that we don't know about, that's for sure."

Cara sighed in turn and glanced sadly up at her friend. "Honestly, T? I think he's a lot more worried about this performance that he cares to admit. We've talked a few times about the musical, and Aaron's really worried about how he's going to come off to the audience. For the first time, I think he's found music that he can really put his heart and soul into, and he's freaking out. He wants it to be perfect. I think he wants to prove to everybody that he's matured a great deal from the old days."

"Of course, he's so focused on proving himself that he can't see that everyone's already amazed by his transformation," Theresa intoned. "I mean, hell, I thought he was going to be a joke when I found out that he was taking the lead in this thing."

Cara cracked a small smile. "Yeah, I did too. He certainly proved us wrong, though."

"No shit. He was a pompous little prick when he first moved in, but the kid can definitely sing. Even in the beginning, I was impressed."

Cara's voice was soft with nostalgia. "I think we all were. Deep down, he's an old soul."

"And quickly getting older," Theresa added with a sigh. "Nick's certainly not helping him retain any of that innocence that a kid his age deserves."

Cara nodded her agreement. "What little the business left him with has definitely dissipated with Nick around."

Theresa sighed more heavily. "You think there's anything we can do to help?"

Cara shook her head with a sad smile. "I think there are some things Aaron's going to have to figure out for himself. It sucks to watch him do it, but he'll be better off in the end."

Theresa snorted. "I hope you're right, chick."

"Honestly?" Cara laughed. "Me too."