Comforting Lie
Chapter Twenty-Nine
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

When they finally unlocked the door to the apartment, it was almost midnight. All of the lights were out, save for the tiny bulb over the sink in the kitchenette. In fact, it was so dark that both Cara and Theresa tripped over the rug on their way inside. Cara managed to recover unscathed. Theresa, however, dropped her cell phone when she stumbled, causing it to clatter loudly against the floor. "Shit!"

Cara rolled her eyes and turned around. "Theresa, shush. The phone made enough noise without you yelling after it."

"Do you think Aaron's awake?"

Cara sighed heavily and set her purse and coat on the chair next to her. "No, but he will be soon if you keep making that kind of racket."

Theresa flinched. "Okay, point made. Do you see the older Carter anywhere?"

Cara, having already opened the door to Nick's bedroom, was one step ahead of Theresa. "Well, he hasn't been in his room--it's still clean. Maybe he passed out on the floor somewhere?"

Theresa sighed heavily. "Yeah, I'll go check under the sofa."

Cara bit her lip to keep from laughing. "I don't think he'd fit under there, hon. Not even you and I fit under there."

"Again, good point. Do you want to wait up and intercept him or just head to bed?

Cara sighed. "Honestly? I'd really like to just go to sleep. I'm exhausted, and we've got rehearsal tomorrow. I don't want to be dead on my feet."

Theresa rolled her eyes. "It's not like we haven't been for the past month."

"Yeah, but I'm really tired. I managed to stay awake through the whole movie. I deserve a good night's rest."

Theresa arched a skeptical eyebrow. "Are you kidding me? Babe, we just had the pleasure of watching Johnny Depp in living color for two hours. Had you fallen asleep, I would've kicked your ass."

Cara chuckled. "I probably would've kicked my own ass. He's way too pretty to ignore."

"Amen. I don't care how old the man gets. He will always be DAMN sexy."

"Even in dreads and eyeliner," Cara agreed, "and that's impressive."

"You're telling me. Of course, he looks equally as sexy on a boat with a guitar. Did you see the man in Chocolat?"

Cara winced. "No more talk of boys and guitars. You're going to make me feel lonely."

Theresa groaned. "How can you feel lonely? We're living with a retired pop star and a cranky ex-Backstreet Boy."

"Yeah, you're right. Why be lonely when you can torment yourself with the presence of former teen idols?"

"You just wait," Theresa chuckled. "The second that musical opens, Aaron's going to have girls following him around again. This time, they might even be legal."

"And won't he just love that?"

"Definitely," Theresa finished with a grin. "After all, what guy wouldn't want a bunch of screaming girls chasing him down the street every day?"

"The same guy that values his hearing, for one," Cara countered with a sigh. "Okay, I seriously need to go to bed. As much as I love talking about how pretty Aaron and Johnny Depp are, I'd really rather be dreaming about them right now."

"You and me both, babe," Theresa agreed. "But could you really have dreams about Aaron? I mean...he's Aaron."

Cara winked at her jokingly. "He's still pretty."

"Not pretty enough to dream about..."

Cara rolled her eyes in annoyance. "At this rate, I'll just have lots of nightmares about his cretin of an older brother."

At the mention of Nick, Theresa dropped her purse against the couch and sighed heavily. "Do you really think he'll be out all night partying?"

"Most likely. Where the hell else would he be?"

Theresa shrugged. "And you're sure we shouldn't wait up?"

"You can wait up," Cara mumbled. "I'm going to bed. I've had a productive evening. It's time for sleep now."

"Going to deal with Carter in the morning?"

Cara groaned at the thought of another one-on-one with Nick. "We'll see how many nightmares I have."

*      *      *      *      *

He awoke with a start.

Night had fallen quickly, and the absence of light in the room made it difficult to see. To make matters worse, his head was pounding and his throat was dry. With a heavy sigh, he reached a hand up to his face and began rubbing at his eyes in an attempt to focus. He couldn't remember falling asleep, nor could he remember where he was, but the way his lower back was burning was a sure indication that he definitely wasn't in his bed.

He blinked again, trying to clear his vision. He was on a carpeted floor next to a wrought iron, glass-topped coffee table. He tried to reach out a hand to pull himself to a sitting position, but a dead weight on his arm hindered the action.

He rolled over in annoyance so he could dislodge his arm from captivity. His determination dissipated, however, when he recognized Esmerelda's blonde mane.

Holy fuck.

He couldn't remember much, but he knew that there was alcohol involved, and he remembered very well how desperately he'd wanted to get his hands on Jason's stash before going to the club. The blurred edges of his vision were enough to inform him that he'd been drinking way too much last night. He vaguely remembered finding Esmerelda at the club.

Shit. Did I sleep with her?

Nick Carter did a lot of stupid things, but he knew for a fact that it'd been years since he'd slept with random women. On the ride to the top of the music industry, he and the boys had frequently enjoyed a good fuck, but they'd realized all too soon that one night stands were hardly worth their while. Sometime around the third world tour, the Boys had stocked the bus with porn and decided against bringing random women to the Backstreet den. By that point, they were too popular and too proud to risk having their reputation ruined by a broad who couldn't keep her mouth shut. Not to mention the fact that two of the Boys were married by that point.

He groaned aloud as memories filtered into his fuzzy, foggy brain. Great. Fucking Backstreet is the last thing I need right now. He gently, gradually slid his arm out from under Esmerelda and sat upright so he could scan the room for traces of their debauchery.

He didn't find any form of contraception, but he did notice that the coffee table was still covered with white powder, empty bottles, dollar bills, and cigarette papers. To one side, there was a tiny plastic bag of weed and a small, glass pipe.

He frowned when he realized that he couldn't remember getting high. The smell of pot was overbearing in the tiny apartment, but he honestly couldn't recall feeling half as mellow as marijuana would've made him.

He turned his gaze towards the couch and was surprised to see Jason's scrawny form sprawled out along the length of the leather vessel. He cocked his head to the side and sighed when he realized that Jason was snoring lightly. The stench of pot increased with every snore, and Nick quickly surmised that Jason had been the one smoking. It's like a hot box in here, though. Either he smoked enough to kill him, or Esmerelda joined him.

He rubbed his hand over his face tiredly when he realized that he'd probably suffered a contact high. He knew for a fact, however, that he hadn't been sober enough to enjoy it. I must have had a shitload of tequila at the club last night. What the hell was I thinking?

He sighed heavily and glanced at his watch. His eyes widened ridiculously when he realized that it was close to four in the morning. Holy shit, they're going to kill me. Cara's going to kill me. Aaron's going to mutilate me. Theresa's going to... He grimaced as his thoughts trailed off. Aaron probably wouldn't even hold a conversation long enough to mention the incident to him, and he didn't really want to think about the way Theresa would react when he walked in smelling like weed.

He knew that he had to get to the apartment, though. If they woke up and he still wasn't back, they'd send a search party, and the last thing he needed was to be found in the midst of a drug dealer's main office, sampling what the man had to offer. With that thought, he groaned again and turned to rouse Esmerelda. He knew he needed to get home, but he'd been too trashed the night before to remember where she'd taken them. For all he knew, he was somewhere in the middle of New Jersey.

"Esmerelda? You need to wake up. This sounds stupid, I know, but I've got to get back before Aaron and his friends throw a shit fit..."

He reached out to touch her, hoping the physical contact would help to rouse her. He shook her once, but he froze when he realized that she was not only cold, but stiffened and steeled in her position on the floor.

Oh, no. No. No fucking way.

Slowly, he rolled her onto her back, brushing her blonde hair away from her face. All of the air fled from his lungs when he realized that her nose was caked with blood. His heart began to beat erratically, and his entire body seemed to tremble with the force his heart against his ribcage.

Calm down, Nick. She's fine. She probably just snorted one too many lines and ended up rubbing her nose raw. For all you know, she's allergic to carpet and had a nosebleed.

He squeezed his eyes shut and pinched the bridge of his nose to keep his breathing steady. Tentatively, he opened one eye and positioned his fingers directly above her open mouth, hoping to feel her weed-laced breath as strongly as he had smelled Jason's.

He felt nothing.

Breathe, kid. She might be in shock. You might have to do mouth-to-mouth. Maybe she choked on something...

Clumsily, he reached for her wrist and tried to find her pulse. He pressed more and more firmly on her veins, which were a bright blue against her now-pale skin. He pressed until he could feel the tendons in her wrist and the bones of her arm, but he still couldn't feel a pulse.

Dammit! What the fuck is going on?

He pressed an ear to her chest, trying desperately to hear something. Maybe he wasn't pressing her wrist correctly. Maybe you could only check the pulse from the left hand. Maybe her pulse was weaker in her extended limbs.

He couldn't hear anything but the rushing of blood to his head.

Fuck. No, God, please no. Fuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuck...

He reached a hand up to her face, feeling for any kind of warmth that might serve as a sign of life, but her cheek was stone cold. His chest rose and fell quickly with his own labored breath as the reality of the situation began to set in. The tip of his nose tingled, and he closed his eyes quickly to block the onslaught of tears that threatened to spill over. He was twenty-six, for God's sake. He was not going to cry.

Suddenly, he was fourteen and homesick again, sitting on Kevin's bed with the older man snoring loudly behind him as he struggled to keep his tears in check. He'd hated the feeling of helplessness then, and he hated it now.

With a trembling intake of breath, he began searching for a phone. Maybe they can still save her... His gaze landed on the kitchen counter, where a cordless was charging in its cradle. Shaking, he rose to retrieve it. The moment he stood, his knees shook and his legs threatened to give out. He closed his eyes in an attempt to recollect as he moved slowly towards the phone. With shaky fingers, he pulled the handset from its place and dialed 9-1-1.

"Fire and emergency, do you have an emergency?"

He wanted to cry, but instead he took a deep breath and expelled it slowly. "Ummm...yeah. I..." His eyes widened when he realized that he couldn't explain the situation in a way that would reveal his identity. Despite his lack of fame in recent years, the media would have a field day with something like this. "I walked into my neighbor's apartment just a second ago, and I think there's some sort of problem because she's, uh...she's unconscious on the floor right now and she's..." He closed his eyes, unable to believe that the quivering, raspy voice was his. "She's really cold..."

"Yes sir. It says here that you're calling from the Jefferson apartments outside of Manhattan. Is that correct?"

He eyes opened in surprise when he realized that he had no idea. "Um, sure..."

"Sir, we won't be able to help you unless you verify your location."

He groaned inaudibly and bit his bottom lip as a single tear slid down his cheek. "I'm sorry. Yes, that's right."

"Thank you. Now, which apartment is your neighbor in?"

He was already moving to the door on legs that shook with every step. He didn't even have to glance at his fingers to know that they were quaking.

"Number..." He cleared his throat, hoping against hope that he sounded innocent. "Number two-two-four-one."

"Thank you, sir. An ambulance will be there shortly."

He pressed the off button and rubbed at his eyes with his fingers, trying to brush away the unshed tears that burned the backs of his eyes. He wanted to stay and make sure she'd be okay, but he knew he had to leave. Staying in the apartment would not only reflect poorly on his reputation, but also on his brother's. He couldn't afford to tarnish the family name again.

On leaded feet, he trudged out of the open doorway and towards the elevator. When he pressed the button, though, he expelled another nervous breath. He needed to get out of there before someone saw him.

He pressed the button again for good measure and sighed in relief when the elevator finally arrived. The second the doors opened, he rushed to squeeze his way through them. He pushed the button for the ground floor at least three times. He shoved his hands in his pockets. He started whistling some old song and tapping his toes anxiously as he watched the elevator's descent from the floor map above the doors.

He stopped whistling when he recognized the tune as "Show Me The Meaning Of Being Lonely."

The elevator arrived at the ground floor with a jolt, and he stood directly in front of the crack between the metal doors so that he could rush out into the lobby when they opened. The doors opened, and he walked quickly through the foyer of the building, increasing the tempo of his shoes against the tiled floor. He removed a single hand from his pocket to shove the glass doors open, and turned immediately to the right.

He had no idea where he was going, but he knew he had to leave.

It was still damp outside from the afternoon rain, and streets were slicked black with moisture. Across the way, scattered pedestrians were walking quickly along, heads down and hands in pockets. It was New York's standard evening uniform, and Nick had adopted it quite effectively. He glanced nervously behind his shoulder at the building from which he'd just escaped and quickened his pace.

He finally stopped when he came upon a lighted intersection. The red light shone down, coloring his tanned skin a light shade of pink. He began to fidget anxiously as the cars drove by, swerving in and out of lanes. With a heavy sigh, he finally turned the corner and continued walking. He didn't have time to wait for the light. He had to get away from Esmerelda's apartment building before someone saw him.

As he walked briskly through the streets of New York, his eyes were focused dead ahead. The edges of his vision were still blurry, and his tongue felt thick and dry inside his parched throat. His head was pounding, but he knew it wasn't from a hangover. Somehow, he'd managed to drink enough, snort enough that he was still slightly buzzed from substance abuse.

Begs a question, though. If I had enough to drink that I'm still not sober five hours later, how much did Esmerelda drink?

For the life of him, he couldn't seem to remember what had happened after he'd run into her. He remembered her whispering in his ear, remembered that she sat down to drink with him, but he couldn't recall anything after that. He'd somehow managed to drink four shots in twenty minutes, he knew that much. Everything after that was a blur.

He squinted towards the horizon with a frown. The image of the drug-covered coffee table was still fresh in his memory, and he'd never seen so much coke before. He knew by Jason's presence that Esmerelda had probably called the scrawny dealer when they left the club, and he knew from the blood on her nose that she'd snorted at least a line.

He knew from his own anxiousness that he'd probably done a line himself, and he winced at the thought. He'd been incredibly drunk when he called Cara, but he remembered enough of their conversation to know that alcohol and cocaine definitely did not mix well. He was large enough to handle his liquor, but the combination of drugs had rendered him nearly hysterical. He couldn't imagine what the combination would've done to someone of Esmerelda's size.

Well, duh, you idiot. It killed her.

He sucked in a breath and groaned aloud as the image of a stiff, cold, and bloodied Esmerelda filled his senses. He'd done quite a number on himself and his "friends" when he first started using. He couldn't remembered the number of times he'd seen people passed out cold on the floor or sneezing blood in the bathroom. However, in all of his experience, he'd never seen someone die

Oh, well. There's a fucking first time for everything, right? God...that poor girl...

She had liked him. He knew that much. He'd been around enough girls who were attracted to him to know. Most of the girls that he drank and danced with tended to get the wrong impression, and he'd just gotten used to it. With Esmerelda, though, he felt a sense of responsibility, because he'd made a point of leading her on. He'd humored her to take advantage of her connections. Half of him wondered if she had always been so close to Jason. Sure, she had known he sold drugs, but had she ever smoked pot before? Had she ever done a line before?

The saner half of him didn't want to know, but the newfound guilt quickly formed a vice-like grip on his lungs. Suddenly, it was way too difficult to breathe.

He expelled air in tiny bursts as he ran over his limited knowledge of the evening. He continued to focus on the image of the coffee table in hopes that it could provide him insight into where they'd gone and what they'd done, but the only memories that surfaced were those of the darkened club and a row of shot glasses.

The bridge of his nose tingled with foreign tears as he struggled to remember something--anything--about what had happened.

Fuck, Nick, think! How drunk could you have possibly been?

Given his past record, he wasn't sure he wanted the answer to that particular question. In his young life, he'd used alcohol to erase more evenings than he could count.

He shifted focus from the substance-covered coffee table to Esmerelda's stiff, lifeless wrist. In his mind's eye, he traced the bright blue veins and the white-washed fingers, searching them for signs of life. For his sake--for her sake, even--he needed to remember. He centered his internal gaze on the knobbiness of her wrist bone.

Suddenly, a flash of animation interrupted his study of the lifeless limb. Her hand was no longer cold with death, but warm as it stroked and yanked at his shaft. She grabbed him, pumping her hand along his throbbing member with incredible speed. The tip of his penis tingled at the memory of his exploding orgasm.

He broke into a run, sprinting down the sidewalk as the city began to bleed together like the strokes of an oil painting under running water. The tears ran unchecked down his cheeks, so much so that when one of the teardrops landed on his outstretched hand, he wondered absentmindedly if it was raining.

A large weight settled in the pit of his stomach as he realized that he wasn't even sure if the hand on his shaft really belonged to Esmerelda. It could've been any one of a thousand women, any one of a thousand hands jobs that had been offered before he recognized the danger of promiscuous women, and he choked on a sob at the notion that he couldn't trust his own memory.

What the hell did I do to deserve this? Dammit, what did I do?

The question came to life on his lips, a soft whisper of despair in the dreary evening. He sprinted to the end of the block, one foot in front of the other, until his legs collapsed beneath him from the pressure of having to move so far forward so quickly. The pads of his fingers gripped the damp ground beneath him, and he reached out a hand to yield a cab as he struggled to regulate his
labored breathing.

A kindly old man finally stopped for him. "Get in, son. The rain don't look like it's gonna be lettin' up anytime soon."

He obeyed without question, falling clumsily against the torn leather seat in the back of the vehicle. His heart was beating so loudly that he was sure the older man could hear its rhythm.

"Where're you tryin' to get to at this time o' night?"

"The Routte...the Routte apartments on the...the lower west side..."

He saw the man nod with recognition and rattled off a street address between gulps of air. His lungs were burning from the force of his run, and he wasn't sure he was ever going to be able to breathe normally again. His entire body seemed to shake with every inhalation.

The cab rolled forward, and he felt himself begin to relax as the city started to whiz by him. All too soon, they were passing beneath the blinding lights of Times Square, and Nick let his mind wander as they continued towards the apartment.

He knew by the way the lights were a little too bright that he'd finally reached a breaking point. Too much liquor and too much cocaine. He was due for a change, and he knew it. Sadly, the only person he could talk to about any of it was Cara.

"Hey, kiddo? We're here. You gonna be able to get up there okay?"

The cabbie's voice startled him out of his reverie. "Yeah, I'll be fine." He reached a hand into his pocket and fumbled around for some bills before pulling out three twenties with shaking fingers. "Thanks."

"Sure thing. Do yourself a favor and get some sleep, son."

The cab rolled on down the street, and Nick stumbled his way through the doors and up the three flights of steps that led to the apartment. His heavy footsteps screamed into the silence of the hallways.

He wanted to be frantic again, wanted the adrenaline to rush through his veins again, but he was on autopilot. Right foot, left foot, right foot, left foot. When he reached the top of the stairs, he almost collapsed from the minute forward momentum he'd managed to acquire from the climb.

Somehow, he made it to the front door of the apartment. He braced himself against the door long enough to jingle the key in the lock before trudging silently into the darkened living room.

He was positive that the apartment had never been so quiet. Every footfall on the carpet seemed to echo throughout the entire living space, and he was suddenly terrified of waking the other members of the household. His legs trembled beneath him, threatening to give out on him as he struggled to maintain the silence. Exhausted, he moved towards the couch, trying to ignore how much he wanted to collapse.

He couldn't really. He wanted to, but he knew he had to change clothes. If anything else, he didn't want to feel Esmerelda's presence. That, and Aaron would fly into a rage if he still smelled like pot in the morning.

He groaned inaudibly and padded towards his bedroom, shedding his clothes as soon as he got through the door. Naked, he slumped to the closet and pulled on a pair of boxers and a tee-shirt. He grabbed a hair tie from the doorknob and pulled his hair back into a ponytail. He'd take a shower tomorrow.

Subconsciously, he knew he needed to re-hydrate before he went back to sleep, so he dragged his exhausted limbs toward the kitchen. His bare feet made slapping sounds on the linoleum as he navigated his way around the island and through the cupboards. He retrieved a glass and filled it with tap water. He knew that NYC water wasn't necessarily safe to drink, but he was too tired to care. He just wanted to keep busy so he could avoid thinking about the mess he'd left at Esmerelda's apartment. He sipped the water mechanically, swishing it around in his mouth before swallowing to get the dryness out. He hated the way hangovers could make you feel like you'd swallowed a bag full of cotton balls overnight.

His eyes scanned the countertop as he drank, searching for another way to distract himself from the obvious. Esmerelda was dead. He felt like he'd had a hand in killing her.

He caught sight of a sheaf of papers to the right side of the counter and moved towards it eagerly. He didn't want to continue the former thought process. In fact, he really didn't want to think anymore. Instead, he reached down to grab the sheet music covering the counter. Something warned him that the trio had been practicing after hours again. Not that they needed to practice, really. The first and only time he'd ever heard the group sing together, he'd been amazed at how talented they were. Especially Aaron.

He'd always known his brother could sing well. He'd never known that Aaron had such a presence when he sang things that were actually meaningful to him. Years of singing simplistic poetry for preschoolers had given Aaron a unique appreciation for songs with a story behind them, and Aaron had taken to the role of Dr. Jekyll like a fish to water--that much was plainly obvious.

Part of Nick was extremely proud of his younger brother, but it was greatly overshadowed by the part of him that was ashamed to know so little about Aaron. He was sick of failing everyone.

Well, now I am. It went too far. Tonight was the ultimate failure.

At that thought, he sucked in a breath and let his eyes stray towards the lyrics in hope of escaping the images of a cold and unmoving Esmerelda that threatened to overtake him.

Look at me and tell me who I am
Why I am what I am
Call me a fool and it's true, I am
No one knows who I am

It's such a shame
I'm such a sham
No one knows who I am

He choked on his sip of water and spent a few seconds gasping for breath and pretending that tears weren't pricking the backs of his eyes and the tip of his nose. God, this is pathetic.

Am I the face of the future?
Am I the face of the past?
Am I the one who must finish last?

That was his fear. He was afraid he'd never be able to put his life back together. That was why he kept falling for the same girls, the same drugs, and the same lines. Addiction was easier.

Now, blinking rapidly to keep the tears in his eyes from blurring these beautiful words that he'd managed to stumble across, he realized that he was tired of easier.

Look at me and tell me who I am
Why I am what I am
Will I survive?
Who will give a damn?
If no one knows who I am

He closed his eyes for a moment and fought the urge to glance forlornly at his brother's bedroom door. He knew Aaron didn't know him anymore, and that hurt more than anything because, with Backstreet dead and gone, Aaron was all he had left. And I've wasted it. Wasted him. Let him pass me by.

Shit, he doesn't even know that it's not his fault.

Nobody knows
Not even you
No one knows who I am *

He used the back of his hand to wipe away the tears as he flipped the sheet music over in hopes of finding out who sang it. Sure enough, Cara's neat cursive notes lined the white side of the page.

Lucy at the Dregs before the performance to a crowd of showgirls. Wistful. Lost. She's crying inside because she feels like she has more to offer the world than people realize. More to offer the world than she realizes, and that's the key. That's where Jekyll comes in.

His heart stopped for a moment when the word at the beginning registered.

Lucy. Of course. Cara's character. God, that makes so much more sense.

He found it oddly ironic that Aaron was the one to help the whore realize her potential in life.

With a sigh, Nick set the sheet music back in the pile where he had found it and made a mental note to ask Cara if she could teach him the song. Even if he couldn't sing it on pitch, he wanted to know what the words tasted like, what it felt like to truly acknowledge the pathetic existence he'd come to embody.

Suddenly, he had the urge to finally sit down and watch the mysterious Jekyll & Hyde.

* "No One Knows Who I Am"
performed by Linda Eder
music by Frank Wildhorn
lyrics by Leslie Bricusse