Comforting Lie
Chapter Thirty-Six
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

The music was soft in its opening notes, and there were stars in Lucy's eyes as she gripped the edge of her rusted brass bed and allowed a nostalgic smile to cross her face.

A new life
What I wouldn't give to have a new life
One thing I have learned as I go through life
Nothing is for free along the way

Towards the back of the auditorium, a young man lay languidly across a group of chairs, trying to get comfortable as his head throbbed and his cheeks burned with fever. He snored lightly in his state of half-consciousness, completely unaware of the blonde that was quickly gaining on him.

The pursuer stopped when he arrived at the young man's head, and he reached out a tentative hand to brush the bangs from the younger man's forehead. His brow creased with worry when the heat under his hand registered, and he stepped over the row of chairs to sit beside his brother.

"Aaron? Wake up. I brought you lunch."

A new start
That's the thing I need to give me new heart
Half a chance in life to find a new part
Just a simple role that I can play

Onstage, Lucy jumped off the bed and began to swing herself around the posts like a little girl in a candy store. The years faded from her smile as the song quickened its pace, and she reached out her fingers in search of freedom as the notes sailed through the auditorium.

In the audience, the musical's young star stretched his long limbs and blinked in bleary-eyed confusion as his older brother's raspy whisper registered.


"Food," Nick offered, holding up the turkey sandwich and chicken noodle soup he'd brought.

Aaron's sandy blonde brows bumped each other just above the bridge of his nose. "Why?"

Swallowing the guilt that threatened to surface, Nick allowed himself a tight-lipped smile. "'Cause you're sick, Aaron. You need substance in your system so you can fight off this infection." He reached into his pocket and fished out the bottle of Ibuprofen he'd brought. "Here, take some of this. It'll bring your fever down."

Aaron was too surprised to argue, and one glance at his watch allowed that he was due for another dose. "Shouldn't you be at work?"

"I'm on photo shoot duty today. This is my lunch break."

A new hope
Something to convince me to renew hope
A new day
Bright enough to help me find my way

As much as he wanted to deny it, he was flattered by his older brother's attention. "Oh."

Nick quickly filled what would've been an awkward silence. "Hungry?"

He wasn't, but he didn't want to destroy the feeble bridge his brother seemed to be building. "Sure."

Nick unwrapped the sandwich carefully, handing the first half to his brother as the younger man struggled to sit upright. As soon as Aaron's butt hit the chair, his nose started to run, and he sneezed heartily.

Nick was ready with a handful of Kleenex.

After wiping his nose, Aaron cast a sheepish smile in his brother's direction. "Thanks."

"You're welcome."

A new chance
One that maybe has a touch
Of romance

"How long have you been here?"

Nick shrugged. "'Bout five minutes."


They sat in silence for a moment, sipping soup and listening intently to Cara's soaring solo.

Where can it be?
This chance for me

Nick cleared his throat awkwardly. "So is Cal giving you a break today?"

Aaron chuckled hollowly. "Yeah, but not by choice. My singing sounds for shit, and I'm too sick to project well. I'm out by default."


Aaron shrugged. "It's okay. I get to sleep, which means I can get better. We start dress rehearsals soon, so..."

"It's good to rest," Nick finished quietly. Surprised, Aaron nodded.


Another awkward silence settled over the duo, one they both tried to fill with food. Nick took the opportunity to follow Cara's tall figure across the stage. He was mesmerized by her command of the song, but the lyrics were what truly drew his attention from the uncomfortable conversation he was attempting with Aaron. God, I wish things could go back to normal with us. I wish he could talk to me like he used to.

I wish I could talk to him.

A new dream
I have one I know that very few dream
I would like to see that overdue dream
Even though it never may come true

"She's good, huh?"

Nick jumped at the sound of his brother's voice. "Huh?"

"Cara," Aaron answered with a small smile, his gaze never leaving the woman onstage. "She's good at what she does."

"Oh. Yeah." Real articulate, Nick. "I'm surprised she likes the stage, though. She always seemed so shy..."

"That's the beauty of it," Aaron answered truthfully. "She's just...she totally lets go. When she's onstage, nothing else matters. She's so focused on the songs and the lines and the essence of it all that she doesn't care what anyone else thinks of her anymore."

"She's free," Nick added quietly, sounding almost resigned. To his right, his brother nodded emphatically.

"That's exactly it. She's free."

Nick knew the signs of freedom well. It was all he'd wanted since he'd gotten to New York.

"Sometimes I want to be that free, you know?"

Nick looked up in surprise. "Yeah. Yeah, I know."

He noticed for the first time that his brother's gaze was still fixed on Cara.

A new love
Though I know there's no such thing as true love
Even so, although I never knew love
Still I feel that one dream is my due

"I take it back," Aaron finally muttered.

"Take what back?"

"What I said about rest," he sighed. "It's not good. It sucks."

Nick bit his bottom lip to keep from laughing at his brother's petulant expression. "Why?"

"'Cause I miss singing. Seeing people up there, knowing that I could be up there..." He groaned. "It sucks."

Nick couldn't think of anything helpful to say, so he merely handed his brother another pack of saltine crackers.

A new world
This one thing I want to ask of you world
Once, before it's time to say adieu world
One sweet chance to prove the cynics wrong



"Do you ever miss it?"

The elder Carter froze at the personal question. It was the first time Aaron had made an attempt to know more than his professional side, and the thought both warmed him and scared him stiff. He tried to keep his voice steady, but his next question held a barely-there vibrato.

"Miss what?"

Aaron sucked in a nervous breath around the knot in his stomach. God, I hate asking him the difficult questions.


Both boys knew that the question contained more than that, but neither said a word.

A new life
More and more I know as I go through life
Just to play the game and to pursue life
Just to share its pleasures and belong
That's what I've been here for all along

Nick's chest constricted as he watched Cara grip the bedframe like her lifeline. Suddenly, the stage was no longer hers. It was his, and Kevin's, and AJ's and Brian's and Howie's, and the lump in his throat grew tenfold as he closed his eyes against the pain of the memory.

"Yeah, bro. I miss it."

Aaron reached over and tentatively grabbed Nick's hand, squeezing it gently as he pointed at Cara onstage. "Check it out, man. Listen to the power in her tone. She can hold this fucking note forever."

Each day's a brand new life

The note came and went, but Aaron's hand remained.

*      *      *      *      *

The walls were yellow. The ivory keys were yellow. The carpet was an ugly brownish-yellow. The fluorescent light overhead cast a yellow glow over the black upright with chipped paint and roughened edges.

Nick Carter sucked in a deep breath and tried to avoid the age that screamed at him from every corner of the tiny NYU practice room. The piano bench creaked loudly in the silence, and he jumped as Cara's lilting alto echoed against the faded walls.

"You ready?"

He glanced apprehensively at the sheet music spread above the keys and decided that he wasn't sure. Standing in the curve of the baby grand, he could remember days when he felt relaxed enough to lean against the wood, cracking jokes and notes with four other people that he trusted more than life itself.

He didn't trust those people anymore. He didn't even know those people anymore. He definitely didn't know the man that used to rest his elbows against the piano top.

His thoughts drifted back to that afternoon's rehearsal, though, and he was reminded of how much Aaron wanted him to be that man again. How much he wanted to be that man again.

"Yeah, I'm ready."

Cara chuckled warmly from the piano bench. "Perfect. You wanna start with scales? I need to test your range anyway, just so I know how far to transpose this."

His hands were shaking. Scales. Simple. Why the hell am I so nervous?

"Yeah. Scales."

Cara arched an eyebrow at him. "You okay?"

He swallowed forcefully. "Fine."

She shrugged. "Okay, we'll start on a low C."

She went up to the fifth and came back down slowly. Then, with a nod in Nick's direction, she played the C again and signaled for him to sing. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and exhaled on a raspy, flat version of the ten-note pattern. When Cara didn't continue up the keys, his eyes opened in surprise, and his brows came together.

"Okay, so I'm flat, but..."

Cara interrupted him firmly. "Hands on your stomach."

He obeyed.

"Breathe in."

His chest rose, and he exhaled on a groan when he realized what the problem was. "Chest breathing."

She smiled. "Bingo. Take another breath."

He did, and his belly expanded into his open palms. He hissed the breath out, feeling the familiar muscles of his diaphragm contract as the air left his lungs.

"Wanna try again?"

He nodded sheepishly, and Cara went back to her C. The next attempt was as raspy as the first, but he was in tune that time. Cara continued up the keyboard, and Nick struggled to match the pitches as she played them. She got to a middle G before his voice cracked, causing them both to stop as Nick's cheeks burned a deep crimson.


Cara smiled softly. "It's okay. That's why we warm up. Besides, your range isn't going to be where it used to be."

He sucked in a breath and tried to ignore how many things about this particular scene weren't like they used to be.

"Why don't we try going down?"

So they did. With every note, he became more scared, more tentative, more disgusted with his own voice. By the time they'd examined his range a second time, his throat was sore and he wanted to go home.

"Do you feel somewhat warmed up?" Cara asked gently.

"No," he grumbled. "This is...fuck."

She swiveled around to face him. "What?"

"This sucks, Cara. I had a fucking four-octave range. Now, I'm hard pressed to get two solid octaves. It doesn't feel natural, it hurts like hell..." Suddenly, he was blinking back tears. "This used to be so much easier."

Her heart ached when she saw the expression on his face. "Oh, hon...I'm sorry. It's going to take awhile for things to come so naturally again, but we can work on it."

He sighed. "I know. It sucks that we have to work on it, you know? This shit used to be effortless. I used to kick ass at scales."

Cara struggled to bite back the smile that threatened to surface. "And now they're kicking your ass?"

"Exactly." He wasn't laughing. In fact, he was dangerously close to crying like a baby.

Cara, sensing the waiting waterworks, reached for the sheet music they'd come to conquer. "How about we go straight to the song, then? At the very least, you can sing some frustration out."

Nick seriously doubted that singing would do anything but cause frustration at this point, but he nodded his agreement anyway.

Cara spread the pages out on the piano and began to play the introduction slowly, counting on Nick's knowledge of the piece to carry him through the first verse. "Can you see the words?"

His voice was whisper-soft when he responded. "I don't need them."

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

The words were rough-edged and tinged with a lingering hoarseness, but there was no denying the emotion in Nick's voice as he sang. For the first time in years, he really sang, letting go of his inhibitions and the memories of what had been. He wasn't singing for Backstreet, or for Aaron, or for a crapload of fainting fanatics. He was singing for himself.

He couldn't remember the last time he'd actually believed the words he was singing. The entire experience was foreign to him, but he loving the haunting sound of the pedal in the hollows of the practice room.

Once there were sweet possibilities
I could see just for me
Now all my dreams are just memories
Fated never to be

Time's not a friend
Hurrying by
I wonder who am I?

He was so taken by the power of the music that he didn't even notice when Cara's lilting alto joined in, coaxing him back onto the right pitches and forcing him to strengthen his tone.

He was singing fear and hope and resentment. He was singing through a thousand cigarettes and a lottery of lonely girls with long legs that had spent the night once or twice. He was singing betrayal--his own and that which he'd been forced to endure--but he was mainly singing pain.

A single tear strolled down his cheek as he realized how much pain there was to sing about.

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

Cara crescendoed appropriately, too impressed by the depth of her pupil's feeling to notice the inconsistencies in pitch. Nick Carter no longer sounded like Nick Carter. The power that had fueled the bridge of "I Want It That Way" was certainly long-gone. He sounded like a weather-worn shell of his former self, but the passion in his voice remained.

As she launched into the second verse, she couldn't help but wish that Aaron could hear the private performance.

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

Chancing a glance at her once-shy performer, Cara saw that Nick's eyes were squeezed shut and his knuckles were white as he gripped the edge of the piano. As he brought the song to a gut-wrenching end, his voice was little more than a last breath.

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

Cara followed the notes perfectly, letting her expert fingers glide of their own accord across the yellowed ivory. At the edge of the upright, Nick Carter opened his eyes and faced his reflection.

For the first time since his arrival in New York, he didn't flinch.

"That was nice," Cara intoned quietly. Nick smiled softly.

"Yeah, it was."

"You were a bit flat, though."

He chuckled. "I know."

"Need a bit more support," she remarked gently. When Nick finally faced her, his blue eyes were sparkling.

"Nothing a few rehearsals won't fix."

Inside, Cara cheered.

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