Comforting Lie
Chapter Forty-Two
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

Hold it, hold it all in
Let it build up
Oh, build a bomb

"Well, here we go."

Cara glanced over at Theresa with a surprised countenance. "How can you be so nonchalant about this? Hell, T, this is the first time we've ever heard Aaron do this piece straight through because it's so vocally taxing, and he's been sick. He might not get through it."

Theresa burst out laughing at her friend's melodramatics and threw an arm around Cara's shoulders. "Relax, C. He's been in this business for how long? First and foremost, our A is a professional."

"Besides," Larkin added, "he's been practicing like hell. I'm sure he'll blow us all away."

"Ain't that the truth," Kyle muttered with a laugh. "He's a show-stopper by nature. He's gotten good and goofy offstage, sure, but the second that kid steps into the spotlight, the whole world revolves around him."

"Don't tell him that," Cara muttered dryly. "We worked hard enough to kill the ego last time."

"I wouldn't worry too much about Aaron's ego," Larkin chuckled. "I think Cal's got that under control."

Trent slid into the seat next to Cara and let rip with an exhausted sigh. "Man, ain't that the truth? Even if the reviews for this thing are spectacular, I'm still going to think we suck."

"Of course, that mindset would have absolutely nothing to do with the way our dear director has been treating rehearsal these past few days, right?" Theresa teased with a grin. "Because I happen to think he's been perfectly reasonable regarding the state of the show."

The rest of the cast leveled Theresa with exasperated looks, causing her to burst out laughing again. Rob, however, was perfectly prepared for Theresa's sarcasm.

"And you happen to think that Ashlee Simpson was the most talented face to ever hit teen pop music too, right?"

Theresa winked at him, and the rest of the cast groaned. Loudly.

Fortunately, the house lights went up, inciting a preparatory speech from Cal before Aaron stepped out onto the stage.

"Okay, kid, this is it. This is your big scene, your time to prove to the world that they don't have to remember you as the shrimpy kid that let his mother talk him into recording trash like 'Oh, Aaron.'"

A smattering of snickers could be heard throughout the audience as Aaron stepped out of the wings in protest.

"Hey, man, that wasn't just me! There were some hot girls on that record," he asserted with a chuckle. "Besides, Nick was on it."

"Right, and the Backstreet Boy makes everything better." Cal rolled his eyes in annoyance. "Get back behind the curtain, kid. I'm not done with my pep talk yet."

Out in the audience, Trent and Cara exchanged amused expressions.

"Cal can give pep talks?"

If the director heard the side comment, he didn't allow them the satisfaction of a rebuttle. "Anyway, as I was saying, this is the good part. I love this musical more than Britney fucking Spears loved to dance around in her underwear, but even I can admit that everything after this is bullshit fluff." He arched an eyebrow pointedly in the direction of the wings. "This is your chance to prove to people that you deserve their money. Don't suck."

"Now that sounds more like something Cal would say," Larkin laughed. "Only Cal would think that motivation comes from the destruction of confidence."

"In some weird way, he might be right," Tabitha remarked, sliding into the seat next to Trent. "Every time he yells about how incapable you are, it makes you want to prove him wrong that much more."

"Except that he's never, ever satisfied," Rob muttered with a roll of his eyes.

"I don't know about that," Cara countered quietly. "Sometimes, he seems like he's proud of us."

"Aaron's about to give him a reason to be," Theresa remarked with a small smile. Before the cast could continue their conversation, though, the sheer screen of Jekyll's father descended in the dim light of the set, and a slowly moving spotlight illuminated Aaron's figure at the center of the stage.

The conflicted doctor was clad only in slacks, suspenders, and an Oxford shirt that had been bloodied badly on the left side. The cuff of the sleeve was ripped on the same side, and the long blonde hair hung down in tangled locks against the same shoulder. On the other side, the hair was tied neatly back. The doctor's chest rose and fell noticeably, and his head hung down forlornly until the music started.

Immediately, the blonde head rose to stare helplessly out into the audience, and he opened his mouth to sing the song that so well defined his character.

It's over now, I know inside
No one will ever know
The sorry tale of Edward Hyde
And those who died
No one must ever know

The note wavered gently with the trepidation that was obvious in Jekyll's defeated demeanor. He glanced tentatively out over the audience, his countenance pleading for the understanding of the people who had followed him through his ordeal.

They'd only see the tragedy
They'd not see my intent
The shadow of Hyde's evil
Will forever kill the good that I have meant

The doctor's gaze rose skyward, and his forehead wrinkled with helplessness as he voiced the questions that had come to constantly plague his fragile ego.

Am I a good man?
Am I a madman?
It's such a fine line
Between a good man and a...

Immediately, Jekyll's figure doubled over in pain, leaning slightly to the side so that the bloodied side of his shirt was showing. Without warning, he tilted his chin towards the audience, and an eerie blue light illuminated his sneer as he glanced out from beneath the mop of hair that had escaped the ponytail tied tightly on the other side.

Hyde was back.

Do you really think that I could ever let you go?
Do you think I'd ever set you free?
If you do, I'm sad to say, it simply isn't so
You will never get away from me

As the note crescendoed, Hyde's form collapsed above the waist, giving way to the kinder, gentler, more desperate face of Henry Jekyll, who reached to the opposite side, bathed in a beautiful white light. When he opened his mouth to sing, his sweet tenor burned with frantic resolve.

All that you are is a face in the mirror
I close my eyes and you disappear

The other fist reached around Jekyll's form, and Hyde emerged once more beneath the curtain of hair as the twisted figure showed his other, evil profile to the audience. The white light faded to the previous eerie blue as Hyde growled his lyrics in an intimidating baritone.

I'm what you face when you face in the mirror
Long as you live, I will still be here

The figure reached to the other side, displaying Jekyll's panicked countenance. The clean shirtsleeve curled around, and the Jekyll's fist found the air in his line of vision as he gazed anxiously toward the sky. Everything in his figure screamed defeat, but his stance was one of steadfastness as he sang defiantly.

All that you are is the end of a nightmare
All that you are is a dying scream
After tonight, I shall end this demon's dream

Once again, Jekyll collapsed to the other side, giving way to Hyde, who sneered out into the audience, cackling maniacally at the floor. Hyde gazed out into the blue light that struck centerstage and smirked ironically into the fist that appeared to emerge from his gut.

This is not a dream, my friend
And it will never end
This one is the nightmare that goes on

The note crescendoed to a scream, at which point the frightening figure threw his head back in victory before turning to glare again at the audience.

Hyde is here to stay
No matter what you may pretend
And he'll flourish long after you're gone

The vibrato of the note had only just begun to spin when Hyde collapsed again, and Jekyll emerged, still staring hopefully at the ceiling. His countenance grew firmer against the brightness of the white spotlight, and when he sang, his tenor voice was loud and clear.

Soon you will die and my memory will hide you
You cannot choose but to lose control

Jekyll doubled over again, and Hyde emerged on the opposite side of the body, cackling at the notion of death when he'd attained so much power in such a short time.

You can't control me, I live deep inside you
Each day you'll feel me devour your soul

The last words ended in a growl of protest as Hyde was forced back into the body, leaving a chance for Jekyll to emerge. As Jekyll rose his fist again in frustration, he adopted a strangely self-satisfied expression, and he bit the words out forcefully as he argued against his inner demon.

I don't need you to survive as you need me
I'll become whole as you dance with death
And I'll rejoice as you breathe your final breath

Jekyll held the note proudly, allowing it a moment to echo in the vast space of the venue before Hyde prevailed once more, a sinister expression clouding his bright, angry eyes. His eyebrows rose suggestively, and the corners of his lips curled in triumph as he lifted his chin from its downcast position and crowed into the audience. But although his baritone soared over the notes, each line was interrupted by a twist of the torso and a frantic scream of "NO!" from the terrified Dr. Jekyll.

I'll live inside you forever
With Satan himself by my side
And I know that now and forever
They'll never be able to separate Jekyll from Hyde

Hyde collapsed, staggering towards the edge of the stage, but his feet planted firmly enough that Jekyll could reach out from the other side of the torso, shaking his finger into the wings as he glared at the forced that was slowly overtaking him.

Can't you see it's over now?
It's time to die

Overtaken by Hyde again, Jekyll collapsed to the other side of his body, shifting his weight in the eerie blue light as Hyde's baritone echoed angrily both in the auditorium and against the walls of his skull.

No, not I
Only you

The resistance was apparent in every inch of Jekyll's figure as he emerged from the prison of helplessness Hyde was striving to create, arguing with every ounce of his energy.

If I die, you die too

Jekyll vanished with the white light, and Hyde surfaced on the other side of the man onstage, smirking victoriously.

You'll die in me
I'll BE you

Hyde collapsed back into the man's trembling form, and Jekyll emerged on the other side of the figure, shaking his fist angrily towards the ceiling as the blue light faded to white.

Damn you, Hyde!
Leave me be!

Hyde ripped himself from Jekyll's self-righteous light, surfacing with an evil smile.

Can't you see?
You ARE me!

The figure flung to stage right as Jekyll emerged once more, screaming in agony at the thought of a permanent defeat.

Deep inside...

Under the weight of his desperation, Jekyll collapsed to the left, where Hyde delivered a maniacal grin.

I am you
You are Hyde

Hyde's smirking form gave way as Jekyll reached his face towards the ceiling, screaming in despair.

No, never!

Jekyll was forced back into exile as Hyde surfaced with an equally forceful scream.

Yes, forever!

Shaking with the strength of his resolve, Jekyll broke free of Hyde's hold long enough to cry out in anger.

Damn you, Hyde, take all your evil deeds and rot in HELL

Jekyll collapsed painfully, and Hyde peeked out from the strands of hair that Jekyll's collapse had released. With a pointedly sardonic smile, he lowered his voice to a growl.

I'll see you there, Jekyll

The orchestral arrangement tumbled into an angry descending chromatic scale and the tortured man in the center of the stage turned so that both sides of his dueling personalities were facing the audience. Jekyll's white light overtook the stage, and with one last deep breath, the doctor's tormented figure let rip with an amazingly powerful proclamation.

No, no...

The note rang out clearly in the venue until the orchestral arrangement ended, at which point the lights went out and the demented man collapsed into a pile on the floor of the stage.

Immediately, the house lights went up, illuminating Aaron's fallen form. For a moment, the entire auditorium was deadly silent. As soon as he got to his feet, though, the audience of cast members burst into raucous applause.

Cal vaulted onto the stage amidst the catcalls, trying to stifle the smile that threatened to surface at the enthusiasm of his young, talented cast. As soon as the cheering died down, Cal turned his attention to an exhausted Aaron.

"Well, you didn't suck."

The entire cast, including Aaron (whose chest was still heaving with the exhaustion the performance had wrought), turned wide eyes to their director.

"You have GOT to be fucking kidding me..." Theresa muttered. Amazingly enough, the comment was enough to incite a smile from Cal, who turned expectantly to Aaron.

"It's hard, huh?"

Aaron heaved a deep breath and nodded uncertainly. The past few rehearsals had been full of criticism and noticeably lacking in praise, and while the impromptu pep talk had surprised him, he'd still expected Cal to launch into a long, rambling rebuke once his performance wrapped. The director's casual conversation was suspiciously like stalling, and Aaron wasn't sure whether or not the critique's postponement was a good thing.

He lifted his head to meet Cal's scrutiny, and the two men locked gazes for a moment before the director spoke in more serious tones.

"Take note, Carter, because you won't hear me say this too often, but...I'm impressed." The older man paused to allow for the murmurings of the cast. Praise from Cal was infrequent at best. He rarely dubbed a scene anything better than "good." To hear him admit to being impressed was on par with the sight of a flock of pigs flying south for the winter.

Onstage, Aaron was shocked into silence.

"I'm not saying it's perfect or anything. You're still going flat on some of Hyde's lines, you're trying to pop-lock your pivot each time the character changes, and you're rushing just a touch, but overall..." Cal sighed heavily and cracked a small smile for his star pupil. "Overall, that was a pretty fucking solid performance. God knows it was gut-wrenching enough." Cal's gaze drifted over the cast in the audience, and he nodded ever so slightly. "You've all put a lot of emotion into things today. I know I harp on the technical imperfections a lot, but I'll be the first to admit that you don't have a damn thing without emotion. You guys are putting a lot of heart into this, and it shows. You've done a good job of getting to the heart of your characters, and your ability to empathize with them has greatly altered your performances, both individually and as an ensemble cast." He paused again to let the praise sink in before dropping the expected bomb.

"I'm fucking amazed at how far you guys have come from the stumbling, giggling kids you showed up as, but that doesn't mean that I'm going to let up. I realize that technicalities are little things, but they're also fucking important little things, and I'm too damn obsessed with this show to let you all get away with anything but a perfect performance."

When Cal moved closer to the edge of the stage, he could see the knowing smiles on the faces of his pupils, and the sight was enough to inspire a smile on his part as well. With a chuckle, he returned his gaze to Aaron. "It wasn't a perfect performance, kid, but it was pretty damn good. I'd say you're well on your way to perfect and, considering the fact that you couldn't talk a few days ago, that's a huge fucking improvement."

Aaron blushed at the praise, ducking his head modestly. "Thanks," he said honestly, smiling shyly at the director. Cal arched an amused eyebrow.

"Don't thank me. I'm a hard-ass, remember? I don't hand out favors or compliments unless they're deserved." Cal glanced towards the rest of the cast expectantly. "I'm sure your friends will attest to that. Hell, you should know that by now. If I tell you that you did well, it means that you did well."

"Go, Aaron!" Theresa hollered playfully.

"You rock my socks off, baby!" Larkin piped up.

"Dude, we should so write his name on our faces and make teenybopper shirts," Rob joked. He glanced up just in time to catch death glares from both Cal and Aaron.

"Rob, you're obnoxious to a fault, but I've come to see it as part of your charm. However, if you do ANYTHING to jeopardize the flawless depiction of the strange case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, I will personally make sure that the final death scene is yours." Cal paused to take a breath, but the intensity of his glare never wavered. "Do I make myself clear?"

Theresa snickered loudly as Rob struggled to stifle the smile that threatened to surface. "Yes, sir."

"Good." Having effectively reprimanded his problem child, Cal turned his attention back to Aaron. "Can you run it again?"

Aaron nodded seriously. "Yeah."

"You sure? You're okay vocally?" Cal sighed. "I know this song is intense."

Aaron nodded again, fighting the urge to grin in amusement at Cal's apparent concern. Hard-ass my ass. He's such a cast daddy. "I'm in good shape for now. I'll let you know if anything changes."

Cal nodded. "Good deal. Get back into position, and we'll run it again." He turned to the rest of the cast to deliver his next set of orders, but glanced over his shoulder to Aaron as an afterthought. "Nice collapse, by the way. I think you scared the holy hell out of Cara."

Both Aaron and Cara blushed a deep crimson, but the rest of the cast didn't bother to contain their laughter.

"Anyway, the torture of everyone's favorite couple aside, the rest of you need to book it backstage so that we can go on after this. We're going straight through to the narration and the wedding scene, provided that none of you fuck anything up. I want to get out of here at a decent hour tonight." A sigh of relief echoed through the auditorium, and Cal shook his head. "That doesn't mean I won't hold an extra practice if one of you decides to make the run-through particularly difficult. It just means that you don't want to see me after the rest of the cast leaves. If you think I'm an asshole now, you don't want to be around after ten o'clock tonight."

In the audience, the rest of the cast stood and began stretching, preparing themselves for the rest of the run-through. Onstage, Cal allowed himself another smile. As much as he enjoyed giving them hell for their imperfections, he really was fond of his cast. With a sigh of contentment, he turned to Aaron. "You ready, kid?"

Aaron nodded.

"Fabulous. Let's go again from the beginning of the scene."

They did.

*       *       *       *       *

Nick Carter tugged his baseball cap lower over his eyes and glanced furtively out from beneath the bill, shoving his uncovered hands in his pockets to keep them warm. His breath came out in clouds, tumbling westward in the slight wind. Heaving a deep sigh, he leaned back against the brick wall and glanced once more at the address plate.

746 East 11th Street. He definitely had the right address. He was just missing his support system.

Well, his support system and a cigarette, but he didn't do that anymore.

He closed his eyes for a moment to ease his nerves and tried to ignore the tiny voice in the back of his head that was pushing him to the drugstore across the street. It wasn't like he didn't have enough pocket change to buy a pack. It wasn't like he wasn't still carrying his lucky lighter in his left pocket.

He rolled his eyes as his thoughts hit the verge of desperation. And it's not like Aaron wouldn't notice if you walked back into the apartment reeking of cigarette smoke either, right? Dipshit. You're finally at a point where you can sing again. You can't fuck it up now.

"Nick? Is that you?"

He turned his head in the direction of the voice and fell back against the wall in relief when he caught sight of Cara. With a sheepish half-smile, he pulled the ball cap farther up on his head, unveiling his eyes. "Yeah, it's me."

She gave him a warm smile. "Good deal. Listen, I'm sorry I'm a little late. I had to find a different route to take so that I wouldn't run into Aaron."

Nick shrugged. "It's no big deal."

Something in the tone of his voice inspired a closer examination. "You okay?"

He shrugged again, looking away from her the concern in her eyes. "I guess."


He rolled his eyes and tugged his hat back over his eyes. "Let's just go."

"No," Cara replied firmly. "I only agreed to help you with this because you've been so honest with me. The second you start bottling things up, I'm out, okay? If you want to get better, you're going to have to be willing to put everything out on the

Nick chanced a glance at her from beneath the bill of his cap, and his shoulders slumped in defeat when he realized how serious she was. Suddenly, he could feel the carefully constructed toughness collapsing against his vulnerable interior.

"I'm sorry," he told her honestly. "It's just...this sucks, C. I really fucking hate that I have to come back here. It feels like everything has come full circle, and this really wasn't the circle that I imagined my life would go in."

"You're young, though," Cara pointed out solemnly. "You've got time to adjust the circle a bit."

Nick arched a doubtful eyebrow in Cara's direction. "I have to find an entirely new center for the circle."

"Not necessarily," she shrugged. "Maybe you just need to increase your radius a little." She glanced up to wink at him as he held the door open for her. "You know, broaden your horizons."

Nick rolled his eyes. "You make it sound so easy."

"What makes you think it's so hard?"

He sighed. "I tried this before, remember? This rehab thing is old news to me, and it didn't work the first time. Whether I failed the system or the system failed me, it obviously didn't work out right, because it's been five years and I'm still walking through the same door so I can deal with the same shit."

Cara sighed in return. "Maybe you just didn't have the right motivation before."

Immediately, his mind presented him with a picture of a younger, happier Aaron running towards him, a short little kid with floppy blonde locks and big brown eyes. For the longest time, Aaron had been his motivation to escape his downward spiral. He hated the way his brother looked through him so much that he'd wanted to change. Now, he couldn't remember what he hated more; the look on Aaron's
face, or the man in the mirror.

He knew he was getting better. He knew that he'd slowly started to rebuild whatever rapport he and his brother had established so long ago. He knew that he had shown a great deal of maturity in asking for help with withdrawal. However, none of it seemed to matter when he stared into the long, dark hall that led to his past. He knew that group therapy was one of the first steps to health, but he felt strangely like he was taking a large step backwards.

"You're moving in the right direction now. You know that, right? I know it sucks because you feel like you're going backwards, but you backpedaled a long time ago. You're moving forward now, Nick. We just need to get the training wheels off so you can balance on your own."

In an attempt to ignore the depth to which her words rang true, Nick turned to Cara with a skeptical expression. "You're filled with more corny phrases than a box of Hallmark cards. You know that, right?"

Cara smiled softly. "Aaron loves me that way."

Nick's expression immediately turned sour. "Wish he loved me," he muttered angrily, yanking open the door to the staircase.

"Nick!" Cara protested. "That's not fair. You know Aaron loves you."

He sighed petulantly, but he didn't try to counter her. "He pities me more."

"He worries about you," Cara correctly pointedly. "Not because he pities you, but because he cares. If he didn't love you, he would've written you off a long time ago."

He knew she was right, but it didn't make him want to admit it any more. "That's not the point, C. He's the younger brother. He shouldn't be worrying about me; I should be worrying about him. I'm supposed to be the mature, protective one. I shouldn't be someone about which he feels the need to worry."

Cara glanced over her shoulder and studied him for a moment. "You know what I think?"

He sighed heavily. "What?"

"I think you spend way too much time lamenting the way things ended up." She paused before dipping her chin and arching an eyebrow pointedly. "Look, Nick, what's done is done, okay? It sucks that you did what you did with the coke, and it sucks even more that it hurt Aaron to such a great degree, but you can't go back in time and fix any of it. All you can do is try to make everything from here on out better than before. You can't re-write the past; you can only try to improve in the future." She cocked her head to the side gently. "I can tell you this much, though. If you spend all your time living in the past, you're never going to appreciate or utilize any of the opportunities with which the future presents you."

Nick's eyes were focused on the ground. "I know that," he admitted.

"Do you really?"

His shoulders heaved with the force of his sigh, and his eyes rose to meet her. "Yeah, I do. I just...sometimes it feels like I've gone so far in the wrong direction that I'm never going to get it back to good."

"I know it feels like that," Cara agreed, "but you can do it. Just take baby steps."

Nick shot her an amused half-smile. "Baby steps, huh?"

"Yup," she winked. "And the first one involves walking right through that door."

*       *       *       *       *

Aaron Carter yanked his skull cap low over his ears and pulled his jacket more tightly around him as he hurried towards his destination. He'd taken a more obscure route so as to avoid conversation with Cara, and he was paying for it with his tardiness. The meeting was due to start in less than five minutes.

He folded his arms across his chest and ducked his head against the wind, breaking into a slow jog. He wasn't all that anxious to sit through another hour-long stretch of sob stories from reformed cocaine addicts, but he didn't want the added embarrassment of showing up late. Every time someone showed up late, they were forced into the spotlight, and he really wasn't in the mood to tell his brother's story.

He sucked in a deep breath and threw open the door of the building, shaking his head at the thought that he still wasn't in the mood to acknowledge his brother's story. A smile graced his features as he realized that he'd much rather be cuddled up against Cara's tall frame on their overstuffed corduroy couch, watching Johnny Depp impress the love of his life with a pair of dancing dinner rolls.

God, I love that girl.

Part of him was still suspended in disbelief at the ease with which he and Cara had made the transition from friends to lovers. She felt right in his arms, but the simplicity of their coupling was almost too easy. After all, the rest of his life was
always filled with drama.

Maybe that's it, though. Maybe she's supposed to be my one true thing. Maybe I ended up on her doorstep so she could show me how easy love can be when you get to choose who you give it to.

As he rounded the corner and trekked down the hall to the conference room, he couldn't help but think that loving his brother had never been half so easy. In fact, he'd almost given up hope with Nick, but Cara had been quick to steer him in the right direction. Somehow, she'd made the older brother bearable and concerned and--well, almost his again. His smile broadened at the thought of progress.

She really is my guardian angel. Every time she's around, all the hard stuff seems easier.

With Cara's smile in his mind's eye, he sucked in a deep breath and walked through the doors of the conference room.

It felt strangely like going back in time. The chairs arranged in concentric circles, the rows of hunched shoulders and downcast eyes, the impressive number of ball caps and sunglasses--all of it was eerily familiar to him. Suddenly, he was fifteen again, decked out in an oversized jersey and a bomber jacket, looking over his shoulder to make sure that no one in his entourage had thought to follow him out of the hotel at this hour of the night. Once he'd gotten over the initial shock of going to the meetings, he'd found a certain solace in them. After all, he'd been young enough to rest assured that there would be no Aaron Carter fans among the group of reformed cocaine addicts.

He glanced up in fear when he realized that the coast might not be so clear now. After all, he'd gotten a good deal older.

He sank into the seat closest to the door and scanned the crowd of faces, half expecting to see one of his pop tart girlfriends from years past among the haunted figures. He had a good girl now in Cara, but he'd dated a number of doozies during his platinum blonde days. He could easily see some of his ex-girlfriends taking the road Nick had traveled down. In fact, he could almost see his brother's tall frame hiding amongst the regulars in the back row.

He caught sight of a dark blonde ponytail, and his jaw went slack.

Nick hadn't grown the ponytail until long after rehab. He'd grown it to have something to play with every time he wanted a line. Their mother had made a point of telling Nick exactly how unflattering the long hair was, but Nick was hardly offended. In fact, he seemed to delight in the fact that Jane Carter was disgusted.

Aaron blinked once, twice to clear his vision, but the figure with the ponytail remained. Nick Carter was, in fact, sitting directly across from his younger brother.

Aaron's shoulders began to shake with rage as he locked gazes with a pair of familiar brown eyes, and he pulled his trembling fingers into identical fists to keep from lashing out at the nearest inanimate object. Truth to tell, he wasn't all that surprised to see his brother sitting at twelve o'clock. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he'd known that Nick wasn't entirely done with drugs. The thought that his brother would put him through this kind of hell again made him angry, yes, but it didn't infuriate him. He'd almost expected it.

He hadn't expected to see Cara folded delicately into the chair next to Nick.

*       *       *       *       *

"This is SO weird..."

Cara bit her lip to keep from laughing. It had taken quite a bit of patience to get Nick inside and seated, but once inside, he'd quickly made a bit of a nest in the second circle of chairs. Now, all that remained of his nervousness was his new mantra.

"No, I'm serious. This is SO weird. Like déjà vu."

Cara rolled her eyes. "Nick, it IS déjà vu. You said yourself that you've been to a thousand of these."

"Still..." He trailed off and allowed himself a shudder. "This is so weird."

Suddenly, Cara's eyes strayed to a tall, blonde figure at the front of the room. As soon as she recognized the wandering brown eyes, her entire body went rigid with fright.

"Don't look now," she muttered tightly, "but it's about to get weirder."

"Oh?" Nick's voice sounded amused. "Why's that?"

Her voice was low, strained, and void of all emotion.

"Aaron just walked in."

* "Confrontation"
performed by Anthony Warlow
lyrics by Leslie Bricusse
music by Frank Wildhorn
"Comforting Lie"
lyrics and music by No Doubt