Comforting Lie
Chapter Forty-Five
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

Usually, Aaron Carter was a morning person. He spent the majority of every day with a large number of friends and colleagues, and while he enjoyed their company, he also valued the alone time that the mornings provided. He enjoyed watching the sun rise over the New York City skyscrapers outside his bedroom window. He enjoyed listening to the first sounds of the morning, be they Cara's conversations with herself or Theresa's snoring. He really enjoyed savoring the first cup of coffee.

By the time Aaron rolled himself out of bed that morning, however, Cara had already poured three cups of coffee and buttered three pieces of toast. She was in the midst of cutting up apple slices when her significant other trudged through the kitchen door.

"Late night?" she inquired with a small smile. Aaron groaned.

"I guess so. It didn't feel late until I heard my alarm go off this morning."

"How long were you two fighting for?" Cara asked, handing Aaron one of the coffee mugs. He shrugged.

"We weren't up fighting, really. We cleared everything up pretty soon after you guys left. We ended up talking on the sofa for a long time, though."

Cara's brow furrowed in curiosity. "What were you two discussing?"

"Everything under the sun," Aaron chuckled. "We spent a lot of time talking about family stuff and how everything went down with Mom and Dad. He told me about Rhine and how much fun he's having with her in the studio, and I told him about the success with which we ran 'Confrontation' yesterday." Aaron paused to shake his head in amusement. "After having seen some of the rehearsals, he's really excited about the musical."

Cara shared her friend's smile. "So you guys are good now?"

"I don't know if we're good," Aaron admitted, "but we're certainly getting back to good. I feel like he's changed for the better since he came out here to live with us."

"I certainly agree with that," Cara laughed. "He's a lot more sensitive to everyone else's needs than he was when he first arrived."

"Yeah," Aaron agreed, "and I think he's starting to realize how much his past actions affected everyone. He must have apologized a thousand times for everything he put me through the first time he went to rehab."

"That's good," Cara commented. "Did he say anything about Backstreet?"

"You know," Aaron began in surprise, "he did, actually." He paused to shake his head incredulously. "In fact, I think that's the first time Nick has opened up about the stuff with Backstreet since it happened."

"He mentioned a little of it to me," Cara confided, "but he didn't really elaborate. He didn't really mention any of the guys individually, just explained that the situation sucked as a whole."

Aaron nodded in understanding. "Yeah, he spent a really long time being angry at the other guys for 'leaving him in the dust.' I mean, AJ went through a coke addiction in much the same way that Nick did, but Nick's addiction meant the end of the group. He felt like none of them cared enough to support him."

"He seems to understand how much he tried their patience, though," Cara countered. "He seemed much more forgiving the last time he talked to me about it."

Aaron laughed lightly. "He's certainly changed his tune in the last few weeks. He's no longer afraid to say their names." He sighed heavily, allowing his thoughts to drift to the other Backstreet Boys for a moment. "I don't think there's any hope of a Backstreet reunion, though."

"Nick's got a long way to go on his own first," Cara remarked quietly. Aaron nodded his agreement.

"Yeah, he does." He paused for a moment, and a smile graced his tired features. "For the first time, though, I feel like I'm making progress with him. Last night sucked, but he's right--it forced us to be real with each other. Now that we've both blown off steam, we can start to rebuild what we lost." Aaron paused long enough to lock gazes with his new girlfriend. "Which reminds me...I owe you an apology. I shouldn't have lost my temper with you last night."

"No, you had every right to be angry," Cara countered. "I did my best to support Nick, yes, but I should have been honest with you about it. It wasn't right of me to keep everything a secret from you."

"I would have appreciated the honesty," Aaron agreed, "but I don't blame you for keeping quiet about it. I recognize that it wasn't your place to say anything. At the end of the day, none of this shit between Nick and I has anything to do with you, and I'm sorry I was such an asshole about it."

Cara smiled. "You weren't an asshole, A. You were understandably upset."

He shrugged. "Maybe so, but I know I took it too far. I'm lucky that Nick stuck around to explain himself."

"I don't think he could've gone anywhere," Cara admitted with a laugh. "He was exhausted after chasing you all the way back from the meeting."

Aaron's eyes widened immediately. "Shit, I totally forgot about that! Didn't he drive to the meeting?"

Cara nodded slowly.

"So he left his car there overnight?"

She nodded again, and Aaron buried his face in his hands.

"Oh my God...I can't believe he did that. That's going to cost him a fortune."

"It's not like he doesn't have the money," Cara pointed out with a chuckle. Aaron groaned.

"It's not that, C. It's the hell is he going to get to work this morning?"

"He's going to take a cab," came a raspy voice from the edge of the kitchen. Both of the quarreling cast members looked up in surprise, but Nick met their astonished looks with a feeble smile. "Hey, I've been to New York a few times before. I know how to hail a taxi."

Aaron finally shook his head in amusement. "Good morning, Nick."

His brother leveled him with a warm smile. "Morning, AC." To Aaron and Cara's surprise, Nick plodded over and wrapped his younger brother in a hug. "Did you two straighten things out?"

Aaron's brow furrowed in shock, but he returned the hug willingly. God, it's been too long since we've acted like this. "Yeah, Cara forgave me for being an asshole."

"Good," Nick grinned, releasing his brother and reaching for Cara. "I told him that he should hold onto you. It's been awhile since he's had a girl interested in him for all the right reasons."

From the entrance to the kitchen, an exhausted and pajama-clad Theresa shook her head in disbelief. "Who in the hell are you and what have you done with Aaron's prick of an older brother?"

"I sent him into exile," Nick answered with a cheeky grin, grabbing a cup of coffee for himself and handing the other to Theresa. "Morning."

Theresa's doubtful gaze drifted to Aaron and Cara. "Is he for real?"

"Jury's still out on that one," Aaron laughed. "He's still got time for a relapse, but I'm slowly becoming a believer. Years and years ago, my brother was actually a nice person."

"Yeah, and *NSYNC had the number one album," Theresa grumbled angrily. "Man, I feel like I went to bed and woke up in a twisted episode of the Brady Bunch."

"Nah, wrong cast members," Cara laughed. "We're starring in a different musical where we're all going to be dead before dinner."

Theresa cracked a small smile at the Jekyll & Hyde joke and eyed Aaron curiously. "I sincerely hope you're the one responsible for Cara's good mood."

"I'll take credit for it," Aaron grinned broadly. "No question."

"But that doesn't mean he's responsible for it," Nick finished with a chuckle. "If she's got a migraine, on the other hand..."


"Years and years ago, I actually got to tease my younger brother," Nick remarked with a smirk. He reached for a few apple slices and began munching. "So when does rehearsal start today?"

"Seven-thirty," Aaron answered with a grimace. "It's going to be brutal, too, because we're really down to the wire now."

"Two days left until opening night," Cara groaned.

"Which means," Theresa began, "that Cal is going to make sure that we run this thing over and over and over until we want to throw up from exhaustion when we hear the overture starting again."

Nick winced at the mental imagery. "There's a pretty picture. Is he having you guys run through things in full costume?"

"We've been doing that for the past week," Cara laughed. "It helps with positioning onstage and polishing the choreography of the group numbers."

"We'll all be in full stage make-up today, though," Aaron chuckled. "He's going to want to absorb the full effect. Isn't that what he was saying yesterday night?"

"Something like that, yeah," Theresa grimaced. "He was saying a lot of things yesterday. It was kinda hard to keep up."

"He's running off of pure adrenaline now," Cara pointed out. "You know he sleeps less than we do."

"I didn't think that was possible," Aaron retorted with a groan. In hopes of avoiding the musical for a mere few moments, he turned to Nick with a furrowed brow. "What's on your agenda this morning?"

Nick smiled. "I'm actually escorting Rhine to her first photo-shoot today. We've finished recording five of her best songs so far, and she's in the process of choosing a first single, so we're taking publicity shots to send to some of the major media outlets in hopes of creating a buzz around her."

Aaron nodded thoughtfully. "Do you think she has what it takes to hit it big?"

Nick shrugged, his expression sobering. "If I didn't, I wouldn't have agreed to work with her. She's definitely got the talent to be successful, but she's got the motivation as well. She's really good about pushing herself to improve with every take in the studio."

"Have you guys decided on a look for her yet?"

Nick pursed his lips in concentration. "We're trying to work the whole 'chick rock' angle. We've asked her to bring her guitar along for the shots this morning, and we're going to try to put her up as a young adult musician with a good ear for acoustics and a lot of emotional intensity."

Aaron smiled knowingly. "Create appeal by making her seem anti-commercial, right?"

Nick grinned, cocking his head to one side in appreciation. "Exactly. I'm impressed that you remember all of that marketing shit."

Aaron rolled his eyes good-naturedly. "Lord knows I sat through enough of those meetings with Mom way back when."

"Oh, I know that," Nick laughed. "I just figured it was going in one ear and out the other."

"Not necessarily," Aaron said, sobering. "That's what I like about Broadway, though. Nobody cares about image because you're already playing a part that speaks for itself."

"With any luck, the critics will agree with you," Theresa intoned, grabbing her piece of toast. "Are we doing make-up here or at the venue?"

"I think we're pooling all of our shit together at the venue," Aaron replied, swallowing the last of his coffee. "We'll have more at our disposal that way. Speaking of which, I'm going to go throw some clothes on so we can get out of here. I'll see you guys in a sec." He shot them a smile over his shoulder as he sprinted out of the kitchenette and into his room. The second his door slammed shut, Theresa whirled around to face the older Carter.

"I don't know what the hell you said to him when we went to sleep last night, but I'm glad you said it."

Nick smiled softly. "Thanks. I feel like we've made infinite progress."

"You have," Theresa agreed with a chuckle, "and if you relapse again after all this, I'm going to kick your ass into next week."

"She's not kidding, either," Cara agreed with a smile. Nick winked at her before returning his attention to Theresa.

"I'm glad you care enough to kick my ass," he laughed, "but you won't have to. I'm sure you guys like seeing us this happy, but I can promise that I enjoy it ten times more."

"Yeah, you actually seem to be placing some emotional investment in each other now," Cara said quietly. "I'm impressed."

"I was blown away by the conversation about Rhine," Theresa agreed. "I had no fucking idea that Aaron knew that much about the music business."

Nick took a careful sip of his coffee. "He had to learn a lot whenever he took his career into his own hands."

"Yeah, but he learns quickly," Cara observed with a small smile. "It was amazing to see how quickly he adapted to the Broadway side of things."

"I can't wait to see it," Nick grinned. "After watching him in rehearsal these past few weeks, I know you guys are going to be phenomenal."

"Let's hope Cal shares your faith," Theresa muttered. "At this rate, he's so stressed that he's going to skin us all alive before we have a chance to prove ourselves."

Nick cast a sideways glance at his watch. "You'd better run, then," he told them seriously. "If he's that freaked out, then the last thing you need is a late arrival."

The girls obeyed immediately, and Nick leaned back against the counter to finish his coffee in contented silence.

*      *      *      *      *

Many long, tedious hours later, the tired musical trio were trudging blindly back up the stairs to their apartment.

"That had to have been the longest fucking day of my life," Aaron grumbled, groping for the banister as they rounded another corner.

"You can say that again," Theresa groaned. "God, I don't even want to climb the last flight of stairs. Can we just collapse here? I could probably fall asleep..."

Cara bit her lip to keep from laughing at the dramatic antics of her costars. "You'd feel a lot better if you made it to a bed, Terry."

Theresa looked up anxiously at the closest apartment door. "Do we know the people in 4D?"

"Not well enough for you to be sleeping with them," Cara retorted with a good-natured eye roll. "Come on, T, it's only sixteen more steps."

"I can't do it," Theresa sighed, sliding down the wall to a sitting position. "You two go on without me."

Aaron didn't look the least bit amused. "Cut it out, Theresa. If I can make it up there, then you can too."

Cara furrowed her brow in concern and laid a gentle hand on Aaron's arm in hopes of calming him. "Aaron..."

He heaved a tired sigh and covered her hand with his. "Sorry. I'm just tired. It was a long fucking day, and I fucking hate talking to my mother."

Cara's frown deepened considerably at the unexpected mention of the infamous Jane Carter. "Is that who called during lunch today?"

"Unfortunately, yes," Aaron muttered, making the trek up the last flight of stairs. "She wanted to know if there would be paparazzi and shit outside of the theater tomorrow for the opening night extravaganza."

Theresa wrinkled her nose in confusion. "Why the hell would Cal let cameras sit around outside the theater?"

"He wouldn't," Aaron answered, "but that's not the point. The point is that, because the show has the possibility of press, my mother thinks she needs to make an appearance."

"Why?" Cara persisted. "Aren't celebrity parents supposed to hate the press? Besides, you and Nick have been out of the limelight for quite awhile now. Why would the press pay attention to your mother?"

Aaron burst into bitter, sarcastic laugher. "Oh, trust me, C, the press has plenty of reason to pay attention to my mother. Even without two retired pop star sons, the woman is like a one-person circus. She's a fucking rollercoaster ride. It makes for a suck-ass home situation, but television crews adore her because she's never known a day without excessive drama."

Theresa sucked in a breath. She hadn't heard much about Jane Carter, but she was liking the woman less and less. "So she called to ask permission to come to the show because she wants face time?"

Aaron chuckled hollowly. "Essentially, yeah. She made it sound like she'd be making a huge sacrifice to travel all the way out here, but she really just wants to know whether or not she'll get any publicity out of this."

Cara arched a concerned eyebrow. "What on earth did you say?"

"I told her I didn't know whether or not I could get her tickets," Aaron sighed. "Which is, of course, complete and total bullshit, but I really have no desire to see the woman."

Cara shook her head. "Aaron, that's terrible. She's your mother..."

"I know," he grunted, waving her off. "I know she's my mother, but she hasn't acted like it since I was seven years old, so forgive me if I don't feel any fucking obligation to be nice to her."

"So why didn't you just tell her not to come?" Theresa asked. She understood the need to avoid parents at all costs. Hell, I've certainly avoided mine enough.

"I can't do that," Aaron sighed. "Not until I've talked to Nick. I know those two are on the outs right now, but he's on this new 'rebuilding bridges' kick, and I didn't want to blow her off if he had some kind of plan to incite a resolution."

"You said you talked about family stuff last night," Cara reminded him quietly. "Did it seem like Nick might want to resolve things between the two of them?"

"Hell if I know," Aaron shrugged. "I mean, we did talk about family shit last night, but Nick didn't say a lot about Mom. He never does. He kept in touch with her for awhile after Mom and Dad split, but he stopped talking to her after he went into rehab."

"Is that a good thing or a bad thing?" Cara asked gently. Aaron rolled his eyes.

"Are you kidding? It was a fucking great thing. Knowing Mom, she was part of what put him in there in the first place." He paused and shook his head, allowing himself a moment to lament his family situation. "Don't get me wrong, C--she's my mother and I love her. I just wish that things were different. I wish that, just once, she could learn to forget about her own personal gain and do something for her kids out of the goodness of her heart." He laughed hollowly. "It's a lot like Nick, I guess. I know better than to hope, but sometimes I can't help it."

"The more you hope, the more she's going to let you down," Theresa cautioned. "She doesn't seem like the type who's ever going to follow through on that whole maternal thing."

"She's been in the business too long to know what 'maternal' means," Aaron bit, "and I know that, but it doesn't make the situation any less frustrating." He heaved a sigh as he placed his foot on the last step and turned to cast a pleading glance at his flatmates. "Can we drop the subject now? I just want to go in and eat."

"I thought you were going to talk to Nick about her call?" Cara countered.

"I need to," Aaron agreed, "but that doesn't mean I've figured out how to broach the subject yet. Let's just get inside."

Theresa obliged, unlocking the front door and shoving it open. The three tired cast members lumbered into the foyer, heads down and eyes only half-open.

"Hey! It's about time you guys got here. I was beginning to wonder if I needed to pack up, head to the theater, and scrape you off the floor."

All three roommates looked up in surprise to see a blonde head peeking out from behind the kitchen doorway. Aaron was the only one who didn't return Nick's teasing smile.

"I was going to pass out, but then C dragged me out into the cold."

Cara rolled her eyes good-naturedly at Aaron's melodramatic tone. "I did it for your own good, A. I know you'd rather sleep in your own bed than on Cal's dusty floor." She turned her gaze to Nick and winked at him. "Do you have a vote for dinner?"

"If I did, it'd be an unnecessary vote," he admitted with a chuckle. "I got home about two hours ago and figured that you guys would be exhausted, so I went out and picked something up."

Theresa and Cara exchanged apprehensive glances while Aaron's eyebrows rose in appreciation.

"You got us dinner?" the younger Carter affirmed. The elder nodded eagerly.

"Yeah! See, I'm not all bad. I know how to be a good houseguest."

"Jury's still out on that one," Aaron retorted. "I don't know what you picked up yet."

"Hardcore comfort food with minimal dairy," Nick answered proudly. "Come see!"

The three took a few tentative steps into the kitchen, and their jaws fell open in surprise. The small kitchen table was filled with plastic tubs of mashed potatoes, creamed spinach, meatloaf, kernel corn, and cornbread rolls. Had the smell not been enough of an indication, the plastic bags on the counter confirmed that Nick had raided Boston Market. The amazement didn't cease with the purchase, though; the former Backstreet Boy had also set four places at the table complete with napkins, silverware, and plastic plates.

"I figured you guys would want a home-cooked meal," Nick started shyly, "but I can't cook worth shit, and I knew Cara would be exhausted, so..."

Cara knew exactly how exhausted she was when a lone tear escaped between her eyelashes. God, he's really going to make it this time, isn't he? He's already changed for the better.

Theresa was the first to break the uncomfortable silence. "Dude," she began, turning her attention to Nick, "I know we've had our differences, but this is amazing. You rock."

"I second that motion," Cara agreed, heaving a contented sigh. "This was so sweet of you..."

Nick chuckled nervously. "I didn't think it'd be that big a deal. I mean, you guys generally take turns doing stuff for each other. The least I can do is pitch in every now and then."

"Oh, don't front. You knew you were going to shock the hell out of us."

Nick's eyebrows flew sky-high at his brother's frank tone.

"Aaron!" Cara scolded, wagging a finger in her new boyfriend's direction. "Be nice!"

"What?" Aaron laughed. "I'm not allowed to tease my brother about his blatant attempt to impress the ladies?"

Nick winced. Okay, so I might've been trying to impress them. Just a little bit. I just...I know I've been an asshole, and I want to change that! I'm trying to be better!

Aaron turned towards his brother with a tired smile. "Oh, relax. I'm kidding."

Nick's sigh of relief was noticeably loud. "I knew that."

"Sure you did," Aaron retorted with a shake of the head. "Seriously, man, were you abducted by aliens or something? Should I be watching for glitches in the matrix?"

Nick rolled his eyes at his brother's ribbing. "No. I told you I was going to be better. I'm trying to be nice!"

Aaron's eyes widened ever so slightly at the knowledge that he might've gone too far. He reached over and clapped his brother on the back, giving the older man a quick sideways hug before pulling away. "I know. I'm sorry. I just...thanks, man. Really. This is awesome."

"He's grateful," Theresa agreed. "He's just pissed because his bad news is going to seem ten times worse now."

"You never know," Cara countered. "A couple of mashed potatoes could soften the blow."

Aaron glared darkly at his two roommates. "Can we shut up and eat now? This smells amazing, and I'm starving."

"I second that," Nick agreed, shooting curious glances at the two women in the room. "I want to hear more about this bad news, though. Did something happen at rehearsal?"

"A lot of things happened at rehearsal," Theresa shrugged. "We've got one more day before opening night, and Cal's on warpath."

Nick directed his inquisitive gaze to Aaron. "Are you sick again? Can you still sing?"

Aaron nodded, taking a seat across from his brother. "Yeah, I'm fine. Nothing worth mentioning happened at rehearsal."

"Except for Rob falling off the stage during 'His Work and Nothing More,'" Cara put in with a giggle. "That's worth mentioning."

Nick managed a small smile for Cara's benefit before furrowing his brow at Aaron again. "So what's wrong, then?"

Aaron savored his first bite of mashed potatoes and sighed contentedly. "I'm just in a bitter mood today."

"Not enough sleep?" Nick prompted. Aaron shook his head.

"Not enough space," he corrected. Nick's eyes widened immediately.

"I'm sorry, AC. I can back off, if you need me to. I know you're under a lot of stress, and..."

"Not you," Aaron argued with a wave of his hand. "God, not you. We've had enough space between us these past five years to last me a lifetime. I'm talking about family shit."

The two girls watched carefully as Nick's expression grew guarded and apprehensive. "What family shit? More about Angel?"

"I wish," Aaron retorted, grabbing a roll from the basket on the table. "Mom called today."

Aaron had expected the mention of his mother to incite a lot of reactions from Nick, but he certainly hadn't expected for the color to drain from his brother's face. He set the roll down carefully and leaned towards Nick with a curious expression as his brother's jaw dropped.

"Nick? Are you okay?"

The aforementioned shook his head as if to clear it and managed a small nod. Fuck, Carter, pull it together. "Yeah. I'm...I'm fine," he choked out.

"You don't look fine," Aaron persisted, narrowing his eyes in confusion.

"Something must've gone down the wrong pipe," Nick muttered as he forced himself to breathe. "What did...what did she want?"

Aaron rolled his eyes in annoyance at the memory of the conversation. "She wanted to know if there were going to be cameras at the opening. She doesn't want to pay for tickets, but she feels that, as my mother, she should make an appearance if it's a big press event."

"But it's not!" Nick finished a little too eagerly. "So there's absolutely no reason for her to be there."

"Right," Aaron agreed skeptically, "but I told her that I didn't know whether or not I could get her seats."

"You can't," Nick answered immediately. Oh, that's great, Nick. Way to sound like an asshole. "I mean, you could, but...but you only get two, right? I'm bringing Rhine."

Cara looked mildly impressed. "Oh, cool. We finally get to meet your protégé?"

"Yeah," Nick nodded. Well, once I ask her. Shit. How the hell do I get myself into these situations? "Yeah, Rhine's coming," he repeated lamely. Aaron cast him a disbelieving look.

"Technically, I could get more tickets," he admitted. "I mean, I'm not all that eager to see Mom either, but I didn't want to go pissing her off. I know you're in the midst of turning your life around, and I figured you might want to resolve things with her."

Nick nodded his understanding and heaved a tentative sigh. "Is it okay if I'm not interested?"

Aaron chuckled bitterly. "Dude, it's more than okay. Like I said, I don't want to see her either."

Nick breathed an audible sigh of relief, and Aaron took the moment to study his brother more closely.

"Hey, Nick?"

Good God, he fucking scared the shit out of me. "Yeah?"

"Can I ask you a question?"

He swallowed forcefully. "Sure."

Aaron put his fork down and leaned in more closely. "What's your hang-up with Mom?"

Breathe, Nick, breathe. "What do you mean? You just said that you don't want to see her either."

"Yeah, but I'm not this antsy about it," Aaron countered matter-of-factly. "You look like someone just threatened to drive a knife through your side."

Nick heaved another sigh and tried to be as honest as possible. " said it yourself, Air. I'm trying to get my life back together. I know it's hard to believe that someone can change after five years of the same shit, but I'm trying. And I'm not stupid...I know that you guys are still suspending your disbelief. I know you have your doubts, but I really appreciate the fact that you've been quiet about them." He lifted his gaze long enough to look his brother in the eyes. "You know her, though. She's not going to be quiet about it. She's just going to be hyper-critical, and I can't handle that kind of negativity right now."

It was only half-true, but Aaron seemed to accept the answer.

"That makes sense," he sighed.

"No shit," Theresa agreed. "Hyper-critical parents suck." She leveled Nick with a knowing look. "Especially in the midst of withdrawal."

Nick closed his eyes for a moment to combat the memories that the statement inspired. "I hadn't even thought about that."

"Speaking of," Aaron began, eager to steer the topic of conversation away from his mother. Hell, I can only take so much family talk these days. "Did you find a professional to help you with the psychological part of that?"

"Yeah," Nick admitted. "I called the guy in LA, and he said he'd be glad to help me find someone out here to go to."

"You don't sound too excited about that," Cara remarked quietly. Nick fired a nervous smile in her direction.

"Therapy is...intense," he finished lamely, "for lack of a better word. It takes a lot out of you."

"It forces you to acknowledge a lot of ugly things about yourself, too," Theresa groaned. "It's that whole idea that awareness equals control."

"It sounds like bullshit," Aaron chuckled, "but it really does help. It forces you to talk about the things that you would otherwise keep hidden, so it cancels out the whole emotional burden factor."

Nick glanced sideways at Aaron, studying him for a moment with a new appreciation. "Is that how you got through all of that shit with Mom and Dad?"

Aaron shrugged, taking a sudden interest in his dinner. "I had to talk to somebody..."

Nick's face fell when he heard the loneliness in his brother's tone, and he heaved a sad sigh. "You should've been able to talk to me," he finally lamented. His gaze drifted to the floor, and he cursed himself for the thousandth time for what his addiction had done to his relationship with Aaron.

Aaron could recognize a pity party when he saw it. Hell, I've certainly thrown enough of them. He kicked the table to get his brother's attention and smiled slyly when Nick looked up in surprise.

"Hey," he warned. "Enough, okay? I can talk to you now, and that's all that matters."