Comforting Lie

Chapter Forty-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

Aaron Carter awoke slowly and groggily to the sound of a loud beeping noise. With increasing annoyance, he opened one eye and scanned his bedroom for the source of the offensive sound. His gaze landed rather sluggishly on his persistent alarm clock, which was flashing 6:00 AM in neon green. Expelling a sleep-thick grunt of frustration, Aaron dragged an arm out from beneath his bedcovers and slapped the power button. The noise ceased immediately, and Aaron's arm fell lethargically back against the pillows as he rolled onto his back and began blinking at the ceiling, trying desperately to get his bearings.

The silver-gray tinge of New York City's fall sunlight was streaming through the window above his bed. Outside, cabbies were honking incessantly to protest the never-ending flow of traffic. Aaron ran a tired hand over his ruggedly boyish features and blinked again. When he opened his eyes, the part of his watch that proudly displayed the date was directly in his line of sight. Aaron scanned it involuntarily, and his eyes immediately widened with realization as the date registered.

Thu Sep 30.

Thursday, September 30.

Oh my God. It's opening night. Tonight is opening night.

With that same phrase echoing in his head, he immediately dashed into the apartment's only bathroom and threw up.

*     *      *      *      *

It was just barely seven o'clock when a boxer-clad Nick strode cheerfully into the

"Morning,y'all!" he called, grinning at the tired, rundown trio that occupied the
makeshift kitchen table. "How's it going?"

"Don't ask," Theresa grumbled into her oatmeal.

"Aw, it can't be that bad," Nick murmured sympathetically. "You guys have been rehearsing like mad for the past two months, right? Besides, I've seen you all in action, and I think you're more than ready for opening night."

Cara glanced up feebly. "Can we not mention that part of the day? Aaron just stopped throwing up, and I don't want to get him started again."

Aaron cast her a dark look, made much more menacing by the deep purple bags under his eyes. "Thanks, C," he shot sarcastically.

"You ought to be thanking her," Theresa snapped belligerently. "Lord knows I wouldn't have helped you clean up that mess."

Cara managed a wan smile of acknowledgment behind her teacup. "What're girlfriends for?"

"Sex," Theresa deadpanned, and an uncomfortable silence settled over the table for a good five minutes before Nick dared to speak again.

"So, uh...not to be the party-pooping reality check or anything, but...what time are you guys supposed to be at the venue?" He caught Aaron's eye-roll just in time.

There was a brief moment of shuffling between the two women before Cara responded.


"Noon?" Nick repeated, frowning deeply. "Why so early? The show doesn't start until eight, right?"

"Right," Cara confirmed with a nod. "Show starts at eight, doors open at seven. Cal wants us there early for a staging run-through, though. He wants to make sure
we've mastered any recently made changes in blocking before we go out in front of a real audience."

"That's the excuse, at least," Theresa chuckled dryly. "Really, he just wants full
control over our pre-performance behavior."

Nick arched a skeptical eyebrow. "Is he really that much of a tyrant?"

"You have to ask?" Cara replied incredulously. "He's made the entire staging rehearsal silent so we can't do any vocal damage. He's also catering dinner so that we don't eat anything that could interfere with our ability to sing well."

Nick let out a low whistle. "Wow. That's...extensive."

"No shit," Theresa muttered. "He also wants us to be in full costume forty-five
minutes before the show so he can approve of our attire. Trust me...Cal's got this entire show under the pad of his pinky finger."

"It's kind of understandable, though," Aaron sighed. "I mean, he's right.  He's been
eating, breathing, sleeping, and shitting this thing for the past six months.  He wants it to go perfectly."

"It will," Nick assured his roommates with a confident grin. "I have faith."

"I'm glad someone does," Theresa retorted. Cara glanced from Theresa to the green-tinged Aaron and decided to change the subject.

"So, Nick...what are your plans for the day?"

Nick shrugged. "I'm not entirely sure, actually. I took the day off." When he caught the shocked looks on his roommates' faces, he smiled sheepishly. "I mean, I'll probably drop by the label and make sure things are going well with Rhine's publicity, but I need to find a tux for tonight, so I'm going to spend some time checking out the fashion scene."

Aaron's brow furrowed in surprise. "You don't have a tux?"

"Not with me," Nick sighed. "I'm sure I've got one in storage somewhere, but...I haven't had to wear a tux in years."

Aaron managed a feeble smile. "Well, I'd say you could borrow mine, but..."

"But you're a shrimp," Nick finished with a teasing grin, "and I need a suit that's
going to set off all my muscle."

"Careful who you're calling shrimp, big bro," Aaron chuckled. "You've lost quite a bit of muscle mass since the old days. Do you even know where a gym is?"

Nick rolled his eyes good-naturedly. "I work out."

Aaron leveled his brother with a doubtful look. "Dude, chasing me back from the
Cocaine Addicts Anonymous meeting doesn't count."

Nick's eyebrows rose in something between surprise and offense, and Theresa snorted amusedly into her cereal.

Fortunately for Nick, years with the Backstreet Boys had taught him how to recover quickly.

"You know what, bro? You're right. Maybe I'll just start throwing up," he smirked.
"You think you give me some pointers?"

It was Aaron's turn for a good-natured eye-roll. "Touché."

Nick grinned delightedly. "Anyway...I'm renting a tux, and then I'm probably going
to chill in the studio and mix for a bit before I have to go pick up Rhine."

Cara frowned. "Won't she be in the studio with you?"

"Nah," Nick shrugged. "I know how you women are when it comes to making yourselves pretty. I figured I'd give her the day off."

"Trying to butter her up now so you can kick her ass later?" Aaron teased knowingly.  Nick took a page out of Howie's old book and winked at his younger brother.

"You know it." He glanced at his watch. "I should probably get out of here, though. I'd really like to have more than an hour to play back the stuff we got on
'Denial' last night."

The first genuine smile of the morning crossed Aaron's weary features. "Aw, man...let me know how amazing it is, okay?" He paused for a moment, remembering their previous day in the studio. "Better yet, just bring home the demo."

"Will do," Nick agreed, pleasantly surprised by his brother's continued interest. "In
fact...if you want to join us in the studio tomorrow while we work on it, that'd be great."

Aaron's eyes lit up enthusiastically. "Really?"

"Hell, yeah!" Nick cried. "Are you kidding? You were really helpful in there! I'd love
to have you along for the ride while this thing comes to fruition."

Aaron was smiling so hard that his cheeks hurt. "Awesome. I'm there."

"Cool," Nick grinned. "So...we'll talk more tomorrow, then."

"Sounds like a plan," the younger Carter agreed excitedly.

From the kitchen table, Theresa and Cara exchanged looks of satisfied amusement as Nick said his good-byes and went to begin the day.

*     *      *      *      *

Four hours later, rental tux in hand, Nick stared up at the entrance of one of Manhattan's posh hotels and took a deep, apprehensive breath.

Come on, Carter, you can do this. You need to do this. You're not alone anymore, and you need to take advantage of this support system before you fuck it up.

With this less conventional pep talk, Nick sucked in another breath and strode through the building's glass doors with much more confidence than he felt. With admirable instincts, he navigated the hotel corridors until he had arrived at a set of frosted glass double doors that read Salon Lacroix. He sucked in another deep breath and lifted his chin confidently. He hadn't felt sure of himself in years, but he remembered enough from his days as a Backstreet Boy to at least look the part. With that thought, he swept the salon door open and strode purposefully up to the counter, where he summoned a charming smile for the clerk's benefit.

"Name?" She blushed under his gaze, and he felt a tiny surge of satisfaction.

"Carter," he replied assuredly. "I have an appointment with André."

Her eyes widened in appreciation. "Absolutely, sir. I'll let Mr. Lacroix know you're
here. Can I get you anything while you wait? Some coffee, perhaps?"

He shook his head ever so slightly. "I'm good, thanks."

"Of course," she replied warmly. "Mr. Lacroix will be right out, I'm sure.  Just have a seat wherever you'd like."

He took her advice and fell haltingly into a rather still couch of pea green leather.
There was an extensive assortment of fashion magazines on the glass coffee table, but he had no interest in flipping through one. Instead, he put his elbows on his knees and turned his attention to the photograph he'd brought with him.

He'd thought long and hard about the look he wanted to reassume. Digging through albums--or, in his case, shoeboxes--of personal photographs would've been too painful, and he'd left most of his career memorabilia in Florida; so he'd spent hours online, surfing through old fan sites in search of the perfect look. He wanted it to be symbolic--of success, both personal and professional, and something as close to happiness as he could remember. Photographically, he'd relived his entire career, from the matching windbreakers of the early days to the sunglasses and leather of the Chapter One period.

Thanks to the sections labeled "Nick Pics," he'd been able to avoid seeing any of the other Boys. Watching himself evolve had inspired a yearning for change, though.  Looking through old pictures had caused as much pain as he'd expected, but mostly it just made him miss the music.

The picture he'd finally settled on was a shot taken at the Grammys in 2000.  They were still riding high on the success of Millennium, and though the evening hadn't brought them any wins, it had brought them closer together. Even Kevin had admitted--grudgingly, of course--that the performance had been impeccable, and they'd spent the evening at after-parties, collecting unexpected praise from industry legends. 

He'd chosen the photograph because it was the only picture of himself he didn't view with disdain. Even now, turning it over in his hands, there were no overwhelming feelings of disgust at his own naiveté or, later, the pain through which he'd put himself and his loved ones. There was only the memory of good music, good friends, and great opportunity. Once upon a time, he'd loved who he was and what he was able to do.

Looking at the picture, he could almost remember what that felt like.

"Mr. Carter?"

He glanced up in surprise to see a small man with tiny yellow spectacles and an auburn mohawk smiling down at him.

"I'm André," the man gushed in a wonderfully effeminate tone. "It's so nice to meet you."

Nick offered his hand with what he hoped was a warm smile. "Nick," he reciprocated, "and same to you."

"Let's get this show on the road, then, shall we? Let me get you a smock, and then we'll find a comfy chair so you can show me exactly how you want me to tame those lovely blonde locks."

Nick bit his lip to keep from laughing out loud. "Sounds like a plan."

"Fabulous! Tell me you won't be offended if I give you a purple smock."

"Nah, it's cool," Nick chuckled. "I'm secure. I can handle purple."

"All man, are you?" André smirked. Within seconds, Nick had donned a purple smock and was seated in one of the salon chairs, nervously tapping his feet against the floor as André removed the ponytail holder. Nick's long blonde hair immediately fell over his shoulders like a curtain, sleek, smooth, and straight.

"You have beautiful hair," André told him sincerely, contentedly running his fingers
through Nick's glossy strands. "What would you like to do with it today? Trim?"

"Actually, no," Nick admitted, his voice shaking. He rolled his eyes at his own lack of resolve and cleared his throat. "I was thinking something like this, actually." He removed the picture from his pocket and passed it to André. Behind him, the man gave a gasp of surprise.

"But this...this is short!"

"Exactly," Nick agreed. "Isn't there...can't you donate hair, or something?"

"Locks of Love* is a program that allows people to donate hair to make wigs for cancer patients," André recited quietly, his hands buried in Nick's hair. "They require ten inches, though."

Nick stared at himself in the mirror for the first time in a long time, trying to gauge. His face was thinner now, more drawn, and his Florida tan had faded enough that his frown lines seemed deeper.

"Is there enough to donate?" he asked quietly. André immediately pulled out a
tape measure.

"Plenty," the stylist assured him. "Are you sure it's what you want?"

Nick closed his eyes for a brief moment. Suddenly, his purple smock was a purple dress shirt, and he was drinking champagne with Howie and Kevin while Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs gushed about how much he'd loved their performance of "Show Me The Meaning." He could feel his cheeks aching from smiling so hard. When Brian emerged, placing a friendly hand on Nick's shoulder, and Prince surfaced alongside Puff Daddy and echoed his praises, Nick thought his heart would burst from happiness.

He opened his eyes slowly. His nerves seemed to dissipate. Suddenly, the curtain of hair seemed trivial.

"Absolutely," he asserted firmly. "Cut it all off."

*      *      *      *      *

"Ten bucks says Carter pukes all over his shoes before the opening number's over."

Cara glanced up from the make-up mirror with a look of complete and utter contempt.

"That's cruel, Rob."

"Not to mention disgusting," Larkin added, groaning. "Besides, I can't say I'd blame him if he did. I'm kinda ready to toss a few cookies myself."

Rob winced. "Have I mentioned how glad I am that we aren't in any scenes together?"

"Have I mentioned how much I envy her for it?" Theresa retorted, emerging from the backstage toilet in a ratty t-shirt, leg warmers, and full wig. "Seriously, Larkin, can we trade places?"

"Not a chance in hell," the redhead chuckled. "I'd much rather be a whore than Rob's daughter. Sorry, babe."

Tabitha entered the girls' dressing room in a swirl of taffeta, frowning immediately when she noticed Ron. "Sir Danvers, not to be rude, but what are you doing in the
women's dressing room?"

"Theresa promised to do my eyeliner," he grumbled, tugging at the bowtie of his tuxedo. "Apparently, it wasn't up to Cal's standards at rehearsal this afternoon."

Tabitha tried unsuccessfully to conceal her smirk.

"It's okay, Daddy dearest," Theresa assured sarcastically. "Not all of us can have
impeccable training in maquillage."

"Okay, now I know I'm in an alternate universe," Aaron grumbled as he made his way into the room. "Not only is Tabitha being sarcastic, but Theresa's speaking French?"

"I'm impressed that you managed to identify French, Mr. GED," Theresa spat back.

Aaron rolled his eyes. "Yeah, well, you start to pick up on things after your third time around the world," he retorted in annoyance. Having said his peace, he glanced pleadingly at his girlfriend, who had contorted herself on the counter so as to get closer to the mirror. "Cara, baby, could you do my eyeliner too?"

"You're telling me that, after years and years of pop stardom, you still don't know how to do your own make-up?" Rob snorted.

"Back off, Broadway boy," Aaron warned. "I saw you staring at that mascara wand like it held all the secrets of the universe. Pot's not allowed to criticize the kettle for being black."

"Man law," Trent agreed, stepping into the crowded dressing room. "Where's Tabby?"

"Tabby is fighting with her fake eyelashes right now," Tabitha grumbled from the second vanity mirror. "What are you doing in the girls' room, baby?"

"Apparently, none of the men in this cast passed eyeliner inspection," Trent muttered in frustration.

"None of the men, huh?" Theresa murmured teasingly. "Where's Sir Simon Stride, then?"

The three boys looked around inquiringly for their fourth musketeer, but to no avail.

"Fucking Kyle," Aaron grumbled. "Always the prodigy."

"It's probably because he slept with that director," Rob agreed with a roll of his eyes.

"That's right," Theresa agreed patronizingly. "Eyeliner secrets are restricted to women and men who fuck their directors."

Cara whirled around to stare in amazement at the cast sprawled out on the floor beneath her. "Is anyone in a good mood today?"

The answer was a rousing "no."

"I'm sorry, I missed the part where I said you could chitchat."

The entire cast fell silent as Cal's distinctive voice echoed along the walls of the dressing room, and roughly seven fearful gazes ventured to the director's figure, which stood threateningly in the doorframe.

"If you're going to blatantly ignore my instructions every time I grudgingly acknowledge your accomplishments, I might just have to put an end to my acknowledgments," the director mused pointedly. "You had a surprisingly successful blocking rehearsal, yes. The run-throughs of 'Façade' and 'Murder, Murder' didn't make my ears bleed with lack of intonation. However, that success should encourage you to be on your best behavior. Miraculously, you rough and tumble lot have put yourselves in a position to not embarrass each other tonight. You might even get applause at the end of the evening if you focus hard enough. You will destroy any and all chance of that success if you make yourselves vocally tired before the performance. I know you love nothing more than to engage in dimwitted repartee when you think I'm not listening, but I'd appreciate it if, for the sake of my sanity and yours, you held off until after the show is over." He glared menacingly at the group for a moment to let his words sink in. "Now, I expect to see you all onstage in half an hour, fully dressed, so that I can make sure you all look the part. Do not be late."

That said, the director disappeared into the bowels of the theater, and the cast in question expelled a collective sigh of relief.

Cara, who had finished with her own eyeliner and was preparing to do her boyfriend's, glanced inquisitively at Aaron. "Did he just try to compliment us somewhere in there?"

Aaron chuckled hollowly. "You know what's sad? I've spent three months with the man, and I still can't tell."

*     *      *      *      *

"Holy shit!"

Nick glanced up in something between fear and alarm at the high-pitched exclamation. He'd been at the door of Rhine's Brooklyn apartment for at least ten minutes, alternatively knocking and counting the plasterboard tiles in her poorly constructed ceiling.  The numbers on the door were crooked, and the paint was chipping. In fact, he'd been carefully uncovering an elephant of blue paint beneath the door's overwhelming hunter green when she finally answered the door, poking her nose through the crack left by the chain lock.

"What?" he asked nervously, dusting his rental tux self-consciously. "Did I wear the wrong color tie?"

"Huh?" Rhine's features relaxed into an amused smile. "Oh, no, it's not that.  I'm wearing black, actually. I just..." She looked momentarily bewildered. "I didn't realize I'd be going to the theater with a Backstreet Boy."

Nick narrowed his eyes at her. Her eyes were widened in a way that looked strangely familiar. "Rhine...come on. You knew long before today...what I used to do in this business." For some reason, he couldn't say the name of the group in front of Rhine. She had nothing to do with the man he'd been then.

"Yeah, but you actually look like one now," Rhine admitted. She gave an odd little laugh. "It's...just weird, is all. Before, you were Mr. Carter, the guy from the label.
Now..." She looked him up and down with a crimson flush.

Nick's eyes widened in shock when he realized where he'd seen that look before.  "You were a fan?" he hissed in surprise.

"I might've been," she mumbled. "My older brother is gay! He worshipped you guys once upon a time. I didn't stand a chance, man."

Nick wasn't sure whether to take the compliment or not. "Um..."

Finally, Rhine lifted her gaze from the floor and seemed to gain a bit of composure. "I'm sorry. I'll stop fawning now. Come on in, I'm almost ready."

She closed the door to undo the chain and opened it widely so Nick could step into her tiny apartment. "This is my humble abode," she chuckled nervously, gesturing to the small carpet couch, tiny TV, and disheveled bed. There was a kitchenette in one corner, and a door to his right seemed to lead to the bathroom. He wanted to make a crack about the extent to which she hadn't spent her signing bonus yet, but he felt that, given her recent admissions, the joke might be inappropriate.

Shit. I'm working with a Backstreet fan.
"I didn't break up the group," he burst out hastily.

It was Rhine's turn to look confused. "What?"

"The group," Nick repeated, not entirely sure what he was trying to convey. "I didn't..." He trailed off and sucked in a breath. "In my experience, most people who were fans aren't exactly fond of me. I know there were rumors, and..."

Rhine laughed lightly, looking somewhat incredulous. "Ni...Mr. Carter?"

He bit his lip and met her gaze apprehensively. "Yeah?"

"I was a fan of the music first, okay? I mean, don't get me wrong--I read the
teenybopper rags, and I knew your favorite color, and I had posters in my room, but...I know pretty much next to nothing about why the group ended, and I certainly don't hate you.  In fact, um..." She trailed off and glanced away, a pretty crimson blush blossoming on her cheeks. "You were kind of my favorite."

Nick's eyebrows buried themselves in his newly-shorn hairline. "Seriously?"

Rhine gave a little laugh. "Are you kidding? Yes, seriously! That admission is way too embarrassing to be a lie."

Nick was something between amused and baffled. "Well...thanks, I guess. I had no idea."

Rhine snorted from her position by the vanity. "Yeah, I made sure of that. I about died when your brother showed up at the studio the other day."

Nick grinned broadly at the mention of Aaron. "Wait until you hear him sing tonight. He's grown up in a big way."

"I could see that," she laughed, dashing into the bathroom for one last glance at her make-up. "He's taller than you!"

"Whatever," Nick muttered, smiling slightly. He'd forgotten how nice it was to be
innocently teased. "We're the same height. Better yet, I'm taller."

"Keep telling yourself that."

There was a brief pause wherein Nick rolled his eyes good-naturedly and continued to take in his surroundings.

"Hey, Mr. Carter?"

Nick rolled his eyes again. "Rhine, we're not in the studio. You can call me Nick."

"It might be better for the teenybopper deep down inside of me if I continue to call you Mr. Carter for the time being," she admitted, "but I'll take the offer into consideration. May I ask you a personal question?"

He chuckled lightly. "Sure."

"If you don't mind my asking...why did the group break up?"

For a brief moment, Nick felt as though someone had knocked the wind out of him. His chest tightened considerably, and tears sprang to his eyes.

"You know," he replied quietly, "lately, I've been asking myself that very same question."

*     *      *      *      *

"I feel like I'm in kindergarten again," Theresa grumbled under her breath.

"Really? 'Cause this feels a little more Survivor to me," Kyle sighed. "I feel like one of us is about to get voted off the island...except that they don't line people up on Survivor."

"They do on American Idol," Cara offered with an uncomfortable frown.

Ron rolled his eyes incredulously. "Cara, only you would know that."

The line of whispering cast members quickly fell silent as the click of Calvert Holland's opening night dress shoes echoed across the stage. In something akin to a horror movie, the director began walking slowly up the line, studying each member of his cast intensely before moving on. In the uneasy silence that settled on the performer's side of the curtain, Aaron could almost hear his racing heartbeat. The tension hung as heavily from the rafters as the red velvet curtain. The young star hadn't thought it possible, but his heart rate actually increased when he felt the director's eyes on him. In a vain attempt to keep his nerves at bay, he squinted into the stage lights.

After what seemed like an hour of silent scrutiny, Cal's voice rang out clearly.

"Well, at least you look the part."

The cast gave a collective sigh of relief, and Theresa was almost positive that she saw their tyrannical director bite back the smallest hint of a smile.

"Look...curtain call is in less than half an hour. Normally, this is the point where the director gives the cast some mind-blowing pep talk that inspires them to light up the stage." He sucked in an apprehensive breath and arched an eyebrow at his young cast of characters. "I'm not that director. I'm not going to give you a pep talk, because--as most of you know by now--I'm not really a 'pep talk' kind of guy."

Someone in the lineup of cast members snorted, but the others didn't dare glance
around to identify the offender.

"I would, however, feel like a failure if I didn't give you some kind of speech, so..."
He trailed off and rubbed his palms against his pant legs in what looked like nervousness. "Here goes nothing."

Cara's eyes widened in shock. Holy shit. If Cal is nervous, we're all in trouble.

"You know this thing. You might not know this thing as well as I know this thing, but you know this thing. We've gone over it a million times--and, each time we revisit it, you screw up a little bit less. You have no excuse not to deliver a performance that outranks everything you've done so far. You know the songs, you know the lines, and you know the choreography. However, we're not the only ones in the theater anymore. The elite of New York City are here to see you revive this musical. They're dressed to the nines in a bunch of designers whose names I don't remember, and they're all set to watch you succeed. They paid good money to watch you succeed." He glanced at each cast member in turn, his eyes boring into them. "For the past year, I've put my entire life into this show. For the past four months, I've forced you to put your entire lives into this show."  He heaved a
sigh that held the weight of the world, and the rest of the cast exhaled nervously with him as he took two steps back and glared at them pointedly. "Don't fuck it up, okay? Don't suck."

They were waiting for a continuation of the speech--a proclamation of good faith, or a teeny tiny bit of praise regarding the morning's silent run-through--but none came. Instead, the director turned on his polished patent leather heel and took measured steps into the wings. After a few moments of confused silence, the queue of performers began to disperse.

"Seriously?" Theresa murmured incredulously behind Aaron. "That was our pep talk?"

"Oh, come on," Rob chuckled. "It's Cal. You knew he wasn't going to give us some long, fatherly speech. Hell, if he even says the words 'good job' when this thing is over, I might have a coronary."

"Pigs would fly first," Trent agreed with a laugh. "Surprisingly, though, that speech
actually did make me feel a little bit better."

"How is that possible?" Tabitha muttered incredulously. "Baby, Simon Cowell is more complimentary than Cal."

"Yeah," Trent agreed, "but I think we might be placing a little too much emphasis on tonight. It's opening night, yeah, but it's also the first in a long line of shows we're going to do. Nothing stops after tonight. If anything, this is just the beginning."

"That's not necessarily true," Cara pointed out tentatively. "If people hate it, the
show won't run for the entirety of the Broadway season."

"Yeah, but Cal would've pulled the plug a long time ago if he thought we were that
bad," Kyle countered. "I mean, look at the man. His picture is in the dictionary under 'perfectionism.' He has an amazing reputation in this town, and he knows it. He wouldn't risk his reputation for the likes of us. If he really, really hated us, he would've fired us already."

"The sad thing," Larkin intoned, "is that Kyle's logic is the biggest vote of confidence we're going to get from our dear director."

"I don't know," Kyle sighed. "Frankly, I think the fact that he's allowed the show to
get this far is a pretty big vote of confidence."

"Don't tell me Cal actually has faith in us," Theresa groaned. "At this point, I think
that might actually make me more nervous than I already am."

Rob shuddered. "Let's just suffice it to say that he wants us to do well."

There was a delicate murmur of assent.

"Hey, guys?"

The entire cast turned around in surprise at the tentative tenor, but Trent was the
first to respond.

"What's up, Aaron?"

The youngest cast member managed a shaky smile. "I just wanted to say thank you. I mean, you guys have all done this opening night thing before."

"So have you," Rob pointed out with a smirk. "I know for a fact that teenybopper
artists go on tours."

Aaron gave a nervous laugh. "It's not the same thing, man. You guys...y'all have
been working at this since forever. You've been in choruses and dance lines, and...and...this is something you've been working for your whole lives, and I was just this little egotistical kid who stepped onstage and acted like he owned the world."

"Wait," Theresa paused. "Are you actually admitting that you were a spoiled brat?"

Aaron shot her an annoyed look. "I'm trying to say thanks."

Cara bit her lip to keep from smiling. "Honey, what exactly are you thanking us for?"

Aaron turned to his girlfriend with a smile. "I'm thanking you guys for taking a chance on me. I know I was a pain in the ass at first, but you guys suffered through it, and you made me a part of your experienced little group, and..." He trailed off and squinted into the light to avoid shedding the tears that were beginning to well in his eyes. "It's like this, okay? All this time that Nick's been acting irresponsibly, he's been doing it because he felt alone. He kept bitching about how everyone had abandoned him and how he couldn't feel the brotherhood anymore." Aaron laughed tersely. "I thought he was nuts, man, but now I get it. Backstreet gave him a place to belong." He glanced up and managed a small, somewhat embarrassed smile. "I guess I wanted to say thanks for giving me a chance to belong with you guys."

His castmates immediately began wrapping their arms around him and each other in acknowledgement.

"It...Trent's right in a lot of ways. This isn't the end. It could end, though. They
could hate the show, and they could hate us, and the critic from the Times could tear us a new asshole tomorrow morning, but...regardless, I'm not going to regret anything." He laughed. "I've had the time of my life busting my ass for this show, and I can't imagine a better group of people to bust my ass with."

The wings were silent for a brief moment as the cast chose to channel the mutual
admiration society. When the mood threatened to get to heavy, though, the jokes began.

"Aww, Aaron," Trent began, wiping an "imaginary" tear from his eye. "That might be the sweetest thing you've ever said to me."

"Yeah, quit schmoozing, man," Rob chimed in. "We all know that the only person you want anywhere near your ass is Cara."

A ripple of laughter ran through the small crowd.

"Seriously, though," Theresa interrupted, an uncharacteristically solemn look on her face, "you're welcome."

"And other sentimental bullshit," Kyle echoed with a grin.

Cara rolled her eyes in annoyance. "Man, Cal's aversion to Hallmark moments is spreading like a communicable disease around here..."

"It's not that," Larkin insisted with a small smile. "It's more that we can't afford to smear our make-up."

"She has a point," Rob remarked. "After all, we've spent the past four months eating, breathing, sleeping, dreaming, and shitting this musical. It's time to get this show on the road."

*     *      *      *      *

"Holy shit," Nick murmured as the cab inched towards the theater.


He jerked a finger in the direction of the entrance. "Check it out, man.  That's a lot of people."

Rhine's eyes widened in surprise. "That's a lot of cameras," she corrected.  "Do they know that Aaron Carter is the star of this thing?"

Nick shrugged. "Hell if I know. Aaron said they were trying to keep it under wraps, but...damn."

She chuckled nervously. "Well, you're used to this, right? You were a Backstreet Boy."

"Exactly," Nick agreed. "I was a Backstreet Boy. I haven't been recognized in something like three years, though. They're not going to care about me. I'm sure we won't have a problem getting through."

Unfortunately, the microphones shoved in his face immediately upon his exit of the cab proved otherwise.

"Nick! Nick! Over here, man!"

"Nick, who's this mystery girl?"

"Nick, are you proud of your brother?"

"Nick! Any chance of a Backstreet Boys reunion in the near future?"

Out of fear and instinct, Rhine grabbed his hand and tried in vain to hide behind him. "So they aren't going to care about the retired Backstreet Boy, huh?" she muttered teasingly into his ear.

Nick groaned.

"I think you had it right at 'holy shit,'" Rhine laughed lightly.

"Nick! I'm with the Post. Can I ask you a few questions?"

Outwardly, Nick pursed his lips to keep from saying any of the things that were swirling around in his head. Truth to tell, he hadn't been on a red carpet alone in five years, and he was petrified by the sheer number of cameras that were blocking the entrance to the small Broadway theater.

"Nick, please! Just a few questions!"

He closed his eyes for a brief moment in an attempt to summon the cool, confident kid that had schmoozed with the big wigs at the Grammy party in the picture he'd shown his hairdresser, but he couldn't seem to find a trace of his old bravado. With a reluctant sigh and what he hoped was a charming smile, he nodded kindly in the direction of the reporter from the Post.

"Just a few questions," he agreed quietly, "and then I've got to get inside. I don't want to miss a minute of this."

"Thanks so much, man," the reporter from the Post gushed. "You're awesome.  Really quickly--who's the lady with you this evening?"

"A new Jive artist," Nick answered carefully. "Her name is Rhine, and she's an amazingly talented singer and songwriter."

"Anything romantic between you two?"

"No," Nick replied dryly. "Next question."

"What do you think about your brother being in a musical revival?"

Nick couldn't help cracking a huge, proud smile at the thought of Aaron. "I couldn't be more proud of him, man. He's worked really, really hard to get here. I've been lucky enough to attend a few of the rehearsals, and I'm amazed at how much he's grown as a vocalist since his teen pop days. He's really come into his own with this role, and I'm excited to see all of his hard work come to fruition tonight."

The reporter's eyes widened appreciatively, and Nick's smile broadened a bit when he realized that he'd given them an eloquent and print-worthy quotation to stick in the next morning's coverage of opening night.

Seeing Rhine's nervousness out of the corner of his eye, he leaned in and flashed the reporter a charming smile. "I hate to cut this short, but I should probably get going after the next question. I mean it when I say that I'm proud of Aaron, and I'd hate to miss part of the show."

"Absolutely!" the reporter agreed. "Just because I have to ask...any chance of a Backstreet Boys reunion?"

Nick smiled thoughtfully. Something about the energy of the red carpet and the excitement of the evening caused the pain of his Backstreet memories to fade.  "I honestly don't know," he admitted, "but I definitely wouldn't be opposed to the idea."

With that curious thought in mind, he bid farewell to the reporter, took hold of Rhine's hand, and ducked inside to find his seat.

*     *      *      *      *

Jim Warner couldn't believe his luck. When the New York Post had sent him to the Ambassador Theater for the premier of Calvert Holland's latest musical masterpiece, he'd been more than a little annoyed. As an entertainment journalist in New York City, he was used to sending his lackeys to cover premiers of musicals and art shows with a small blurb, a side column to complement the feature piece. He wasn't used to writing a feature on an opening. Especially not when the director refused to give him an interview until the day following the opening.

He'd done a bit of research on Holland's revival of Jekyll & Hyde, and he'd been fairly pleased to find out that teen pop star Aaron Carter had stolen the lead role. Unfortunately, the story of a former star slumming it on the Broadway circuit wasn't new, and he didn't have a heartbreaking interview to complement the story of Carter's career revival. He'd been trying to get in touch with the boy all week, and he hadn't even managed to get a statement. Apparently, the Carter kid no longer had professional representation.

Nick Carter's appearance gave him something to run with, though. Despite the fact that the eldest Carter kid had said fewer than ten sentences, the soundbyte was enough to get the ball rolling. Jim Warner had done research on the Backstreet Boys. He knew the heartbreaking story of their premature split. The idea that the musical had inspired the mending of fences between older and younger brother--in addition, of course, to an in-depth examination of the piece--made for a good article.

He'd gotten lucky catching Nick Carter on the red carpet. However, when he saw the unmistakable eyebrows of Kevin Richardson over the crowd, he knew he'd struck gold.

"Mr. Richardson!" he yelled immediately, running over to the tall, statuesque theater star. "Kevin! Over here! I'm with the Post!"

In a brilliant stroke of luck, the older man actually glanced his way.

"Kevin! You and your wife look positively lovely tonight. Can I ask what brings you to the premier of Jekyll & Hyde tonight?"

Kevin smiled graciously. "Just supporting an old friend. All in the name of good theater."

Warner grinned broadly. Since Backstreet's break-up, eldest member Kevin Richardson had certainly been no stranger to the Broadway stage. A trial run in Chicago had inspired quite the career for the former heartthrob.

"Any chance of a Backstreet reunion at the afterparty, then?" he joked.

Kevin's thick eyebrows shot up in surprise. "Excuse me?" He'd worked with Calvert Holland before, and he was fairly positive that the director wouldn't allow an afterparty. The idea of a Backstreet reunion, however, caused his heart to skip a beat.  What does this jackass reporter know that I don't?

"I just spoke with your bandmate Nick Carter," Warner offered with a smile.

Kevin's eyes widened in surprise, and he immediately began scanning the area for signs of the blonde terror. Nick's in New York? Since when?

"He says he wouldn't exactly be opposed to a Backstreet reunion," Warner divulged with a devilish grin. "Are you boys in cahoots to spring a new record on us?"

Kevin could feel his wife Kristin squeezing his hand supportively, but the rest of his body felt numb. Nick's here? He wants to reunite? What the fuck is going on?

"Not that I know of," Kevin laughed tersely.

"Any desire to start planning, then?"

Kevin blinked rapidly in an attempt to avoid crying the tears that were suddenly threatening to spill over. "I..." He shook his head in bewilderment. "I wouldn't rule it out, I guess," he murmured distractedly. Nick's here?

"What are your musical plans for this season, Kevin?"

Kevin rattled off relatively vague information about a fall run as Cinderella's prince in Into the Woods and finished it off with a smile, but his heart was thumping wildly in his chest. He'd arrived at the premier on a personal invitation from Cal--he'd become friends with the director after working under him. However, he was beginning to wonder what Cal hadn't told him in the invitation's accompanying message. I suppose "I'd enjoy hearing your opinion" is a bit vague for Cal...

Before he knew it, the impromptu interview was over, and his wife was leading him to the double glass doors of the Ambassador Theater.

"Kevin?" Kristin murmured gently. "Are you okay, honey?"

"Nick's here," he replied in shock. "Why is Nick here?"

Kristin laughed lightly. "I guess we're about to find out," she mused, grabbing two
playbills from the usher at the door. "You said Cal saved us seats?"

"Yeah, towards the side," Kevin mumbled, rapidly scanning the aisles for the man he'd once called his younger brother. "Kristin, why would Nick be here?" Truth to tell, he was shocked that the reporter from the Post had even recognized Nick. Hell, the last time I even saw a picture of him, he had hair down to his shoulders and looked like he'd lost at least thirty pounds. Probably all that cocaine...

"I don't know, sweetie," she replied, taking the tickets carefully from her husband. "Oh, look. Here we are."

With noticeable prompting, Kevin sat in his designated seat and took the playbill from his wife. He was still scanning the theater frantically when Kristin slid her arm through his and pulled him towards her.

"Kevin, honey...I think I have an idea of why Nick might be here."

"Why?" Kevin replied distractedly.

"It looks like Aaron is Dr. Jekyll."

*     *      *      *      *

The house lights faded to black, and a bright spotlight illuminated the theater's red
velvet curtain. Almost immediately, the excited chatter of the audience died down, and Calvert Holland's unmistakable voice echoed over the loudspeaker.

"Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to New York City's Ambassador Theater. We ask that you please turn off all electronic devices at this time. There will be no flash photography or video recording as a courtesy to the actors. In the event of an emergency, please walk to the nearest exit. We hope you enjoy this evening's production."

There was a brief pause while the spotlight faded, and the orchestra began to play
the overture. The audience fell silent as the musicians navigated their way through bits and pieces of the numbers in the first act. Gradually, the boisterous introduction to Frank Wildhorn's score faded into a gentle oboe solo.

Backstage, the musical's stars exchanged one last nervous smile. Onstage, the red velvet curtain slowly rose, revealing a scrim through which Dr. Jekyll could be seen tending to one of his patients. The doctor's sleeves were rolled up and wrinkled, and the look on his face as he held a syringe to the spotlight was one of pure concentration.

From the sidelines, Trent sucked in a nervous breath and stepped out onto the platform, dressed to the nines in a tuxedo and top hat. He lifted his chin confidently, pursed his lips solemnly, and gazed out on the crowd of New York City's aristocracy.

As he clasped his hands behind him, Trent became John Utterson, and the musical began in earnest.

"You all have heard of Dr. Henry Jekyll," Utterson began, loudly and clearly.  "You all have heard appalling things." He paused for effect, scanning the audience pointedly. "I tell you this," he continued, his tone softening in bittersweet affection, "he was my friend."  Utterson glanced down at his feet for a moment, allowing a bit of silence in which to remember his lost friend.

In the audience, Kevin Richardson sat, spellbound by the young star's earnestness. He was my friend. The line echoed in his head over and over, resonating in the same mournful tone the actor had used to deliver it. Kevin knew that the line had been written about Dr. Henry Jekyll, but he couldn't help seeing Nick's face in his mind's eye.

Onstage, John Utterson lifted his chin purposefully and strode closer to the edge of the stage, his voice booming out over the crowd. "Henry Jekyll was a seeker of truth," he proclaimed. "The radical theories, the life-altering drugs were all part of his search to illuminate the elements of goodness and evil that are apparent in every human personality."

As Utterson took another pregnant pause, Nick Carter smiled ruefully at the truth of the statement and then shuddered as the strings entered into a sinister tremolo.

"Henry Jekyll believed he had found a way to control those separate elements, not merely for the furthering of science, but for the relief of human sorrow and suffering."

As John Utterson spoke his last lines, Rob emerged from stage right and became Sir Danvers Carew, adopting a sad, paternal smile as he gazed out on the crowd earnestly.

"He entered my life as a brilliant young scientist, and became as dear to me as my own child," Sir Danvers explained. "I came to feel the exhilaration of his knowledge--and the profundity of his suffering--as though they were mine." He paused briefly to furrow his brow and, when he spoke again, his voice held an urgency that wasn't there before. "I came to understand Henry Jekyll."

The paternal, protective--almost defensive--edge to Sir Danvers's tone wasn't lost on Kevin. In fact the eldest Backstreet Boy has to fight to keep his own paternal instincts at bay as he glanced once more around the darkened theater, searching in vain for the young man to whom he'd once tried to be a father figure. Kevin understood the empathy Sir Danvers was struggling to convey. He'd felt it himself, once upon a time.

Kristin discreetly tugged on her husband's arm, and he reluctantly faced forward in time for Sir Danvers's last line.

"In a very real sense, his passion is consistently reenacted in every one of us."

The scrim rose, and Sir Danvers exited as the strings entered into a brief minor tune of transition. Utterson, on the other hand, stepped into the hospital scene, removing his hat courteously as he walked over to his friend and colleague.

"He's beyond help, Henry!" Utterson exclaimed in frustration.

Dr. Jekyll looked up with a defiant expression. "Therefore we treat him like an animal?" he volleyed incredulously. "He's a man, John! He has emotional responses as sensitive as any of ours..."

Kevin knew there was more to the dialogue because Dr. Jekyll's lips were still moving, but he couldn't hear anything for the blood rushing in his ears. He couldn't believe that the tall, blonde man onstage was Aaron Carter. He couldn't believe that the booming tenor voice belonged to a boy to whom he'd once referred as "squirt." The familiar facial structure and the trademark blonde locks, however, assured him that the figure onstage was, in fact, Aaron Carter.

Holy shit, he's grown up.

"He's lost, Henry," Utterson insisted firmly, "lost to himself and to the world. You will never reach him."

"I have to try!" Jekyll interjected angrily.

"You have tried," Utterson argued.

"No!" Jekyll cried. "It's not true!" Utterson opened his mouth to counter the statement, but Jekyll continued. "John..."

In the audience, Kevin wasn't staring at Dr. Jekyll anymore. Instead, he was staring at Aaron Carter, a young boy on the verge of tears in the middle of a New York City hotel room. You've got to hand it to him, man. Even after all these years, the kid's still a fighter.

Kevin's gaze rose, and his reverie ended as Sir Danvers reentered the scene with an outstretched hand and an arched eyebrow.

"I admire your tenacity, Henry, but I question your philosophy," Sir Danvers admitted clearly. "Do you seriously believe that your drugs can change what God has set in motion?"

Dr. Jekyll met his gaze with the ferocity of a man determined. "Yes. Yes. He can be changed, Sir Danvers."

From the orchestra section, Kevin Richardson was listening intently to a man and hearing a little boy's voice. In his mind, Aaron Carter was speaking directly to him.

Onstage, Dr. Jekyll reached to clasp Sir Danvers's hand in an attempt to physically convey the extent of his conviction. "We shall all be changed in a moment."

The elderly man began to turn away, but Dr. Jekyll was persistent, jerking him back. "In the twinkling of an eye," the doctor continued emphatically, "we shall all be changed."

As Kevin glanced around the theater one last time, he couldn't help but think that truer words had never been spoken.

Author's Note: Dialogue used was taken directly from the script for the Broadway version of Jekyll & Hyde, with only minor changes made.