Comforting Lie

Chapter Fifty-One

Chapter One
Chapter Two
Chapter Three
Chapter Four
Chapter Five
Chapter Six
Chapter Seven
Chapter Eight
Chapter Nine
Chapter Ten
Chapter Eleven
Chapter Twelve
Chapter Thirteen
Chapter Fourteen
Chapter Fifteen
Chapter Sixteen
Chapter Seventeen
Chapter Eighteen
Chapter Nineteen
Chapter Twenty
Chapter Twenty-One
Chapter Twenty-Two
Chapter Twenty-Three
Chapter Twenty-Four
Chapter Twenty-Five
Chapter Twenty-Six
Chapter Twenty-Seven
Chapter Twenty-Eight
Chapter Twenty-Nine
Chapter Thirty
Chapter Thirty-One
Chapter Thirty-Two
Chapter Thirty-Three
Chapter Thirty-Four
Chapter Thirty-Five
Chapter Thirty-Six
Chapter Thirty-Seven
Chapter Thirty-Eight
Chapter Thirty-Nine
Chapter Forty
Chapter Forty-One
Chapter Forty-Two
Chapter Forty-Three
Chapter Forty-Four
Chapter Forty-Five
Chapter Forty-Six
Chapter Forty-Seven
Chapter Forty-Eight
Chapter Forty-Nine
Chapter Fifty
Chapter Fifty-One
Chapter Fifty-Two

The change was instantaneous. One minute, the curtain was squeaking its way across the rod, and the next, the auditorium was shaking with deafening applause.

The noise was enough to pull the actors to their feet. Still shaking from the aftereffects of performance and adrenaline and a whole host of nerves, the cast hurriedly made its way into the wings as the two ends of the curtain met center stage.

Cara's hand found Aaron's immediately.

"Oh my God," she whispered reverently. "Do you hear that? They're actually cheering."

"About fucking time," Theresa hissed, still clutching tightly to Aaron's other hand. "I was about to have a heart attack."

"Tell me about it," Trent groaned behind them. "I don't think I've ever been that nervous. I was afraid they hated us."

"You and everyone else," Larkin grimaced. "I was actually starting to visualize Cal ripping us all into tiny shreds."

"It's not over yet, folks," Rob reminded them with a growing grin. "We've still got a curtain call."

Tabitha groaned. "Enjoy the applause while we can, right? Before Cal swoops in and destroys our egos one by one?"

"Something like that," Rob agreed with a smirk. "Watch the stage, Lady Beaconsfield. You'll be up soon."

Sure enough, the chorus line moved back slowly, and Tabitha and Larkin strode out onto the stage for a bow with Kyle. If possible, the applause actually grew.

"Aaron?" Trent chuckled, nudging his friend lightly. "You okay over there, man? You haven't said a word."

Aaron shook his head incredulously. "This...this is insane," he managed breathlessly.

"Yeah," Trent agreed, a grin slowly overtaking his boyish features. "I'll see you out there."
That said, he jogged out to grab Rob's hand and bowed to a sudden barrage of catcalls.

"You know," came a gentle voice to his left, "I'd kiss you right now, but the red lipstick would be a little bit conspicuous."

A slow smile spread across Aaron's face. "Dually noted." He glanced down at her
brown wig and bit back a euphoric laugh. "And, just so you know..."

She glanced up expectantly. "Yeah?"

Aaron wiggled his eyebrows wickedly. "Mutual feeling."

The corner of her mouth curled in a seductive smile, and she gave him a naughty little wave before waltzing out to greet Theresa. As the girls joined hands and curtsied cutely at the audience, the applause grew thunderous. Theresa gave another proper bow, and Cara blew a kiss out to the audience before wiggling her fingers seductively. Finally, they backed into the growing line of actors, and Aaron took a deep breath.

One, two, three...

His hair was a mess and his shirt was appropriately destroyed, but the grin on his face overshadowed all of it as he jogged to the middle of the stage and gazed out over the audience. He lifted his right hand, then his left, acknowledging the entirety of the crowd before falling into a deep bow.

The applause was like a warm cocoon of sound, surrounding him on all sides.  And, as he backed into the line and joined his cast members in acknowledging the orchestra and crew, he'd never felt better. He took the hands of Cara and Theresa beside him, and the entire group sank into a low bow as the curtain closed for the final time that evening.

It did little to muffle the wall of sound that rose to congratulate them.

*      *      *      *      *

Rhine let out a low whistle as the house lights went up.

"Wow," she exhaled incredulously. " That was amazing."

Ten minutes prior, Nick had been firm with the resolve that he was not going to meet the same fate as Dr. Henry Jekyll. Now, however, the steely moment of determination was a distant memory. His cheeks burned with the force of his smile, and he thought his heart would burst with pride.

"Wasn't it, though?" he agreed, glancing down at her. He hadn't thought it possible but, seeing her reaction, the grin on his face actually broadened.

"God," Rhine exclaimed, shaking her head. "It So incredible. Your brother is an amazing actor."

"Yeah, he is," Nick agreed with a delighted chuckle. "He's not so bad carrying a tune either."

"Oh, God," Rhine murmured. "Understatement of the year. He's...he's insanely talented. I can't believe it! I mean, six years ago, he was crooning 'Candy' to a crowd of prepubescent girls,"

"Now he's wowing the elite of New York City," Nick continued with unmistakable pride. "Hell, he's stunning them into silence." He let out an incredulous laugh. "Did you hear how quiet it got at the end? You could've heard a pin drop."

"No kidding," Rhine breathed. "Damn."

"My thoughts exactly," he beamed. "Fucking awesome show." He placed his hand innocently on the small of her back, guiding her through the crowd that was slowly beginning to disperse. "Think you might be interested in sharing your praise with a few theater geeks?" When she glanced up in confusion, he winked at her. "I might be able to get us backstage."

Rhine's eyes widened to the size of golf balls. "Are you kidding?!" she shrieked. "Of course! Let's go!"

Nick tossed his head back and laughed, really laughed. Watching her excitement--excitement that he had caused--Nick felt more like himself than he had in years.

"You might have to calm down a little," he teased. "I'm pretty sure the security guys were told to watch for rabid fans."

"Oh, whatever," Rhine grumbled good-naturedly. "Did you see that show? Right now, everyone who's anyone is fawning over your brother and his mountain of talent."

"Damn straight." The face-splitting grin returned immediately as Nick thought about Aaron's impeccable performance. He'd been impressed at the rehearsals, but nothing compared to this. Aaron had been on fire all night long. Despite everything, his little brother had prevailed. Triumphantly prevailed.

As his grin continued to deepen his dimples, Nick felt a tiny surge of hope that
maybe--maybe--he could follow in his brother's footsteps.

*      *      *      *      *

He shook his head in amazement. Little Aaron Carter. Damn.

Gentle fingers brushed his forearm, jarring him out of his awe-induced stupor.

"Kevin?" his wife entreated softly. "Honey, the show's over."

He heaved a sigh and shook his head in a vain attempt to clear it. Despite the lengthy curtain call, Kevin was still lost in the thought. The musical's moral undertones had resonated clearly with the older man, and his limbs were still shaking from the aftermath of his unexpected reality check.


He inhaled sharply and tried to remember what it felt like to be cool, calm, and

"Sorry," he murmured. "That was...intense," he finished lamely. He didn't know what else to say. There were no words to accurately convey the emotional rollercoaster he'd just experienced.

"To say the least," his wife agreed with a laugh. "Aaron is very, very talented."

Kevin nodded absently and stood up, brushing himself off and allowing his wife to
take his arm.

"We should go backstage and congratulate him," Kristin mused delicately. "I'm sure he'd love to see you."

Kevin fought the urge to laugh bitterly at his wife's use of the word "sure."  He'd been sure once. Of course, after seeing that musical, he no longer felt sure of anything.

He certainly wasn't sure he had the balls for a face-to-face encounter with Aaron Carter.

"I don't know," he countered quietly. "It's opening night. I'm sure he's got a million
other things to do."

Kristin squeezed his bicep warningly. "Kevin..."

"I'm serious," Kevin insisted. "I've endured quite a few opening nights. I know how busy they can be."

"You could at least say hello and congratulate him," Kristin chided. "If we're lucky, we might even run into Nick."

Kevin was grateful that Kristin couldn't see the way the color drained from his face at the mention of his former brother. In a vain attempt to regain his composure, he placed a hand on the small of her back and began guiding her through the well-dressed crowd of Manhattan's artistic aristocrats.

"Let's just focus on getting out of here," he murmured.

The tremor in his voice was, apparently, enough to warrant an intervention. As soon as they escaped into the aisle, Kristin whirled around and gave him one of her patented I-wear-the-pants-in-this-relationship-and-you-know-it looks.

"Kevin," she began, her voice conveying a gentility that was noticeably absent from her countenance, "I know you're nervous. I know that things ended badly, and I know that you feel as guilty as you do proud. All of you boys made very grave mistakes, but this...this is pathetic. Once upon a time, you considered these two boys to be part of your family. That said, your little brother has just finished what might very well have been the scariest performance of his life--and he nailed it. He deserves your congratulations...and his brother deserves at least a glance." She dipped her chin pointedly, and a tyrannical edge crept into her delicate tone. "Now, a long time ago, you claimed the role of the father figure. And, whether you like it or not, you need to be the bigger man here, so...suck it up. Swallow the guilt and the pride and the fear that you've screwed up beyond repair and start making an effort."

Just above the bridge of his nose, Kevin's thick, dark eyebrows struggled to meet. He should've been offended. He should have been mortally offended. After all, his wife was calling him a coward. He had dignity to defend.

Except that I don't.

Kristin arched an eyebrow, silently daring him to rebuke her for her slanderous monologue. And, staring at the petite, fiery force in front of him, Kevin couldn't help but crack a small, grateful smile.

"Thank you," he muttered, squeezing her hands in gratitude. "I think...I think I needed to hear that."

"You think?" Kristin repeated doubtfully. She gave her eyes a good-natured roll. "Come on, Kev. Let's go get reacquainted with your boys."

*      *      *      *      *

The wings were alive with excited chatter. Be it a result of frayed nerves, excess adrenaline, or relief at finally being done with the first real performance of the show they'd come to learn, love, and live, no one could stop reliving the final moments onstage--from the painful silence that followed the last notes to what they were quickly beginning to refer to as "the applause heard `round the world." No longer worried about impeccable dress or vocal preservation, the rookie cast was free to as verbose and affectionate as possible--and they were. The cynical crew that had taken pot shots at each other in the dressing room had transformed once more into a group of loving theater people who had no need for reverential silence or personal space.

Yet despite the volume of their backstage celebration, nothing was strong enough to drown out the familiar, tell-tale click of dress shoes against the black floor--or the tension that those clicks inevitably inspired.

Silence befell immediately as Calvert Holland emerged from the opposite wings, and the spirit of celebration was quickly forgotten. Fear settled in its place as each actor tried in vain to read the expression of stoicism on Cal's dignified features.

They had all been pleased beyond measure by the crowd's overwhelmingly warm reception of the musical. However, deep down, each actor knew that the praise would mean nothing if Cal was in any way disappointed by the performance.

The director cleared his throat pointedly, and all around, eyes began to widen fearfully. When he was sure he had the undivided attention of his young cast, Cal clasped his hands behind his back and arched an eyebrow.

"Well, you're finished with your first performance," he began pointedly, scrutinizing each of them in turn. "Any thoughts?"

No one dared to move, let alone speak.


As Cal surveyed the small crowd of frightened performers, he felt the left corner of his mouth curl ever so slightly in a characteristic smirk. He was well aware of the effect he had on his young thespians. More often than not, he actually liked that his actors were terrified of him--in fact, he was rather amused by it. It made his job as a director that much easier. In the entertainment industry, fear and respect were essentially the same thing, and Cal thrived on his position of superiority. He'd always felt that those who wanted to be the best should act like the best. And he was the best.

Despite his cold, caustic exterior, though, Cal had developed a strange fondness for this particular cast. Be it the youthful audacity, the contagious enthusiasm, or the inclusion of a former teen pop star, something about this particular group had tugged his taut heartstrings a little. And, sitting down to watch the show that evening, he had wanted them to succeed--for entirely unselfish reasons.

Normally, he would've used the post-performance time as a chance to point out flaws and dictate a tentative syllabus for the next batch of rehearsals. As he looked out over their fearful, awestruck expressions, though, his plans to deflate their egos dissipated.

"So," he prompted, his eyes sparkling mischievously, "if I were to tell you that I was actually--oh, I don't know--proud of you ruddy lot, you wouldn't have anything to say about it?"

All around him, eyes widened in shock. A few tiny gasps of surprise began to echo through the wings. This time, Cal didn't try to fight the smirk that surfaced.

"Because I am," he continued matter-of-factly. "Proud, that is."

No one dared to speak, but he could see the beginnings of a smile on each of their tired, glowing faces.

With a surprising swell of the aforementioned pride, Cal gave a small shrug and cocked his head pointedly at his captive audience.

"You didn't fuck it up," he told them simply. His smirk grew into a full-wattage grin as he turned on his heel and walked towards the direction of the lobby, where the elite of New York City's theater society was waiting to congratulate him.

The actors watched his retreating figure in stunned silence.

It had been the shortest speech Cal had ever given. But, somehow, it was enough.

*      *      *      *      *

"Are you sure we're allowed to be doing this?"

Nick glanced down at Rhine with a mischievous grin that she remembered from her brother's Backstreet video collection. "No." He wiggled his eyebrows dangerously for effect, and she fought the urge to groan.

"You really haven't changed at all from your teenybopper heyday, you know that? What if we get caught by security?"

Nick rolled his eyes good-naturedly at her paranoia, secretly delighted by her declaration that he was still the same. "If we get caught, I'll call Aaron and have him come bail us out. But Rhine?" She glanced at him expectantly, and he winked at her. Actually winked at her. "I've spent my whole life in performance venues, girlfriend.  We're not going to get caught. Not before we find the cast, anyway."

He glanced up the staircase, listening intently for the sound of voices, and Rhine used the pause as an excuse to contort her features in confusion. Did he seriously just call me "girlfriend"?

Before she could question the situation further, a bright grin spread across Nick's
boyish features.

"They're upstairs," he murmured, taking her arm eagerly. "Come on! Let's run."

With a sigh of exasperation and amusement, Rhine gathered her dress in her free hand and hastily followed her production manager up the stairs. Sure enough, the voices grew louder and louder as they made their way to the stage level. With one swift scan of the area, Nick reached a hand out and swept open the door that read "EMPLOYEES ONLY" in large, white print.

Rhine felt as though she'd suddenly been transferred back into the early twentieth century. Not only was she surrounded by bloodied period costumes, but the previous mess of noise was suddenly an overwhelming roar. Every turn introduced a new, excited conversation about this scene or that musical number.

Despite the enormity of it all, she found herself smiling.

"Look! It's Cara's wig!" Nick exclaimed eagerly. "Aaron's got to be somewhere nearby. These days, he never goes anywhere without Cara."

There was an almost paternal fondness in his tone that Rhine had never noticed before. It made her smile.

"You guys are really close, huh?"

"We are now." Nick glanced down at her with a beautifully hopeful smile and gave a small chuckle. "At least I like to think so," he admitted, his eyes sparkling in the stage lights.

"Pretty Boy! You came!"

Whatever vulnerability Rhine had seen was immediately masked by joy as a large blonde wig appeared.

"Of course I came!" Nick grinned, returning the unexpected hug with wide eyes.  "You were forced to be nice and polite--in a wig, no less--for two hours. Why the hell would I miss that?"

She pulled back and dipped her chin threateningly. "Tread lightly, Backstreet Boy. I know where you sleep."

"Point taken." He chuckled lightly and reached up to ruffle her wig. "In all seriousness, though, congratulations. You guys did an excellent job."

"Just excellent, huh?" She was teasing, but her smile conveyed her appreciation.

"More than excellent," Rhine gushed, unable to keep still any longer. "You were phenomenal. The way you guys blended together on `His Work And Nothing More'..."  She trailed off as she searched in vain for adequate words.

Theresa arched an eyebrow inquisitively. "Thanks. And you are...?"

"Oh!" Nick blushed crimson at his lack of manners. "Theresa, this is Rhine, my..."

Theresa's eyes widened immediately, and she interrupted Nick's explanation with a dismissive wave. "You're the artist he's been fawning over?"

It was Rhine's turn to blush. "Oh," She swallowed forcefully in an attempt to reclaim control of her vocabulary. "Fawning?" she managed meekly.

"Fawning," Theresa affirmed with a nod. "He and Aaron went on for hours about the way you tackled Nick's new jazz number yesterday."

A modest smile bloomed on Rhine's delicate features. "Yeah,'s a really pretty song."

"And apparently you do it justice," Theresa finished with a smirk.  "Anyway...knowing that you're Rhine makes the flattery much more worthwhile, so...thanks for coming." To Nick's utmost surprise, Theresa gifted his protégé with a warm smile. "I'm really glad you enjoyed the show."

"I did," Rhine told her sincerely. "It was amazing. Really. You guys gave a very
emotional performance."

Theresa's blue eyes sparkled proudly. "Thanks." She turned her attention to Nick with a knowing smile. "You should venture towards center stage, man. I'm sure Aaron would love to see you."

"I hope so," Nick chuckled, pulling her in for another hug. "Seriously, though...great job, T. You really became the character."

"Damn straight!" She relinquished him with a proud smirk and allowed him to move a few steps closer to his younger brother before calling his name again. "Oh, and Nick?"

He glanced expectantly over his shoulder. "Yeah?"

Theresa's eyebrows wiggled knowingly. "Nice haircut."

He didn't even try to hide the smile that surfaced. For the first time in six years, he felt like the confident performer that had glided smoothly through the after-party that February evening.

"So I'm guessing that's one of Aaron's roommates?" Rhine inferred with a laugh.

"Yeah," Nick replied with a soft smile. "She's...well, she's Theresa."

Rhine accepted the answer with a small smile of her own. Ever since she'd met Mr. Carter, he'd struck her as a sad, angry, lonely man with a past that he preferred to forget. Since he'd come to pick her up that night, though, something had changed. She wasn't sure if it was the haircut, the company, or the atmosphere, but the sad, lonely music executive had vanished.

She couldn't help but think, as they navigated the crowds of cast members and admirers, that she liked this Mr. Carter much better.

His hand came to rest once more on the small of her back, and the teenybopper in her let out a contented sigh.

"You remember Aaron, right?"

Rhine let out an incredulous snort. "Understatement," she managed dryly.

"Well," he began surreptitiously, his voice low in her ear, "you're about to meet the love of his life."

The small group in front of them finally dispersed to reveal Aaron's tall frame, and
Nick's grin broadened.

"Even better," he murmured to his date for the evening. "Two in one."

Cara saw him first. He knew, because her eyes widened in a combination of horror and excitement, and her jaw dropped slightly, her lips forming a perfect "o" of surprise.

He'd seen that look before. It had been a few years, but he'd definitely seen that look before. Generally, it was followed by a scream, a gasp, or an expletive--all of which were laden with admiration.

Nick's grin became a charming, self-satisfied smile as he winked at her.

"Holy shit," Cara exclaimed quietly.

"Classy," Aaron teased, squeezing her affectionately. He was on a performance high. Performers he loved were offering their congratulations. Polite society that had previously shunned him was suddenly declaring not only approval, but admiration. Cal had said that he was proud of them. And, most importantly, Cara had been beside him for it all.

Aaron's smile broadened as he bent to plant a kiss on Cara's crown.

"Shut up," she murmured. " don't get to tease me right now."

"Oh? Why not?"

She finally, finally let out the breath she'd been holding. "There's a Backstreet Boy in our midst."

From somewhere in front of Aaron, another female voice entered the conversation.

"I am SO glad I'm not the only one to have that reaction..."

Aaron looked up in alarm at the words "Backstreet Boy." Somewhere in the back of his mind, his thoughts were whirring into a panicked frenzy. Backstreet Boy?  Here? Now? Not tonight. Not now. Not Nick's not ready. If one of them showed up tonight...

His eyes finally focused on a familiar shock of dirty blonde spikes, and his breath
caught in his throat.

Mother. Fucker.


Nick grinned so hard that his cheeks hurt. "Aaron. Bro, you were amazing..."

His praise continued as he pulled Aaron into a firm, familiar embrace, but his voice came to Aaron as though through a tunnel. He'd expected Nick to show up--hell, he'd even expected Nick to be proud. However, he'd been expecting Nick the reformed cocaine addict. He'd been expecting Nick, the guy with the ponytail and a very large chip on his shoulder. Nick, the guy Aaron had loved once and was trying desperately to get to know.

He hadn't expected Nick the older brother to make an appearance.

Suddenly, he felt like he was twelve again. Before the cocaine, before the partying, before the family problems that had sent the Carter kids in opposite directions. He felt like mini-Nick, like the snot-nosed kid who cared about nothing more than his older brother's opinion. He felt like a child in the best sense of the word.

Since their big blow-out, Nick had been acting somewhat like the older brother Aaron remembered. Now, he looked the part, and the transformation was enough to leave Aaron breathless and--God forbid--optimistic.

As Nick's grip loosened and the backstage area came back into focus, Aaron couldn't help but think that maybe--maybe--things could finally get back to good.

"...and 'Confrontation'...I'm telling you, man, you killed it. Every single fucking note was perfectly delivered. I hope Cal gave you guys one hell of a congratulatory speech."

"'Congratulatory' might be a bit of a misnomer," Cara mumbled. But, for the first time all evening, Aaron wasn't listening. He glanced up into the warm blue eyes of childhood and beamed. Broadly.

"He did," he admitted with a laugh, "but...this one means more." The two brothers shared a knowing smile, and Aaron reached out to touch Nick's stiff blonde spikes.

It was a stupid, sentimental gesture, and Theresa would've had a field day with it, but Aaron didn't care. He felt like he finally had his brother back, and he couldn't conceal his delight when he finally found the courage to remark on the change.

"You lost the ponytail," he murmured in awe.

Later, Cara would swear that she'd seen Nick blush.

"Yeah, found it," the elder Carter volleyed lightly, reaching out to finger his brother's disheveled hairpiece.

"All in the sprit of theater," Aaron returned with a wink. "Beneath the ponytail, I'm still just a clueless little Carter kid."

All evening, Nick had been trying to put his feelings into words, trying to give definition to the sudden lack of emptiness and the reasons behind it. Ever since the haircut, he'd felt like a weight had been lifted--one that was much, much larger than his ponytail had ever been.

Leave it to Aaron to say in five minutes what I've been trying to explain all evening.

The corners of his mouth curled in appreciative incredulity. "Yeah. Me too."

*      *      *      *      *

Getting backstage had taken Kevin much longer than he'd anticipated. He'd used the five years since Backstreet's dissolution to make a name for himself on Broadway, and his success had been evident in the sheer number of people that stopped him. He felt like he'd spoken to every member of the theater elite, from actors to directors and back again. He'd even had a cryptic conversation with Calvert Holland himself at the top of the staircase that led to the stage. Like everyone else in the venue, Kevin had praised the director's refreshing interpretation of the classic musical. He'd also taken the time to compliment the cast extensively.

He'd said quite a bit in five minutes, but he hadn't expected much of a response. Cal was notorious for ignoring personal praise and politely countering praise of his cast with a little light criticism. This time, however, Cal had thoroughly surprised Kevin by saying, "Aaron's young, but he's been through quite a bit, and that makes him an old soul. Of course, you already know that, don't you?"

The accusatory tone with which Cal had delivered the line made Kevin wonder exactly how much the famous director had surmised about Backstreet's break-up and Aaron's role therein. Normally, his musings would have been enough to make him flee the scene without making contact with his Backstreet brethren but, thankfully, Kristin's "pep talk" was still ringing in his ears. He was fearless and determined. He wanted, more than anything, to right his wrongs as a father figure and act the part.

When the tall man finally located the two blondes under the stage lights, all the resolve in the world couldn't have kept air in his lungs.

Holy shit.

The last time Kevin had seen Nick, it had been in a grainy tabloid picture--one of those rags that he'd picked up in the check-out aisle of the grocery store to kill time. Nick had been on page three. A rather large image of his rail-thin figure and stringy ponytail had served as visual confirmation of the article's headline: Ex-Backstreet Boy Breaks Down.
Thankfully, the quality of the picture had been too poor for Kevin to really linger on the details. He remembered feeling his chest constrict for a brief moment before snapping the rag shut and reminding himself forcefully that he'd done everything he could. That Nick was no longer his responsibility. That Nick had never really been his responsibility and, if he couldn't get himself cleaned up, that wasn't Kevin's fault.

The Nick that stood before him now, though, was nothing like the wisp of a man that had graced the pages of the National Enquirer's cousin. He wasn't sure if it was the stage lights, the short hair, or the impeccable designer suit, but the Nick that stood before him now looked a hell of a lot like the optimistic young man with whom he'd spent years.

As a large lump formed at the base of his throat, Kevin silently acknowledged that the Nick that stood before him now looked exactly like the younger brother he remembered.

He cleaned himself up.

The realization left him dumstruck, and the guilt Kevin had kept at bay for the last five years began to flood his veins.

He cleaned himself up without us.

He could remember when he'd first noticed a change in Nick. It had been towards the beginning of the Chapter One tour. The younger man had been drinking more and more, and his eyes had taken on a disturbing vacancy, and Kevin had pulled him aside after sound check one day to ask if everything was all right.

"All right? Yeah. Sure, Kevin. Everything's fine."

"You're lying."

Nick sighed heavily, and his gaze found the ground. "Yeah."

"Nick...what's wrong, man? What's going on?"

"I..." All of a sudden, there were tears. "I can't, man. Not yet. Not now."

"'s okay. I understand. Just...know that we're here for you, okay? No matter what. You've always got your brothers, and, when you feel like talking, we'll help you through this."

They hadn't. Nick had eventually felt like talking--in fact, Nick had eventually said a lot of things that cut rather deeply--but they hadn't been there. Not like we should've been.

Sometimes, Kevin wondered whether it would've been easier for Nick if they had stuck together. After seeing that grainy picture in the tabloid, he'd allowed himself a brief moment to play "What if?" It hadn't lasted, though. He'd eventually decided that he'd made the right decision--that they had made the right decision--and that nothing in the world would've worked to get Nick clean.

Now, though, watching Nick interact as though no time had passed, as though no addiction had ever existed, Kevin wondered for the first time if, in giving up, he'd actually done more harm than good.

Not that it mattered, of course. The smiling man in front of him seemed impermeable, and the voice of reason was loud and clear in Kevin's brain.

He cleaned himself up, and I wasn't there.

The guilt was overwhelming. Suddenly, he felt like he was drowning, clawing desperately at the walls of a glass tank as water spilled in, unable to find his footing, sinking despite his best efforts to stay afloat. Everything was blurry, and nothing made sense, and the dull roar in his head became unbearable, amplified static as the blood rushed past his ears.


His wife's voice seemed light years away.

"Kevin, do you see them?"

Them. The word hit him like a ton of bricks. Because, while he'd found Nick in the backstage thrall, he hadn't been looking for Nick. He'd been looking for Aaron.

He found him, right alongside the eldest Carter, and his breath hitched in his throat once more.

He hadn't noticed it onstage, but he noticed it now. The sallow skin tone, the sunken eyes, the thin, colorless lips and the stringy remains of a ponytail. The ripped slacks and the bloodstained shirt that billowed almost uncomfortably around a thin, wispy frame. Nick's transformation was stunning, but it was made even more prominent by the fact that the figure beside him looked remarkably like the disturbing image on page three.

Kevin recognized that most of Aaron's appearance could be attributed to his difficult performance as the tortured Dr. Jekyll. It wasn't enough, though. Because Aaron was looking at Nick with such deep appreciation that it made Kevin's stomach churn.

Nick cleaned himself up, and I wasn't there, but Aaron was.

Kevin bit his lip to keep his tears at bay as he unwillingly remembered the last time he'd seen Aaron.

"Nick, is that cocaine?"

"What? No...Aaron, what are you doing here?" Nick's gaze moved angrily from Aaron to Kevin, and his eyes flashed. "What the hell is he doing here?"

Aaron moved forward, his mouth a perfect "o" of surprise. "Kevin said you'd been...but I didn't...I told him he was lying. That you wouldn't. You..."

"Kevin, get him out of here!"

Kevin shook his head, but Aaron's rebellious streak made the decision for him.

"No! I'm not leaving. You...he's wrong, Nick! Tell him he's wrong."

Nick's eyes had been vacant for as long as Kevin could remember, but now they
were shooting daggers in the older man's direction.
Unforgivable, Nick's gaze proclaimed. But then his gaze moved to Aaron, and the daggers melted into something that looked an awful lot like tears.

"Aaron, I..."

"No. No, no, no. He's wrong, Nick! Tell me he's wrong, and that's not what he said it was! Tell me it's powdered sugar, or flour, or... Tell me anything else, Nick!  Tell me anything else, and I'll believe you!" The boy's voice faded to a hushed whisper. "I'll believe you..."

Nick opened his mouth, then closed it and glanced guiltily at the floor.  "Aaron..."

"Don't, Nick. Don't...don't tell me you're doing drugs."

When Nick dragged his gaze back up, his eyes were wet and red-rimmed. "Aaron," he choked out, his voice little more than a whisper, "I'm so sorry."

"NO!! You're lying! You wouldn't! You're better than that!"

Something inside of Nick seemed to snap, and his lips curled into a sneer.

"Better than what, Aaron? What am I better than? Tell me."

"You're not a druggie!" Aaron cried, struggling against the hold Brian had on him.

"You're right," Nick snapped. "I'm not a druggie. I'm not an addict."

"Nick," AJ began dangerously.

"NO! You stay out of this! You all fucking stay out of this. He's only thirteen, for fuck's sake! Don't you think you've done enough?"

"Nick..." Aaron's voice was soft and tearstained and paper-thin. "You've been doing drugs?"

"Sometimes," Nick hissed. "Sometimes. Not all the time."

"Then you have to stop! You have to..."

Broken. That was the only way to explain the expression on Nick's face as he glanced from the coffee table to Aaron and back again.

He let out the weight of the world on a single breath and directed a bitter glare at Kevin.

"I can't."

They'd been crying. They'd both been crying.

But they were laughing now. Laughing. Nick had his arm around Aaron's shoulder, and they were excitedly relaying some story to a brunette that Kevin recognized as Lucy. They looked happy, but Kevin knew from the look on Aaron's face that their happiness was fragile, delicate, and frail. Be it the convincing make-up or the blood on Aaron's shirt, Kevin could tell that something was still wrong. Something was still broken.  And he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that a significant part of the wreckage was his fault.

You can take away the drugs, but the issues are still there, and as long as the issues remain, there is no happy ending.

Something was still broken. And maybe Kevin could have helped to fix it, but he couldn't bring himself to make contact. He couldn't push himself forward. He couldn't even seem to put one foot in front of the other. He was frozen by the naïvely persistent hope that pooled in Aaron's warm brown eyes, and all the pep talks in the world couldn't spur him to action.

"Swallow the guilt and the pride and the fear that you've screwed up beyond repair
and start making an effort."


Kristin's voice, now more than a mere echo in the deep recesses of his skull, brought him crashing back to reality.

"I..." His voice was nothing more than a croak, so he swallowed his tears and cleared his throat.

"I can't."

"Kevin..." She was angry now. Her voice was still honey-colored, but it had a serrated edge.

"No, Kris. They're laughing, and they're happy, and I just...can't." If I go back now, we'll all be right back in that fucking hotel room, and they don't deserve that. They didn't deserve it then.

"You owe him something, Kevin," Kristin persisted through gritted teeth. "For God's sake, he's your little brother."

Not so little anymore, Kevin thought bitterly.

"Kristin, I can't..."

"Yes, you can," she hissed, slapping her playbill against his chest. "I've watching you run for almost six years, Kevin. You're not running anymore."

"They're happy," he whispered roughly. He felt raw. He scrubbed his face with his
left palm, trying to keep his composure, and something in Kristin softened.

"Okay," she sighed, relenting. "Fine. Just leave him something, Kevin. Leave him a note."

Kevin snatched up the Sharpie he kept in his pocket for autographs and scribbled
something trite and stupid on the back of Kristin's outstretched playbill. He handed it back to her and capped the marker, feeling drained.

"Can we go home now?"

Kristin glanced up in disbelief. "Seriously? No, Kevin! You have to make sure this
gets to him!"

A top hat flitted by Kevin's peripheral vision, and he expelled a sigh of relief when he caught a shock of brown hair beneath the black silk.

"Mr. Utterson!" he called gently, suddenly all too aware of his surroundings. Thankfully, he didn't have to call twice. The young man who had played John Utterson with such impressive gusto whirled around immediately and expectantly.

Kevin tried his best to smile. "Great job tonight."

Utterson smiled back, his expression belying his confusion. "Um, thanks. Do I...?"

"Could you make sure this gets to Aaron Carter?" Kevin blurted.

Utterson's brow furrowed, and his eyes narrowed in distrust. "Sure."

Kevin felt a sharp pain in his side and glanced down to see Kristin's elbow retreating.

"We're old friends," she amended sweetly, "but we can't stay. We just want to make sure he knows how proud we are."

Utterson's features smoothed as the explanation registered. "Absolutely. I'm sure he appreciated you being here."

Really? I'm not.

Kevin tried once more to muster a satisfactory smile as Utterson strode off.  Kristin's hand found his, and she began dragging him gently toward the exit.

"Kevin, you feel sort of clammy. Do you think you might be sick?"

"Yes," he whispered. Yes. I'm definitely sick. Sick, and wrong. So, so wrong.

He glanced incredulously around him, taking in the extravagant set one last time.

All this success, all this happiness. All of it despite me. Despite us.

"Kristin?" he murmured as they descended the staircase.


"We were wrong," he confessed, tears pooling stubbornly in his green eyes.  "What we did, with Nick and was a mistake. We were wrong." He swallowed forcefully, and his voice dropped to a tortured whisper. "I was wrong."

She met his gaze as they arrived at the landing, and her brow knitted sympathetically as she reached out to brush his cheek.

"Yes," she agreed quietly.

"He needed us," Kevin continued. "He needed us, and we..." He trailed off, unable to come up with an adequate description of what, exactly, they had done to their little brother.

"Yes," she all but whispered. Six years, she thought miserably. It took him six years to feel guilty.

She hadn't been faultless--none of them had. But Kristin had foreseen the ramifications of a confrontation. She'd tried to talk Kevin out of it. She'd tried to explain to him that he was burning bridges, destroying relationships in a way that left little room for reparation. "You have no idea how Aaron will react to this," she'd yelled angrily. "He could very well disown his older brother, and what do you think that would do to Nick?" Kevin's reply had been heartbreakingly black-and-white. "He's addicted, and he doesn't think there's a problem. We have to make him see the problem, Kristin. We have to make him so miserable that he changes."

Well, things changed, she concluded bitterly. Six years later, we're still sitting in

"Do you think the others realized?"

Kristin glanced up in surprise. "I don't know," she admitted finally.  "Maybe." Nick
was a taboo subject in Backstreet land. Don't ask, don't tell. Kristin had little doubt that, had Aaron Carter not starred in a musical revival, Nick's name would never have even come up. Too many years have passed. The wounds are too deep.

Kevin inhaled sharply, jarring Kristin out of her reverie once more.

"He told that reporter that he wouldn't be opposed to a Backstreet reunion," Kevin continued, his face suddenly flushed with awe. "Do you think, maybe...? I mean, not today, but...but...someday...?"

Kristin's heart broke at the hope in Kevin's voice.

She reached out to lace her fingers through Kevin's and squeezed his hand gently in a gesture of consolation. "I don't know, Kev. But...I don't think it's too late to fix things, if that's what you're asking."

As he digested the declaration of possibility, Kevin felt his entire body relax.

It's not too late.

He didn't care if his wife was wrong. Her words gave him something to cling to, a surge of hope, and at that moment, it was enough.