For M. F. Luder, in the 2004 Don We Now Our Gay Apparel secret santa. Many thanks to silveryscrape for betaing and to Lovely Poet for title assistance.

by Lesa Soja

Kevin pulled Nick aside in the hotel the night after the XY shoot was announced. "You know you don't have to do this," Kevin said, watching the ends of Nick's hair swing against his temples and his smooth cheeks. But Nick only smiled.

"It's cool," he said. "I don't mind."

So there was nothing to be done, and the shoot went ahead as scheduled. The photographer put Nick in a jersey that draped deceptively loosely over his sides, sometimes with the rest of them, a few times with Kevin leaning next to him. Then by himself again, staring out a challenge at the camera.

"Oh, that's the cover," the photographer said. "That right there."

"Millions of gay boys are gonna jerk off to you, Nick," AJ said.

"Well," the art director said, "we don't have a readership of millions, yet."

AJ cackled. Nick turned his head, cheeks reddening. Kevin looked away.

Nick's face was flushed again - what Kevin could see of it, anyway - when Kevin found him on his knees in the dressing room with the production assistant's dick in his mouth. The guy had his head thrown back and his eyes closed, gasping. Nick's eyes slid slowly over to meet Kevin's. Nick didn't stop what he was doing, though. Kevin took a step back and shut the door.

When the proofs were sent over, Kevin barely glanced at them.

"Kevin," Nick said softly, and Kevin looked over his shoulder.

"Hey, Nick," he said.

"Hey, uh." Nick fell into step beside him. Kevin had been wondering what Nick had to say for himself, but Nick didn't seem inclined to go on with his sentence. When they arrived at Kevin's door, he threw a glance at Nick and unlocked it. Nick went into the room and then turned around to face him. "So," Nick said at last, "about the, uh. At that magazine."

"Yeah," Kevin said.

"Are you gonna tell anyone?"

Kevin frowned. "No," he said, "but, Nick -"

"Oh, spare me the fuckin' lecture. You don't have to approve, or whatever. Just don't tell anybody."

"It's not about approving," Kevin said. "How hypocritical would that be? I just - I hope you know that you don't have to do that kind of stuff. Not with people we work with."

Nick rolled his eyes. "Yeah, I know." He glanced away and shuffled his feet a bit. Then he looked up. "What do you mean, hypocritical?"

"I - um." Nick looked confused, his eyes narrowed. His chin was up, and the cords of his throat were drawn taut. Kevin shifted his hips and took a breath. "It's been a long time," he said.

"You fuckin' dog," Nick said. "You never told me."

"I haven't told anybody," Kevin said.

"So what about Kristin? Was that just for show?"

"No, that was real. Gimme a break. Look - hey," Kevin said, breaking off as Nick stepped closer. "Nick, what the -" Nick set one hand on Kevin's waist and cupped the other over his zipper. "What the fuck are you doing," Kevin rasped out.

"You like it," Nick said, and there was enough wonder in his tone that Kevin almost didn't bristle at the words.

"Nick," he warned. Nick hooked his fingers in Kevin's waistband, and then he had the fly open, and then he was dropping down to his knees. Kevin was harder than he'd been in a long time. Nick's mouth engulfed him, and he didn't stop thinking, didn't stop knowing it was Nick; but he also didn't stop gasping, didn't stop curling his fingers into Nick's hair, didn't stop thrusting between Nick's lips, until the last heavy swipe of Nick's tongue sent him over the edge and he came.

After Nick pulled off, he stood up and started leaning towards Kevin. Kevin's head was reeling, and he shuddered away from Nick's swollen lips. He reached down instead and wrapped his hand over the outline of Nick's cock. Nick let out a breath and closed his eyes.

Some years might have passed, but Kevin's fingers and wrist still fell easily into the necessary angles. Nick's eyelashes fluttered, and it took him even less time than it had Kevin to squirm and tremble and buck.

When Nick had mostly caught his breath, Kevin stumbled back to lean against the wall. He let his head roll back and bit his lip. "Nicky," he said. "God, that wasn't very smart."

Nick flashed him a dark grin. "Don't worry," he said. "I won't tell."

One city later, Kevin had just finished brushing his teeth when someone started banging on his door. When he opened it, Nick was standing there with a cocky grin.

"Wanna play PlayStation?" Nick said, and shouldered his way into the room.

Kevin shut the door and went slowly towards his bags to fetch the cables. "Nick," he said as he kneeled down to plug them in, "listen..."

Nick laid his hand on Kevin's knee.

"Nick," Kevin said.

Nick smiled and slid his fingers higher.

"No," Kevin said. "Nick, cut it out!" Nick raised his eyebrows. "I told you," Kevin said, as steadily as he could, "I don't think this is a good idea."

"Right," Nick said. He took his hand away. His lips were set in a flat line as he got to his feet and tugged at his pants. "Don't forget, six AM bus time tomorrow."

"Don't be like that," Kevin said. "I'm just trying to look out for you."

"Well, you don't have to worry about me."

"Nick," Kevin said again. But Nick was already out the door.

Kevin stumbled into bed and slept the whole night through, though the blankets were far too warm.

The next day Kevin grabbed Nick by the shoulder right before dinner and said, "I wanna talk to you."

"About what?" Nick drawled, tilting his head to the side.

Kevin stared at him. Nick ducked under Kevin's arm and headed for the tables.

Kevin's phone rang and it was Kristin. "Hi, Kev," she said, and something in his chest relaxed.

"Listen," she said after they'd asked about each other's families and talked about the tour. "I have to admit, I called you for a reason."

"What's that?" Kevin said.

"I, well. I know nothing's changed - you're on the road, I'm on location. I know that's how it is. But I really miss you."

Kevin drew in a breath and let it out again. "I miss you, too," he said.

"Do you -" and her voice got quieter, but still clear - "do you maybe want to try again?"

"Yeah," he said. "Yeah, I'd like that."

Nick was sitting sideways on the couch with his shoulders hunched. "No," he hissed into his phone, "no, I know what you mean, but, Aaron - You don't have to do what she says, you know! ... That's not fair. That's so not fair. You know it's..."

AJ's Gameboy beeped loudly. Nick, Kevin, Brian, and Howie all jumped. AJ rolled his eyes at them and bent back over the game.

Nick cupped his hand over his free ear and dropped his voice. Kevin raised his newspaper back in front of his eyes.

Kristin came to a show in New York, and Kevin tried to look up into the VIP section between songs even though he knew he wouldn't be able to see her. Mike brought her backstage afterwards, though, and she smiled when she saw Kevin and kissed him hello. "You were wonderful," she said. "I really love seeing your shows." Kevin grinned and gave her a longer kiss.

Nick came through from the dressing room, already changed into his jeans and T-shirt, though he still had a towel around his neck.

"Nick!" Kristin said. "It's nice to see you again."

"Hey, Kristin," Nick said. He sounded tired. He didn't look her in the eye, Kevin saw, but he shook the hand she extended towards him. "How've you been?"

"Oh, I'm doing fine," she said. "I was just telling Kevin, you guys put on a hell of a show."

One corner of Nick's mouth turned up. "You know it," he said.

Kevin went into the weightroom and found Nick alone there, doing knee extensions. "Hey," he said.

"Hey, Kev," Nick said.

Kevin warmed up and then looked around, trying to decide where to start. He was glancing uncertainly at the bench when he heard Nick's weights clang down to a halt behind him. "Want me to spot you?" Nick said.

"Sure. That'd be great," Kevin said.

He lay down on the bench, and Nick came around to stand behind his head without saying anything else. Kevin glanced up once while he was lifting, and Nick's eyes were calm, focused only on the barbell and his hands curved beneath it. Kevin glanced away and brought the weight back down towards his chest.

The day of the wedding was cloudless and hot. Kevin felt intensely grateful for his sandals during the photos, feeling the sun's bite through his thin dark pants. But when he stepped inside the church, he started shivering.

"Cold feet?" Brian said, laughing.

"No," Kevin said. "Just - cold."

Nick kissed Kristin's cheek in the receiving line, and shook Kevin's hand, palm dry and slightly cool. Then Kevin didn't see him again for most of the rest of the day. Finally, when the reception was nearly over, Kristin got pulled away by her mother, and Kevin set out towards the corner where Nick was dancing.

It took him a long time to cross the floor though, waylaid by well-wishers at every other step, and when he reached the spot, Nick was already gone. Kevin went through the open archway and down the hall where Nick had disappeared. Aaron was standing in front of a closed door halfway down, leaning with one hip against the jamb.

"Don't go in there right now," he said lazily, and smacked his gum.

"I want to talk to him," Kevin said.

"Talk to me, instead," Aaron said. Kevin snorted, and Aaron brushed his bangs out of his eyes and grinned. "Try me," he said. "Tell me what you wanna tell him. Maybe I can pass it on."

"It's none of your business," Kevin said. "And anyway, you wouldn't understand. You're too young."

"Didn't know that bothered you," Aaron said. He brought his lips together and blew a round pink bubble.

Kevin stared at Aaron. He swung around and walked away before the bubble could break.

As soon as the honeymoon ended, Kevin got on a plane to meet the guys in London. The festival felt like a madhouse, even without AJ there, and everyone was revved-up and irritable. There just wasn't any time for Kevin to take Nick aside. Toronto was no better, Brian's wedding was one big merry-go-round of noise, and then the new album publicity really got started.

On top of that, Howie nudged Kevin's arm one morning at breakfast when AJ rolled in with his sunglasses on for the fourth time that week. Kevin watched AJ's hand stirring sugar into a cup of coffee and almost felt a tremor in his own fingers. He started keeping a closer eye on AJ, and he called Kristin every night, and what with one thing and another, he was just incredibly busy.

Of course things went to shit for AJ despite anything Kevin could do, and some months later Howie came into Kevin's room and said, "We've gotta talk to him."

"I've tried," Kevin said. "He doesn't wanna listen."

"I know," Howie said, "I've tried too. But we can't do the tour like this. We're the oldest - I think it has to be up to us to do something."

Kevin pressed his lips together. "Yeah," he said, "you're right."

But the intervention, even though it did what it was supposed to, didn't seem to make any of them feel any better. Kevin and Howie got together for breakfast a few days later, when AJ was in rehab and Nick was in a cast, and they just sat there chewing their toast and eggs in mutual silence.

Kevin went home to Kristin in December and slept through as many days as he could. She came into the living room one night, sat down on the couch next to him, and pressed a wineglass into his hand.

"This year has been a disaster," he said, without turning his eyes from the TV.

"I know, baby," she said. She reached a hand up and stroked his hair back from his face. "But it's almost over. New year, fresh start. You'll see." She kissed his cheek. He put the wineglass down and turned to kiss her mouth.

Kevin called Nick as soon as he heard about the arrest. He wasn't sure if he'd even be able to get Nick on the line, but Nick picked up after only two rings and said, "Hey, Kev," in an utterly exhausted tone.

"Nick," Kevin said. "God, how are you?"

"Well," Nick said, "I've been better."

"I bet. Where are you now? Are you still..."

"No, I'm home. They let me go. For now."

"Nick," Kevin said again, and Nick sighed.

"Don't, okay? I've heard it already."

"Nick, come on. I just want you to be all right."

"Sure," Nick said. "That's what you always wanted."

"For fuck's sake, Nick!" Kevin stopped, and flexed and relaxed his fingers on the phone. "I care about you," he said evenly. "You should take care of yourself. That's all."

Nick sucked in a rapid breath. When he spoke again, his voice was quieter and a bit hollow. "Yeah," he said. "Yeah, no, I'm gonna. I really am."

"So," Kevin said after a moment, "do you already know what's happening next?"

"Scott said they might offer me a - thing. Intervention, thing. Community service and stuff."

"Sounds like it'd be worth taking."

"Yeah, probably." Nick gave a short, dry laugh. "Maybe I can write a song about this. Jailhouse Rock."

"I think that one's taken," Kevin said dryly. Nick snorted at that with something that sounded closer to real amusement.

"Did Nick send you his new song yet?" Brian said.

"No," Kevin said. "Did you hear it already?"

"Yeah, it's really cool. He's got exactly the right voice for this stuff. Rockier than our songs - na na na na na na na - like that, you know?"

"Yeah," Kevin said. "I know what you mean."

"I told you I went to see Nick doing his video, right?" Howie said.

"Oh yeah," Kevin said, "how was it?"

"It was awesome," Howie said. "He's having such a good time."

"I'm kind of worried about the album, though," Kevin said.

Howie shrugged. "He's doing what he wants to do."

Kevin nodded and drank some more coffee.

Howie leaned forward. "You should go see him," he said quietly. "Not now, maybe, but later. When he goes on tour. Then you can see for yourself."

"Yeah," Kevin said. "Have you heard from AJ lately?"

Nick's show was a little scary. He wasn't exactly alone onstage, but every eye in the house was on him, and he had the crowd eating out of his palm. In between his rock and roll he sang a few of the old songs, too. They worked surprisingly well as solos.

When the encores were over, Kevin found himself thinking about slipping away quietly, back to his car, driving away with a string of streetlights behind him. But he went downstairs, and around to the backstage corridors, and eventually around a corner where Nick was standing talking to someone. Kevin cleared his throat.

"Hey, Nick."

Nick turned around. "Kevin!" he said. "Oh, man. It's good to see you."

They hugged and then stood there looking at each other until Nick shifted his feet. "So, uh. How are you? What'd you think?"

"You're amazing," Kevin said. He didn't even have to think about that one.

Nick grinned with one side of his mouth. "It's really cool that you came. I really wanted you to see the show." He shifted again. "Listen. Let's go - let's -" He grabbed Kevin's hand and glanced in both directions down the hall, then turned to the right and pulled Kevin along with him into a tiny kitchen.

Once there, he let go and tugged the door shut behind them. Then he turned around and came to stand in front of Kevin. His face looked oddly serious under the sweaty hair. "Hey," he said. He laid both hands on Kevin's face, and Kevin flinched. Nick didn't let go. "Listen," he repeated. "Um. Okay." Then he paused, and made a face, and pressed his mouth to Kevin's.

Kevin swayed forward, opening his lips to the flare of the kiss. Nick's hands were on him, and Nick's tongue, and the solid bulk of Nick's chest. Kevin's head felt warm and dim.

Nick pulled his mouth away and took a breath. Then he let his hands drop and stepped back. "Thanks," he said. "I just - I just wanted to do that."

Kevin drew himself back and closed his mouth. "Right," he said, "yeah. It's cool, Nicky."

Nick's lips curved into a faint smile. "Come on," he said, "I'll introduce you around." So Kevin went back out with him.

When Kevin got home, Kristin led him upstairs, stopping to kiss him long and hard in the hall outside their doorway. He opened his mouth and swept his tongue over her lower lip.

"Mm," Kristin said. "D'ye miss me?"

"Almost every minute," Kevin said. He lifted her up and swung her around in a loop that landed on their bed.

"So yeah, it sounds like they're not gonna pick up Nick's new album," Howie said.

"Oh man, that sucks," Kevin said. "How is he? Do you think we need to talk to him?"

Howie paused, considering. "You know, he actually seems pretty okay. I mean, he's bummed and all, but I think he's taking it in stride."

"Oh," Kevin said. "Well, that's cool."

"Did Brian tell you Baylee's starting to crawl?" Howie said, and Kevin shook his head

"That kid's gonna be driving before we know it," he said. Howie laughed.

Going back into a studio felt weird - weird in his head, weird in the car, and weirder with every step he took down the sound-dampened corridor. But when he opened the door Brian and AJ were there, and the room edged back a little closer to normal. Howie came in next, and Kevin had to smile while hugging him because of the unquenched curls around Howie's face. Then he hugged AJ again just because.

When Nick walked through the door, he looked the best Kevin had ever seen him. "You guys!" he said. He threw his arms around Brian, who was standing closest, and looked around over Brian's shoulder at the rest of them. When he met Kevin's eyes, his smile was free and clear.

Kevin looked at the blond fall of Nick's hair, and looked away. Nick moved on to hug Howie and AJ and then came over to wrap one arm briefly around Kevin, his broad palm squeezing the back of Kevin's neck.

"A'right, a'right, a'right!" AJ said. "I believe we got some work to do."

Brian giggled. "Set your feet on this road, my friends," he declaimed. Kevin stepped away towards the microphone stand.

"Yeah, come on, guys," he said. "This is our brand new start."