By Chris J

It started in a trendy LA coffee bar, at just past five in the afternoon, when Nick stepped inside and stumbled over the welcome mat and knocked over a fresh cup of cappuccino, foam spilling over the edge of the table and onto his foot.

"Oh," he said. He didn't look anyone in the face as he righted the cup and, seeing no other option, licked off his fingers. Vanilla, tasted like. "I'll buy you another."

"S'okay, whatever, I'll get my own," the guy drawled, and Nick saw a hand come into his range of vision to pull the mug back and away. "Place is too damn crowded."

It was -- places like this were so trendy again people were throwing them up in any corner that could hold two tables, a counter and some shitty artwork -- but that didn't mean that Nick wasn't responsible for being a damn klutz. And Nick was taking responsibility for his shit these days.

"No, really, I will," he said, and finally looked up, sucking off his thumb. The guy was tall and skinny with a shock of obviously bleached hair, and the dark sunglasses that were part of the uniform of the rich and famous. Or people trying to look like they're rich and famous. "Do I know you?"

"No," he said instantly. "And you should probably get out of the doorway. People are trying to get in."

Nick was sure he did, though. Know him. Something about the voice and the hair and the way he held his body. As he made his way up to the counter to get himself a nice big café mocha, he thought about it.

Maybe it was just that everyone in LA looked the same to him these days. Everyone who ran in the same circles he did, anyway. Tall and beautiful and arrogant. But that didn't seem quite right this time, something about his face niggled at Nick's memories. And not recent memories either, not some random face he'd passed in the studio lately.

In spite of the guy's protests, Nick got him a fresh drink anyway, and lapped up a bit of the whipped cream off the top of his own as he brought them back to that same table.

"I'm really sure I know you," he said as he set the cup down, just to the side of the spill that no one had come by to clean up.

The guy smiled at him. Or maybe more of a smirk. "You've got... um..." he said, and then made a wiping gesture at his nose. Nick rolled his eyes and sighed and wiped the whipped cream off the end of his nose with the back of his hand.

"Making a great first impression, huh?"

"Not first," he finally admitted, and accepted the drink without further argument. "You're right. You know me."

Nick tilted his head to the side and made another swipe at his nose for good measure. "I knew it," he muttered, studying him. "Are you gonna make me guess?"

"Nah," the guy said, shaking his head, and he slid his sunglasses off, setting them carefully on the table. The arm landed in the spilled cappuccino anyway.

As soon as Nick could see the rest of his face, see his eyes, it finally came back to him. He knew who he was looking at before the guy even introduced himself.

"Wade," he said, and didn't offer his hand. "Robson. We've run into each other a few times."

Only a few times in person, but Nick knew all about Wade. All about Wade. If it was all true, though, the guy would have had horns sprouting from his head and a forked tail, and he didn't seem to have either. Mostly, he just seemed to have a quiet resignation about him.

He thought about getting up and leaving, finding himself somewhere else to sit, especially when he'd been uninvited in the first place, but he didn't. Instead, he took another sip of his drink and tried not to get foam on his nose this time. Once was an embarrassment; twice was a fast coast into loserdom.

"Did you see that guy who came in ahead of me?" he said finally, making an arcing motion above his head with one hand. "How the hell does he keep that hair up anyway?"

"Spit and willpower," said Wade, suddenly smiling into his cup, holding it between both hands. Nick hadn't expected the smile, but wasn't going to complain. "I get girls with hair like that in my classes sometimes. And I thought mine was hard to take care of."

"I'm still all for the bedhead look," said Nick. Which was probably obvious enough without him having to say anything about it, though it was sometimes necessary to point out that it was intentional and not accidental.

"Well, you know, gives the impression you spend a lot of time getting into and out of beds," said Wade. If Nick hadn't been looking at his face right at that moment, he would've missed the wince, but he was, and so he didn't. "Not a bad image, for someone like you."

Nick mumbled something like agreement, and sipped his coffee again. "Maybe I'll buzz it all off one of these days, and remove grooming products from my routine altogether."

"Isn't that what monks do?" asked Wade. "When they're cleansing themselves of their past? The hair's the first to go."

"Monks and teenage girls," Nick snorted. "My sisters, man. Whenever they break up with someone? It's off to the salon for a new 'do. It's nuts. And they all do it, some sisterhood thing. Thank god for Aaron, seriously."

"Yeah, sisters are like that," Wade agreed. Nick had forgotten he actually had one, too. Of course, he was pretty sure Wade didn't live with three of them half the year. "Girls do things in packs, man. It's instinctive behaviour."

"Freaks," said Nick. Still, no one had come by to clean up the last of the spill, and it had begun to dry in tacky patches on the table. He resisted the urge to play with it, scratch his initials into it. "It's human nature, though. That whole pack thing. You get a bunch of people together? And they'll take sides. They'll always take sides."

"Men are beasts," snorted Wade. His look had grown from surprised to suspicious to appraising since Nick had sat down. What he was appraising, Nick could only guess, and he didn't play up to it. He didn't want to have to do that anymore, especially for someone like Wade.

"Men are definitely beasts," he agreed. "In any and all meanings of that phrase." Nick's coffee was already almost gone. He thought he might go get himself another.

* * *

"And that's the whole reason you're calling me two hours late?" AJ was saying. He was getting so loud that Nick held the phone away from his ear and hoped no one around him was interested in listening in on his call. "You met some guy?"

"Shhhh," he hissed, and looked around again. "Jeez, tell the whole world, why don't you?"

"Why do I need to when you're doing a fine job of that on your own?" he shot back. "You were discreet, weren't you?"

"No, we actually did it right there on the floor," said Nick. "I have coffee stains on my jacket to prove it." AJ was so silent that Nick wondered if he believed him. "For fuck's sake, Aje, be serious. It wasn't like that anyway. I just ran into someone and lost track of time."

"Yeah, what else is new?" said AJ, but the volume was decreasing, which Nick took as a good sign. He'd probably had another fight with Sarah. AJ had plenty of reasons to be annoyed with Nick himself, but he only really took things out on him when it had nothing to do with him at all.

"And I'm calling now, notice," Nick reminded him, finally getting to his car and popping the locks.

"How nice of you to make time for me in your busy schedule."

"Oh, stop," he said, rolling his eyes. And feeling guilty about it two seconds later because AJ always seemed to know when he was doing that, whether he was across the room from him or across the country. Or across town, as the case happened to be right then. "So ask me how it went this morning."

"How did it go this morning?" asked AJ obediently.

"Shitty," said Nick, starting the car. He suspected that AJ liked to hear that things weren't going that well for him, but he tried not to dwell on that. He was doing what he needed to do. "I'm getting a sore throat. I sounded like hell. I'm gonna be here longer than I thought. We still on for dinner later?"

"Yeah, yeah," said AJ. "Make it late, though."

"Why?" asked Nick. "You need to go out and buy Sarah flowers or something?"

"Fuck off."

Nick took that as a decided yes. Maybe flowers and chocolates. And lingerie. And theatre tickets. Though if the blow-up had been that big, AJ probably would have hung up on him already.

"I'll get someone to make reservations and call you back, then," he said, running through all the places they might want to go in his head. He didn't need to impress AJ. He could pick a place that he actually liked. "Nine-ish okay for you?"

"Better make it ten," AJ admitted. "Sarah has yoga tonight." Which meant, Nick surmised, that she wouldn't be back until late, and AJ wanted to be there when she did. If AJ bailed on him at the last minute to stay home with her, though, heads were gonna roll.

"All right, ten," he said. "But if you don't show..."

"You can call your new boy," finished AJ. "Or actually, don't. I don't trust you in public, Nicky. Especially when you're so hung up on someone you forget all about me."

"It wasn't like that," Nick said again, and it really, really wasn't, but his protests were falling on deaf ears. AJ always did have a habit of hearing what he wanted to hear. And he wanted to hear that Nick was being more scandalous than he himself was, not that Nick had spent a couple hours making awkward conversation with someone he hardly knew and wasn't sure yet that he liked enough to do something with. Or, well, he liked him well enough, he just wasn't sure he trusted him.

"I've heard that before," said AJ. And Nick kinda deserved that. He did have a history.

"I'm not getting myself into any trouble."

"Just let me worry, huh?" said AJ, right on the heels of Nick's insistence. "Gives me something to think about other than me." And so Nick did.

* * *

Wade called about two seconds after Nick got to his hotel room, giving him just enough time to have thrown his jacket on the bed. Meaning he had to dive after it to dig out his phone.

"Hey?" he said, lying stomach-down on the bed, legs dangling off the side.

"Hey." Nick didn't recognize the voice at first, but the tone was familiar, if a little nervous. "Thought I'd be getting your voicemail. You said you were going out tonight."

Nick hadn't been planning on giving Wade his number after they had coffee together. He actually hadn't even been planning on sitting down, but one thing had led to another, and words had led to sentences had led to an entire conversation. One that Nick thought he might not mind continuing, at some point.

"Been there, done that," he said as he rolled over onto his back, shoving the jacket out of his way. "Been back all of, oh, thirty seconds at least, now. What message were you going to leave?"

"Does it matter?" asked Wade. "I mean, I'm talking to you now. I can just talk."

"Yeah, but I want to know," insisted Nick, smiling to himself. "Tell me."

"You're weird."

"You're not the first person to tell me that," snorted Nick. "The message?"

"All right, all right," he said after a second of thought. "I was just gonna say that I had a good time this afternoon, and I was going to leave you my number. Since I didn't. Before. Because I'm a jerk."

"I didn't really expect you to," admitted Nick, but he was laughing. "After I invited myself to join you and all."

"I didn't stop you."

"Yeah, I noticed that."

His jacket smelled like smoke and he shoved it all the way off the bed and onto the floor. Something made a thunk as it impacted, and he winced, wonder what he'd left in the pocket that he'd forgotten about. He'd already broken two pairs of glasses that way.

"So look," said Wade, and here came the thing that Nick figured Wade had really called about. "I can't help but notice you never asked. About what really happened."

"Didn't have to," Nick told him. "I already know your story, Robson. And if you weren't offering, no place for me to be asking. No reason for me to be asking."

"Huh," said Wade. Nick had grown good at reading surprise in people's voices over the years, and this didn't sound like the bad kind. Or the entirely bad kind, anyway. "I can just guess what kind of story you heard."

"More than one, in bits and pieces," said Nick, deliberately vague about it. "Some from the major players, some not. I just put it all together and told myself a story that's probably closer to right than anything anyone could tell me."

"You have it all figured out and you're still talking to me?"

Nick shrugged, more out of habit than anything else. "Yeah, sure, why not?" he said. "You were talking to me, too. So what's going on?"


Nick snorted. "What's going on? You know... what's up? What are you up to?"

"What? Oh... nothing. I have a meeting in the morning, and then a class. Teaching a class. So I'm at home. On the phone with you. Aaaaaand that sounded dumb, didn't it?"

"Yeah," Nick was forced to agree. "But, well, I'm pretty much the king of saying dumb shit so I oughta know. It's just talking, though. You don't have to impress me."

"Liar. Of course I do," he said, half snapped and half drawled. "Whatever I did this afternoon to make you want to sit with me until they practically kicked us out, I need to keep doing that."

It was refreshingly honest, if misguided. "I sat with you because I spilled your coffee," said Nick, "and because you were hot. I don't think it's much effort to keep that up."

There was silence on the other end of the line, which wasn't entirely unexpected. Nick knew what he said, knew what he'd revealed by saying that. It was a calculated risk, but he didn't think he'd end up regretting it. It was blind faith like that, however, which had gotten him into so much trouble before.

"So," said Wade finally, after Nick spent at least a minute listening to him breathe. "Yeah, okay. So your motives for giving me your phone number weren't entirely pure, then."

"It's a phone number," said Nick plainly. "I think it's a pretty common social ritual. Common enough that you knew what it meant when I handed it to you."

If Wade said he didn't, then he was the liar, either to himself or to Nick. That, Nick was sure of. He wasn't the most socially adept creature, but he could tell that much. When you scrawled your number onto a napkin and tucked it into someone else's pants pocket, your intentions ought to be pretty damn clear.

"Maybe," said Wade after another one of those awkward pauses. Nick was pretty notorious for them himself, but it was better that than filling the pause with what was going through his head. "And I called."

"Yeah, you called," repeated Nick, and finally he smiled again. From here on in, he figured that things would start going a lot smoother.

* * *

Nick had always kind of liked to watch other people work. When he was little, his mother used to make him do it, tell him to watch people and then do exactly what they were doing, but he'd always liked it. He was lousy at imitating, but real good at watching.

He definitely wouldn't be able to imitate what Wade was doing as he warmed up for his class, his long, lean body bending in all kinds of ways that five minutes before, Nick would've told you were impossible. And that was with years of dance training of his own. It was kind of nice to just watch it, Wade's unselfconscious movements in the privacy of the studio, unaware of Nick's presence.

Nick didn't think much of what Wade did was unselfconscious anymore; he knew how that felt all too well. Which probably should have made him feel a little guilty for watching him in an unguarded moment, but... well. They'd had some really good conversations, to Nick's surprise, and he kind of wanted to get to know him a little better. Not the Wade that he'd heard about, but the person Wade had become.

It was looking like he was a lot different from what Nick might have expected. The guy had a reputation even worse than Nick's own, and he knew it. And unlike a lot of people Nick had known in his time, he wasn't playing it up. And he wasn't pretending it wasn't there. He was just living with it.

And maybe that was one of the things that was attracting him.

When Wade finally stopped to take a break and reach for his water bottle, Nick knocked on the doorframe, announcing his presence. Wade squinted and frowned, then suddenly smiled when he realized who was interrupting him. Or sort of smiled. Stopped frowning, anyway.

"What are you doing here?" he asked, picking up his towel but just draping it over his shoulders. He hadn't even worked up a sweat. "Did I tell you I would be here?"

"More or less," said Nick. "You told me you had a class. I found out where you held classes. The rest I actually managed to figure out on my own. You got a minute?"

Wade looked at his watch, then back up at Nick again. "One or two, yeah. Not really long enough to get into anything."

"I gotta go anyway," said Nick. "I didn't really mean to stay. Just thought I'd drop by and say hi. Since it was on my way and all." Or only a little bit out of his way, but sometimes the little gestures were the ones that meant something. "And since you mentioned something about dropping by anytime."

"I didn't actually think you would," said Wade, but he was grinning and Nick knew he was pleased. Even if he would never actually admit it. "So you really just... came to say hi?"

"To say hi and ask you out, actually," said Nick. "Since we never really made firm plans last time, about when we'd get together again."

Wade just looked more baffled at that. Like he couldn't imagine anyone doing that. "You could've called."

"Yeah, I could've," agreed Nick. "Didn't, though. Figured I'd rather see you."

And somehow it made it mean even more to him, that Wade was so surprised and pleased by the whole thing. Definitely not what Nick had been expecting of him. Even though he didn't put as much stock in rumors as most people, he'd still had the idea that Wade would be a cocky bastard.

"That's cool," he said, grinning again. "But damn, I really gotta go right away. So... Saturday night? You got it open?"

"I can," said Nick. At this point, it wouldn't hurt to miss an industry party. It wasn't big, there wouldn't be photographers, not for the major services anyway, and no one he was working with was there, really. No real effect on his career. "I'll come get you. Eight? That's typical date-time, right?"

"It is," said Wade, and I'll come get you." Nick raised his eyebrows. "You already gave me your room number. And I know the city better than you do." Nick wasn't entirely sure of that, but it was nothing to argue about.

"All right," he said. "You do that." He reached out and Wade flinched, but he just picked an eyelash off his cheek and showed it to him before letting it drift to the floor. "I'll see you then. I gotta get to the studio.

"Yeah," said Wade wonderingly. "I'll see you then."

* * *

Sometimes, Nick thought having a phone surgically implanted into his ear would be a good idea. The number of calls he got, it would save him from having to track it down every time. Only then he could never get away with saying he'd lost it, and never get away with ignoring his calls. Which made it a pretty lousy idea after all. Phones were meant to be able to be turned off.

He did take this particular call, though, once he saw who it was from. "Hey Aje," he said. "Isn't it a little early for you?"

"Sarah wanted to sleep in, so I took the dogs for a walk," he said, and yawned noisily.


"Penance," he agreed ruefully, and Nick grinned a little, glad AJ couldn't see. Sarah was high maintenance, sure, but AJ didn't help matters. "At least I'm not sleeping alone. So hey, I forgot to ask you at dinner the other night about your new guy."

He hadn't forgotten, Nick had just neatly steered the conversation away from it and AJ had let him. "I don't have a new guy," he evaded. And he didn't, technically. Not yet. "Just a prospect."

"You don't need a new boyfriend, though. You just need to get laid."

"Oh you think so, do you?" AJ sounded very sure of himself. Too sure. "And how do you know that's not what I'm up to?"

"Because if you were the deed would be done already," said AJ. "You always do this, you know. You're horny and you decide you need to get into another relationship, when a one-night stand would do the job just fine."

"You're a moron, you know that?" said Nick, banging his fist on the Coke machine when it didn't drop a bottle after he put his money in.

"I may be, but I'm also right," said AJ. And he probably was, or would be, if that was all this was. But Nick had gotten laid four days ago and once upon a time that might've been eternity but right now it was pretty damn recent.

"For the love of god, AJ," he said, kicking the Coke machine and scowling at it, like that would help, "stay the fuck out of it, would you? I know what I'm doing."

"What the hell are you doing?" asked AJ. "Beating up the mixing board?"

"No, the fucking soda machine ate my money," said Nick, kicking it one last time for good measure. Did everyone else have this problem or was it just him? He was forever being gypped out of his soft drinks. It was like a sign, or something. "Seriously, Aje, there's nothing going on here, not really. Just... I don't know."

"You want to translate that out of "Nick" for me?" he suggested, sounding amused again. Like he so often did.

"Fuck you," snorted Nick. "It's just... okay, yeah, so I met someone and he's kinda cool. We'll see what happened. It's not just because I want to get laid. Believe me. I'm plenty capable of taking care of that, when I want to."

AJ grunted, which wasn't much of an answer but at least he wasn't arguing the point anymore. He should know better. He only really got like this when he was remembering his own days of freedom. His advice was more for himself than Nick, despite the fact that most of the time, it didn't do Nick any harm. He had a history, after all, and if there was anyone who knew all of it, it was AJ and the other guys.

"Okay, all right," he said finally. "So you don't want to tell me about him, fine."

"No, I will," said Nick, giving up on the drink and starting back down the hall, to the studio. "Just not right now, huh? Not a great time. We gonna get together again before I leave town?"

"If you're screwing up as much as you say you are, it's a sure thing," said AJ. "You're here for another week at least, right? Sarah would kick my ass if I didn't have you to the house for dinner at least once. She cooks now. Consider that fair warning."

"Fair warning to eat something before I come over, or bring some Tums for after?" asked Nick. A meal like AJ was suggesting would go much better with wine. Or something stronger. Unfortunately -- or fortunately -- that was no longer an option.

"I'd go with both," said AJ, and Nick could almost see him grimacing. Nick only had to visit. AJ had to live with it. He guessed that AJ took Sarah out to dinner an awful lot of the time. Or he cooked, which Nick knew from experience was a pretty decent option. "Or maybe I'll convince her to take a rest and I'll cook for her, and you'll be off the hook."

"I'll bring the Tums just in case," said Nick.

"Believe me, I'm stocked," said AJ, and Nick could believe it. He suspected AJ was stocked with many things. "And once you're in my house I can lock the doors and make you tell me what's going on with you."

"You probably shouldn't have told me that part of the plan," said Nick, but he laughed anyway. "Okay, gotta go, I'm back at the sound booth. Call you later?"

"Yeah, yeah," said AJ. "I think it's time to go wake Sarah up anyway. Maybe have some lunch ready."

"One of these days, you're going to have to tell me what you did."

"There's no 'have to' about it," insisted AJ. "That's on a need-to-know basis, and you don't. Won't keep you any longer. Knock 'em dead, kiddo."

Nick thought he was probably going to drop dead before he knocked 'em dead -- on this particular day, anyway -- but the sentiment was welcome. He closed his phone and tucked it away and pushed the door open, ready to go at it some more.

* * *

"Okay, we need to do that again, I think."

Nick was really getting tired of the "I think" part of the sentence, even though he understood why it was there. He could've gone with experienced producers, he'd been encouraged to go with experienced producers, people he knew or he'd heard of. But no. He'd had to be a stubborn prick who had to do things his own way. For some of the tracks, at least, whether it got on the album or not.

So here he was with a college kid who one of the guys he'd scouted for his band had introduced him to. A friend of a friend, and Nick had really liked his sound and his ideas and decided he wanted to work with him on a few tracks. The guy was brilliant in the studio, but didn't have the balls yet to boss Nick around. And even Nick could admit that he needed to be bossed around sometimes.

"From where?" asked Nick, adjusting his headset and looking through the glass to the booth. "From the top?"

He hesitated. "Yeah, from the top," he said finally. "From the beginning."

"Okay, Peter," said Nick, and sighed and tried to get it right this time. Peter Rath. One day, Nick figured, the guy was going to be a household name. Big in the way the Neptunes were. But that time wasn't yet.

He sang again and he thought he was a bit flat. Again. But Peter looked like he was okay with it this time, or at least he hadn't called for Nick to do it again, so Nick shrugged and went with it. He couldn't really hear himself anyway, and Peter had a better ear than he did.

"All right," said Peter finally. "I think we've got it this time. Wanna come up and have a listen?" He hardly even had to ask. Nick's throat was feeling raw again and he knew they had another piece they wanted to work on next, before the day was done. He needed some hot tea, and hoped the machine in the corner had been fixed.

"How is it this time?" Nick asked, shutting the door to the booth behind him. Peter wasn't wearing a happy face, but that didn't mean anything. He was an angsty college student. He wasn't supposed to look perky. He was the guy Nick might've been, in another life.

"Better," he said, nodding almost absently, though it was obvious he was listening. "Still a little... pop." He winced a little as he said it, and it was no mystery why. He'd said it a dozen times in the time the two of them had been working together and whatever it meant, Nick just wasn't quite getting it. "You sound too... happy, or something."

"Well, I am, kinda," Nick had to admit, even though that was no excuse. He had nothing against pop, he'd made a fortune off pop, but pop wasn't supposed to be what this track was and he was going to get it right this time. Even if it meant he had a lot to learn yet, in the studio. He could rock his little heart out on stage, but in the studio it was a different story. He wasn't entirely good at being raw and right on key at the same time.

"Yes, I can see that," said Peter, still not looking up at him and leaning in to murmur something to the engineer, whose name Nick didn't know. "How come? Good day?" From his point of view, Nick certainly hadn't been having one.

"I guess, yeah," said Nick, reaching out but not touching anything. "I got this new guy maybe." That, finally, made him look up. "Fuck. You did know I was queer, right?"

"Oh. Oh, yeah, yeah, I've been told," he said after a moment of hesitation. "You've just never outright said before. I figured it was on the down low."

"Never had anything to say about it before," admitted Nick. He always hated this part, the coming out part. He usually counted on other people to do it for him, whether he wanted them to or not. "Now? I dunno. Maybe."

"Well, that's... great," said Peter finally. "You want to try to keep it out of your work, though? You're messing with the vibe here. And I know you can do it just fine, I've seen you sing in clubs, remember?" Nick wasn't likely to forget. It was where they'd met. When Peter had told him he was a fucking idiot for not recording that stuff.

"Yeah, yeah," said Nick. "Okay, yeah, I know. Fucking instinct, man."

"Not instinct, just training," he insisted. "Things are changing now. You've decided to make a change. You just need to follow through instead of sticking with the things you feel safe with.

And wasn't that the damn truth.

* * *

"You're so old-fashioned," said Wade, looking around the room as his emptied plate was taken away. He had his napkin in one fist and was crumpling and uncrumpling it.

"What? Why?" Nick asked, draining the last of his third drink until the ice clattered in the glass.

"Just..." Wade gestured vaguely at the restaurant. "Dinner, you know? I wasn't expecting it to be like this."

"Ah," said Nick knowingly. "You figured straight to a club? Nah, not my style, really. I like to talk, be able to talk. And not scream or anything. Plus--" He rubbed his throat gingerly. "--this'd be a bad time to kill the voice."

"Still having trouble?" asked Wade, frowning at him as he sipped his water. "That's not good. What are you doing to it?"

"Nothing, nothing out of the ordinary," insisted Nick. "Just working it hard, in the studio just about every day. It's coming along, though. It's worth it."

"You writing your own stuff?" The question was innocent, but Nick frowned anyway.

"I've been writing my own stuff for a while, you know. Some of it was on our last album."

"No, I know, I know," said Wade, raising his hands like he was being attacked. Which Nick wasn't, seriously. "I just meant the whole thing. The whole package. A hundred percent you."

"Right," said Nick, taking that at face value. Because, like so many things, it just wasn't worth the energy and stress to fight over it. Either he meant it that way or he didn't; either way, he was set straight now. "Yeah, that's the idea. It's not even... there's no set date yet, for when they want to get it out. I'm not even sure they do. So I can get things as right as I can get things."

"Right," said Wade, and actually looked like he followed that, which was more than Nick could say for most people. He knew it. He just tried to live with it now. "That's good. You almost done?"

"Don't I wish," said Nick. "But hey, you know what it's like, you've been there. Even when you think you're done, you're really not, so since I think I'm not, then I must really not be. But hey, sometimes it's the process that's important, right?"

"So they tell me," muttered Wade, giving Nick a smile. "You look really great tonight. In case I didn't say."

"You didn't," said Nick, running his fingers through his hair and ducking his head the way he always did when someone said something like that and actually seemed to mean it. "Thanks. You, on the other hand, could use a shave." And he reached out and tugged at the short hairs on Wade's chin before Wade pushed his hand away.

"Don't make a scene," he said, but he was laughing already. "Damn you, Carter. Keep your hands to yourself."

Nick snickered. "Now there's something I haven't heard in a long time. Usually when I'm on a date, people want me to keep my hands anywhere but to myself." He gave him one last tug, sneaking his hand in there when Wade wasn't ready, then withdrew it again.

"I think that's probably a bit of an exaggeration," said Wade, rubbing roughly at his chin like that was going to help something. Nick knew he hadn't hurt him -- he'd had quite enough people tug on his own face to know the right way to do it. "I bet you got 'hands off' quite a bit, actually."

Nick's smile was all the admission he was going to give him on that count. He was a guy, he had a sex drive, it was inevitable he'd gotten himself into that situation from time to time. He used to let it get to him, until he realized that it was just fucking normal. He was just fucking normal, in a lot of ways. The important ones.

"Let's just say I didn't think I'd be getting it this time," he said after a moment.

"Well," said Wade slyly. "Then let's just say there's a time and a place, and it's not here."

Nick really didn't need much more signal than that, and in turn, he signalled for the check.

* * *

Wade was the one with a place, but they still ended up back at Nick's hotel room without even discussing it. A home would've been both too intimate and not intimate enough. A hotel room was familiar, right down to the hardness of the bed and the location of the minibar.

"Can I get you something?" Nick offered as he turned on the lights. He'd come a long way from his days of rutting up against doors half-dressed. Or he hadn't, but he at least waited until he knew a person better or not at all.

"What? No," said Wade, catching the back of Nick's shirt and shoving it up slowly, exposing the small of Nick's back. "Not dancing much anymore, huh?" he said as he felt his way over Nick's sides, over the curve of his ass.

"Thank god, no," laughed Nick. "No offense or anything, of course. Just not my thing."

"Well, it can't be everyone's," Wade conceded, his arms snaking all the way around until he was pressed up against Nick's back, slowly working to unbutton his pants,

Nick took his hand and moved it lower, lower, pressing it up against his dick and squeezing lightly, "God," he gasped. "Yeah." Wade's hand jerked once, in surprise, but Nick held him there and a moment later he relaxed. Two moments later, he was groping Nick through his pants.

"You don't waste any time, do you," he said, and it wasn't a question.

Nick wondered for a moment if this is how it happened between Wade and Britney. One minute they were talking and smiling and laughing and then without any real discussion about it they progressed into something more. And damn the consequences.

"Not anymore, no," he said, and helped Wade get his pants off. Helped him get all the clothing off both of them. Not frantic, not rushed, just purposeful.

Wade looked so dazed, so caught up in it, that one little push would send him tumbling onto the floor. And really, when he had the option, Nick really preferred a nice, firm, comfortable bed.

"Wade," he said, grasping his wrist firmly and tugging. "This way." Wade didn't budge, though. Instead he tugged Nick back against him and kissed him.

This was a man who was used to being in control. He was firm and demanding at first, but then he backed off and let Nick catch up. Their lips slid slickly together, hot and wet and hungry. Nick wouldn't mind not getting to the bed, if this was what he got in exchange.

They did, though, one clumsy step after another, lips never parting for long, until they were through the bedroom door and hovering at the side of the bed. Nick knew all about moments that were now or never, and had vowed to himself never to let them pass him by anymore if he could help it. This moment might come again, but he couldn't count on it.

He overbalanced on purpose and took Wade with him, tumbling them onto the bed and releasing some of the tension from the situation. Once their bodies were all pressed up against one another in all ways possible, it was silly to be hesitant about touching anymore. He didn't know if they would've been, but it couldn't hurt to be sure.

Wade rolled them over until he was on top and pinned Nick's upper arms to the bed, leaning in to kiss at his throat. His beard hairs scratched at Nick's skin and it wasn't as unpleasant as he remembered it being. Wade's hair was softer than he'd been expecting, even after touching it earlier.

"You like this, don't you," Wade murmured, and he wasn't talking about just the sex, Nick was pretty sure. It wasn't a stretch to think that he liked sex. But so what if he liked being dominated like that. Wade was pretty damn hot when he was confident.

"Maybe," he said, finally, long after an answer could have been expected. Just to hear the sound of his own voice, see the reaction it got out of Wade. He figured he would take it as a challenge; Nick knew that's what he would have done, in the same situation. If he was into that kind of thing.

Wade kept on holding him there and holding him there, keeping the pressure steady as he licked at Nick's neck, sucked at his earlobe, bit lightly at the groove where his neck met his shoulder. And Nick could have gotten away, if he'd really wanted to, but instead he gave in and just moaned and let Wade take over.

A few minutes later, Wade hardly even needed to hold him down.

"Easy," he murmured, and Nick couldn't really argue with that, so he kept silent. "Can I fuck you."

Nick's answer, while non-verbal, was a definite yes. One that even Wade, in his dazed and turned on state, couldn't miss. Though, given that state, it was almost certainly the answer he was already looking for.

He kept Nick pinned down with his legs as he reached where Nick was gesturing, and it was a good thing he was so damn tall because the night table wasn't close. And Wade was damn determined to get into it, to get what he wanted.

It was just so easy. When he returned, Wade ran his fingers over Nick's shoulders, his arms, his chest, and it was so fucking gentle all of a sudden it was almost unbearable. And Wade was watching him, the look on his face distant for a moment. Nick wondered what he was thinking about, but only for a second before all of Wade's attention was on him again.

"Remember," he said, the only thing he'd said in a while and the only thing he planned to say for the next while. "I'm not quite as flexible as you." He wasn't sure who Wade was used to having in his bed, but odds were it was someone he danced with, and Nick didn't want to be pulling any muscles.

But Wade kept on being gentle, firm but gentle, and though it was a bit of a surprise Nick didn't mind it one bit. Not when he took his time pushing inside him, not when he paused to start kissing him again, not when he all but held him as they fucked. He kept their bodies so close Nick could feel sweat forming, feel his body overheating, feel everything getting to be just a little too much.

And damn if that wasn't the way it fucking should be. Nick stopped overthinking the whole thing and just did it, sweat and slide and heat and all. He was loud as he came and Wade wasn't, but they were both tactile about it, grabbing and clawing and biting and doing all those things that left marks afterward.

Wade didn't talk again until they'd cleaned up and rearranged the blankets, but were still laying on top of them. "You're good in bed," he said, but it didn't sound like he was surprised. Wade was good, too, and Nick wasn't surprised about that. "I'm glad we came back here. I haven't had that much fun in a long time."

"Then we need to make sure you have more of it," said Nick. Starting just as soon as he'd recovered, and had a big of a snooze, anyway. Because he'd be a damn idiot to turn down more of what Wade could give him.

Nick hadn't had quite that much fun in a while, too.

* * *

They weren't planning on "being seen", in the contrived sense of the phrase, like so many other people out on the patio were, but that didn't stop them from going, Nick and Wade, and Peter and his sound engineer Sasha, too. It was just lunch, and it was close enough to the studio, and it had already been a good morning.

He hadn't told either of the people he was working with who, exactly, he was dating, but it turned out to be nothing, no big deal. Neither one of them knew who he hell Wade was and so neither could do anything to make him uncomfortable. Except, maybe, not know who the hell he was.

"There are no prices on this menu," murmured Peter as he scanned, it, up and down quickly. "That makes me nervous."

"Forget it," said Nick. "Don't even worry about it. Lunch is on me, guys. For putting up with me for the last few days." He'd kind of thought that went without saying, coming to a place like this. Most people he knew, people who weren't in the same situation as him, anyway, just expected him to be the one to pay.

Peter opened his mouth like he was gonna argue, then snapped it shut again and let it go, and Nick smiled. Sometimes, it was really nice to just be able to do something simple like this. Wade looked at him and smiled and Nick met his eyes and it just felt... good. Everything felt good. Everything was coming together.

"So this is what it's like to be a star, huh?" said Sasha, leaning back in his chair and lacing his fingers behind his head. Nick caught a couple of flashbulbs out of the corner of his eye and gave Sasha a grin.

"Something like that," he said, because they didn't want to know the truth. Or they would, soon enough, anyway. And Wade, well, Wade already did, all too well. Nick wanted to touch him or something, but he couldn't and he didn't. He just looked.

Another flash went off and Nick picked his menu up and got ready to order.

* * *

Nick didn't know what the hell AJ thought he was doing, showing up banging on Nick's hotel room door on the one day when Nick let himself sleep in. As soon as he knew who it was, he took the time to get dressed and wash his face before even opening the door.

AJ was even less thrilled to have been left cooling his heels at the door than he had been when he arrived, pushing past Nick into a room and thrusting a paper into his face. "You want to explain this to me?"

Nick stared at the picture and frowned, then shrugged. "Well, it's in a restaurant, around a table, the sun's high. Odds are it's lunch."

"Don't be a smartass."

"What, AJ? It's a picture of me having lunch, that's all. Nothing unusual about it. What's your problem this morning anyway?"

"Just having lunch," he snorted, and waved the paper in Nick's face again. "At least now I know who you're dating. Along with everyone else in the greater Los Angeles area."

"Oh, come on, it doesn't have to mean that," said Nick. "There are four of us in that picture for fuck's sake."

"Wade Fucking Robson," said AJ, like Nick hadn't even spoken, examining the paper again. Then he looked up to meet Nick's eyes. "Of all the people..." he began, then shook his head. "Of course it means that. Look at the way you're looking at him, Nick. You wear your heart on your damn sleeve and everyone knows it."

Not everyone, just the people who knew him, Nick hoped. Because the picture... okay, he could admit, it might have looked a bit suggestive. But still, to the average reader it was just another damn celebrity spotting, speculating who he might be working with. Not who he might be dating.

"It's nothing," he said, crossing his arms and shaking his head again. And keeping his cool, because he was right, and AJ was wrong, and AJ could be the one to rant and rave and make an ass of himself. Not Nick.

"What the hell were you thinking?" asked AJ, prowling back and forth across the floor as Nick sat there, unruffled. "It's one thing to pick up some pretty young thing at the local coffee bar. It's another to get with that piece of--"


"What? I don't care if you don't want to hear it, Nick--"

"You're not telling me anything I wasn't expecting to hear," said Nick, trying to sound bored even though his guts were tight. He may have been expecting it, but that didn't make it fun. "I know what people think of him."

"It doesn't matter what I think of him," ranted AJ. "It's what he did. What he could do to you."

"Is now the time to remind you what you've done?"

"Yeah, well, maybe that's how I know," said AJ, and suddenly swung himself into a chair. "People who've screwed up that big once? Most likely to do it again."

"Or they learn from it," Nick countered. "And try to be better people."

"And don't always succeed."

"God, AJ," said Nick, and rolled his eyes. "This isn't about you. This is about me and Wade and I know what I'm doing."

"I haven't seen any proof of that."

"I don't need to give you any," said Nick. "Really. I don't. This is my business and my eyes are open and just... you don't even know him."

"He slept with his best friend's girlfriend."

"Not something he'll be able to do with me," said Nick. AJ didn't really have any right to say that in the first place. He didn't know for sure, didn't know even as much as Nick knew. He knew better than to rely on rumor and press. But Nick didn't know everything either, and maybe AJ had reason to be worried.

"That's not the point. Something else then."

"People get second chances, AJ," Nick said, holding his hand up to keep him from saying anything more. "Even when they think they don't deserve them. Okay, you've talked, I've heard you, let it go now." His guts twisted tighter, but he didn't let it show. He needed to stand his ground here, even when AJ's doubts started to get to him.

"I don't even know if you were listening," muttered AJ, but he did seem to be running out of steam. "You know I'm just looking out for you, Nick."

"I know."

* * *

Before AJ had barged in on his day uninvited, Nick already had plans. Plans for after noon, naturally, but plans all the same. Plans he was looking forward to. But when Wade showed up, still damp from a shower following his morning workout, Nick was still in a bit of a lousy mood.

"So what's got you down?" asked Wade after making himself comfortable, stretched across Nick's freshly-made bed. "And don't say you're not, I know that look already, Nick."

"What, just because I'm not already over there slobbering on you?"

"Well, that's part of it," admitted Wade. "Since I'm thinking that was plan when I showed up here..."

Nick sighed and forced the earlier conversation to the back of his mind. He'd known what he was getting into. He'd made his decision. "Well, we'll get to that," he said, and he forced a smile to his face, and the longer he wore it, the more he felt it. "How was your day?"

"I was kinda hoping to forget about my day, actually," said Wade, flinching a little bit, quick enough that if Nick hadn't been watching, he wouldn't have seen it.

"So that was your plan, huh?" he said, and it was teasing now. "Get us all focused on my day so I wouldn't notice yours?" Nick wasn't sure he wanted to hear about anyone's bad day, particularly when the day, as far as he was concerned, had hardly begun. "Maybe we should try that slobbering thing after all."

He stretched out on the bed next to him and licked his neck and Wade laughed, but then he pushed him away anyway. "It was just... another door slammed in my face, you know? Another thing that's gonna be ten times harder to pursue, because of... you know. What happened."

Nick could just imagine. Timberlake could be a vindictive bastard. But he had every right to be, in this case. "Getting your mind off it is probably a good idea."

"I mean, I'm good, you know?" Wade went on. "I'm good and it obviously doesn't have anything to do with talent. They're just... they don't care. It doesn't matter that I'm good."

"Yeah, well, that's the business," said Nick, and he should know. "That's how it works, and it sucks, but it's true. You just let some time pass and you work around it. People lose their jobs, other people get popular, and it all comes around again."

"I really fucked up, huh?" said Wade, and Nick had never really heard him like this before. He'd heard hints of it, but never full-blown realization and self-pity. "Like, really fucked up. And I don't have her, don't have him, don't have half the career and a tenth of the prospects I used to..."

"You have me," Nick pointed out.

"And I don't even know why," said Wade reflexively, like it was what he thought every time he thought about the fact that they were together. "You can do better. You should do better."

"You don't get to tell me who I should or shouldn't be with," said Nick.

"It's just ridiculous, you taking a chance on someone like me. Someone with my history. I bet no one knows, do they? Because you know, you know what people would say, or think. It's not worth it, Nick. I'm not worth it."

"God," said Nick, sitting up. "Okay, you know what? Seriously, Wade, that's your baggage. You're the one that thinks that stuff about yourself, not me. Don't put it on me. Believe me, I have enough baggage of my own to keep a whole team of therapists busy. I can't take on yours, too."

"You're right," said Wade, sitting up, too, getting right up off the bed. "You don't need my shit, Nick. It was fun while it lasted. I'll go."

"Wade, I didn't say..." said Nick, but he didn't get up off the bed, and he didn't try too hard to stop him. Because maybe he was right. And maybe AJ was right. And maybe they were all right, about the whole thing.

"See you around, Nick," he said, and then he was gone.

* * *

At least Nick was back home -- home home, Florida home -- before the calls started coming. Calls that hadn't really been coming lately, since he'd started the album and tensions had started to rise.

"Nick, what the hell have you gotten yourself into this time?"

Kevin, and he was expecting this one. Had expected the call to come far sooner than it actually had, since AJ couldn't keep his mouth shut and Kevin read the paper, too. Nick was just glad he wasn't still in LA, so he didn't have to deal with him face to face.

"Nothing," said Nick. "Nothing. Whatever you heard, it's... nothing."

"This self-destructive behaviour of yours had got to stop, Nick," he went on. "I'm serious."

"So am I," said Nick firmly. "I'm... okay, if you're calling about the Wade thing? We broke up. So you can breathe your sigh of relief and go back to ignoring me."

"I wasn't ignoring you, Nick, I was busy," he said, which was a lie but at least Kevin had called when he thought it was important. "I'm glad, though, that you broke up. That kind of relationship, that would be just no good for you right now. Not where you're at."

"And where is that, exactly?" Nick asked, but he didn't want to know Kevin's answer.

* * *

"Nicky?" Howie asked him softly, after they'd gotten the niceties out of the way. He talked to Howie quite a bit, still, but he'd never mentioned Wade to him. Which was probably why Howie was broaching the subject so tentatively now. "Tell me what's going on."

"Well, I'm in my underwear at my computer reading my e-mail while I talk to you," said Nick, knowing damn well that wasn't what Howie was asking. "Come on, Howie. Don't you guys trust me?"

"It's not about trust," insisted Howie. "Or maybe it is. Didn't you trust us enough to tell us?"

"What, I'm supposed to call you guys up every time I have a date?" asked Nick. "I never have before. And besides. Apparently it hasn't trickled down the grapevine yet that we broke up, so whatever you're doing, you can stop. It's fine. Things are fine."

"No, I know," said Howie. "Kevin told me that. I just wanted to call and see how you were, Nick."

"I'm fine."

* * *

Brian didn't call, he just sent Nick an e-mail with some sort of inspirational quote in it that Nick only scanned. Another time he would've read it and maybe taken it to heart because Brian was pretty choosy about the things he sent to them. He didn't just pick out something that sounded pretty. But Nick wasn't in the mood.

But AJ, Nick had know this one was coming. The 'I told you so' call.

"This is why you should listen to me, Nick," he said, and Nick had to resist the urge to hang up because he shouldn't have listened to him. Didn't listen to him, not really. Not deliberately. "Better it happened now than later. And better that it was your choice."

Nick didn't tell him that it hadn't been, not entirely. He just hadn't stopped it when he probably could've. "Do you really think I want to be hearing this?"

"I think you need to be," said AJ. "Nick, you know what kind of guy he is. Okay, yeah, he's pretty good looking and maybe he's great in bed, but that's not enough. You need someone you can trust."

Wade had never done anything to break that trust, even with all of these people believing he would. And despite that, they just figured it was a matter of time.

"You don't have to be so damn pissy about it," AJ said finally, to fill Nick's frustrated silence. "You shouldn't be this miserable, you should be happy about this."

"Okay, I'm gonna hang up now, AJ," Nick announced abruptly. "I have things to do."

"Nick--" said AJ, but Nick was already disconnecting the call.

* * *

Nick flew back to LA on a Friday evening, when he should've been in a meeting with a producer. When he should have been packing for Sweden. All he brought with him were the clothes on his back and the keys to a condo he'd closed the deal on only hours before.

A Friday night was good, because he knew exactly where and when to find Wade -- Millennium Dance, at ten o'clock when his master class let out. It was the one time, barring the wee hours of the morning when he'd probably be in bed, that Nick could be sure that they'd run into one another.

He waited in the parking lot, leaning against the back bumper of his rental car, and watched the doors for Wade to come out. It took a little waiting, but eventually he did, surrounded by three or four girls who he paused to chat with. Nick knew the look of them, and was secretly pleased that Wade had fans.

As soon as Wade caught sight of him, though, he waved goodbye to his fan club and headed in Nick's direction. He could have gone the other direction, he had every right and reason to, but he didn't, and that was a good sign.

"Hey," said Nick, as soon as Wade was close enough.

"Hey," said Wade, stopping a couple feet away. "Hey. I thought you left town."

"I did," admitted Nick with a little shrug. "I came back. How are you doing?"

"I'm fine," said Wade. "Fine. Listen... about, well, about that last time we were together... I just wanted to say I'm sorry. I didn't mean to unload on you like that. But I guess it was for the best, huh."

"No, it wasn't," said Nick. "It wasn't."

"It wasn't?"

"God. Who knows better than me that we all have our bad days? I was an idiot, and I knew damn well that the other times we've been together you've been funny and smart and just... and I've had a good time. So I was an idiot about it and I'm sorry."

Wade just stared at him for a moment. "So... so, okay, what does that mean, then?"

"I dunno," admitted Nick. "I guess it means... it means I made a mistake letting you go, before. And I'm telling you I made a mistake. And I'm hoping that it's not too late to do something to fix it."

"Well," said Wade, and even chuckled a bit. "Well, it's only been a week. I don't think it's too late. I think we could try again. Um. So what now?"

"We could get some coffee?"

For BSB Songfic Challenge II, inspired by "As Long As You Love Me". Lyrics here.

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