Nicklas lets himself into Alex's apartment, juggling Alex's spare keys and two cups of coffee.
"Sasha!" he yells into the empty living room and kitchenette.
There's no response.
Alex's apartment is small and shabby, most of the living room taken up by a violently plaid couch that sags in the middle and a halfway decent tv. The floorboards are scuffed and uneven, the ancient radiators covered in generations of paint and dust. It's sunny, at least.
Nicklas leaves the coffee on the tiny kitchen table and heads for the bedroom. Alex is a large, blanket-covered lump on the mattress on the floor. The blinds are closed, making the room a dim cave. Nicklas picks his way around lone shoes and dirty laundry over to the window, pulls the blinds up to let sunlight flood the room.
Alex groans under the covers and turns over, giving Nicklas his back.
"Alex, wake up," he says.
"No." It comes out muffled, grumpy.
Nicklas pokes Alex's back with the toe of his shoe. "Get up or we will be late. We're recording today."
Alex twists his head to squint at Nicklas over his shoulder. "Album not done yet."
"I know," Nicklas says, and it comes out more gently than he intends. He frowns. "This is just a single. The music is already written. One day, in and out."
Alex pulls the covers back over his head.
Nicklas rolls his eyes. "I have coffee."
Alex sits straight up. "Why you not say so first?"
"Put some pants on," Nicklas says, and goes back to the living room.
He's sitting at the table, scrolling through his e-mail on his phone when Alex finally emerges. He's wearing a t-shirt with a faded black and white photo of a tiger's head and a pair of black track pants. His hair is sticking up in tufts and he hasn't shaved, but it's good enough for the studio.
Nicklas pushes the other cup of coffee towards him and stands up. "Come on, you can drink that in the car."
Alex grabs a windbreaker on the way out. It's chilly and grey, not quite winter yet. Nicklas scheduled this studio time months ago, so they can get the single out in time for the Christmas season.
In the car, Alex sips his coffee and watches Nicklas. "So what song I am singing?"
Nicklas makes a face at the car in front of him. "Music is in my bag."
Alex looks down at Nicklas's bag under his feet. He fishes out the papers on top without spilling his coffee, although it's a close call.
"It's one of your old songs," Nicklas says. "But, uh, rearranged for Christmas."
Alex gives him a very skeptical look, then turns back to the music.
Alex had three or four big hits when he was younger, the kind that got played everywhere, radio and clubs and middle school dances. His most popular one, his best one, Nicklas thinks, was about his brother Mikhail, but Nicklas would never use that song for something as cheap as this.
Alex doesn't like the one about being happy in love anymore, so Nicklas went with the one about being young and happy and wanting nothing more than to go out dancing with your friends on a Saturday night. Holtby did a good job with the music, keeping the same melody, but making it sound a little lighter, a little poppier.
The words were harder, making it about Christmas shopping and holiday parties instead of clubbing, but Nicklas is nothing if not persistent. He begged a favor from Federov to help with the translation. It had been half-English, half-Russian originally, but Nicklas wanted it almost all English, since Alex was so much more comfortable singing in English now. He kept half of the chorus Russian, enough for English-speakers to sing along with phonetically.
"Nicky, this is terrible," Alex says.
"I know," Nicklas says. He finally risks a glance over at Alex.
Alex is grinning, huge and wide. "I love it."
Nicklas's heart gives that old, familiar pang at the sight of Alex's smile. He drags his eyes back to the road, but he's grinning now too, wide enough to make his cheeks ache.
It's been awhile.
The Carls are behind the mixing board today, Karl and Carlson. Which is good because they know Alex and will tolerate his shit.
"Can I rap?" Alex asks.
Alex was rusty at first, no range to his voice, stumbling over some of the words.
But he's warmed up now, laughing at Nicklas through the glass.
Nicklas leans forward and presses the button to talk. "No."
This is from both Alex and the back-up singers, Oshie and Williams. Nicklas should never have hired them, they're only encouraging Alex. He frowns so he doesn't smile back at all of them.
"Give me one good take, and I'll let you try it," Nicklas says.
Alex gives him more than one good take. They go back and forth on some of the phrasing, Alex wanting something different in a few places. Nicklas doesn't tell him Fedorov wrote those parts, because Alex's choices are better every time. They have an argument about whether "caroling" is a real word, which Nicklas wins, but he lets Alex change "shopping" to "sledding."
They finally get a clean take, and Nicklas says, "All right, go ahead."
Karl starts the music track over again, and Alex gives him a huge, cheesy grin.
Alex starts free-styling in Russian. His body language is exaggerated, joking, but his words come fast and sharp and confident. He meets Nicklas's eyes through the glass of the recording booth.
Then Williams starts beat-boxing into his mic, and Oshie cracks up laughing. Alex turns his delighted gaze to Williams, matching his rhythm.
Nicklas fumbles his phone out of his pocket and records the three of them, laughing and rapping along to a ridiculous pop Christmas song. It won't work for the single, but he can put it on YouTube, a fun little behind-the-scenes clip to promote it.
Alex makes a dropping-the-mic gesture, and Nicklas stops recording. Alex turns back towards him and raises his eyebrows.
"No," Nicklas says, and Alex laughs.
Alex is fidgeting next to him on the drive home.
"What?" Nicklas says.
Alex is quiet for a minute, then says, "We can do better."
"The second to last take is fine," Nicklas says, but Alex isn't wrong. That take is usable, but unexceptional.
Alex shrugs, but he still looks unsatisfied.
"I have some studio time tomorrow," Nicklas says, trying for off-hand. "If you want to work on it more."
Nicklas hadn't been sure how Alex would handle this idea, if he'd even make it through the whole first day. But he'd reserved the extra time just in case.
Alex gives him a look like he knows Nicklas is managing him, but he nods. "Yes, good. You give me ride, tomorrow, too?"
Nicklas sighs like it's a huge imposition. He pulls up in front of Alex's building. "Nine a.m."
"Bring coffee," Alex says. Nicklas opens his mouth to tell him not to press his luck, and Alex reaches out, squeezes his shoulder. "Thank you."
Nicklas blinks, shuts his mouth. Alex is already out of the car by the time he says, "You're welcome."
At home, Nicklas saves the video of Alex rapping to his computer. He only intends to watch it once, to make sure it transferred all right, but he finds himself replaying it, once, then twice, three or four times before he stops himself.
It's just been so long since he's seen Alex in the studio, even longer since he's seen Alex happy to be there. Since he's seen Alex happy at all, it feels like.
He just hopes this works.
"I admit, I was skeptical when you pitched this idea," Leonsis says. "But this is better than I was expecting."
Nicklas inclines his head, acknowledging the somewhat half-hearted compliment. "The timing is good."
Leonsis lets out a quick bark of laughter. "You mean, everyone who listened to this in high school and middle school is grown up and desperate to relive that happier time now, and they have enough money to at least buy a single."
Nicklas shrugs. "This is a nostalgic time of year."
"All right, Capital Records will release it," Leonsis says.
"And promote it," Nicklas says, not quite a question.
"And promote it," Leonsis agrees. "But Alex will have to do his part, too."
"Of course," Nicklas says. Alex is good with the media, he isn't worried about that.
"What about the full album?" Leonsis asks.
"Alex is working on it," Nicklas says. He's been saying that for a long time now, and he's not entirely sure anymore that he's not lying. "I think this side project help -- inspire him."
"Good," Leonsis says. "If this single does well, it could be a good springboard for a new album. A new stage in his career."
Nicklas keeps smiling and nods. Leonsis is right, of course.
"Not everyone gets a second chance in this industry," Leonsis says.
He is right about that, too.
BORED (((( Alex's text says. where are u?
At the studio, Nicklas replies.
can i come over? Alex says.
Nicklas frowns at the text. I'm working.
ill be good, Alex sends, along with a string of parentheses and prayer hand emojis.
Nicklas gives the text an extremely unimpressed look, but after a minute, he says, fine
He gets a smiley face emoji and three hearts back.
"These are your new boys?" Alex asks quietly.
He standing next to Nicklas in the back of the recording booth, watching Titanic record the vocals for their song, "On Thin Ice." Nicklas is aiming for a New Year's Eve release date for their album, even if they have to live in the studio for the next month and a half.
"Yes," Nicklas says.
Alex leans in closer. "How you tell them apart?"
Nicklas elbows him in the ribs. "Tom, Mike, Andre, Evgeny," he says, pointing each one out.
Alex nods, face ostentatiously solemn. Nicklas knows he'll remember them anyway.
Nicklas's phone buzzes and he opens his new e-mail.
When he looks up from typing out a diplomatic-yet-firm reply to a contract question, Alex is watching him.
"Same face," Alex says. "When you negotiate. Very serious, very..." He says something in Russian that Nicklas doesn't recognize.
Nicklas doesn't ask him to translate. "Maybe I write to my mother."
Alex grins. "No, very different face for that."
"Nicky, what do you think?" Evgeny asks.
"Sorry, what?" Nicklas says.
"About the chorus," Evgeny says. "Wilso and Latts should be half an octave lower, yes?"
Nicklas sighs. They have a producer -- who is even now giving Nicklas a look of barely suppressed impatience -- but sometimes they need a little hand-holding.
"Try it again, really try, the way Brooks says, then we talk," Nicklas says.
He goes to stand next to Laich, hoping to convey some sense of solidarity, and gives them an encouraging smile.
They smile back, young and hopeful. Nicklas tries not to feel old.
Nicklas is in the break room, reading the newest contract offer for Braden. Alex puts a styrofoam takeout box down in front of him, and Nicklas looks up, startled.
"I thought you left," he says. It's late. The boys are already gone, but Braden will be coming in for a few hours to work on his album.
(Braden is wonderful at arranging pop songs, but his true love is folk metal. Nicklas has found a tiny indie label that is willing to take a chance on him.)
"Just for food," Alex says.
He sits down on the sofa next to Nicklas, settling his own takeout container on his knees.
Nicklas is suddenly aware that he's starving. He puts his phone down and picks up the food, a curry from the place down the road.
They eat in silence.
"They're good," Alex says, when Nicklas is halfway done. "Your boys."
Nicklas concentrates on chewing so he doesn't smile like a sap. He knows the critics will never say that about a boy band, but what they do, they do very well.
"Yes," he says, after he swallows. He can't read Alex's expression. "They wanted to call the band Brobeans."
Alex laughs, startled and genuine. "This is why they need you."
Nicklas makes noncommittal noise. He's pretty sure anyone would have given them the same advice.
Alex tidies up when they're done eating, throwing away the trash. He sits down again next to Nicklas, and he seems tense, almost formal.
"Single dropped," Alex says, without looking at him.
Nicklas looks at his phone, and oh, Alex is right.
Alex isn't famous enough anymore that they can watch the numbers climb over the first day of a single's release. Nicklas knows the sales will come, once the promotion really gets going, the radio time, the interviews, but there's no chance that he'll shoot straight to the top of the charts.
There was a time when he would have, though. When they would have stayed up all night waiting for that first day's numbers, for the confirmation of that number five, or number three, or number one spot, a whole party of band members and label executives and hangers-on, champagne waiting in the wings and catered appetizers.
Now it's room temperature coffee and takeout, and the two of them.
Nicklas doesn't know what to say.
Alex huffs out a laugh suddenly and shakes his head, slumps back into the sofa cushions. He's probably thinking the same think Nicklas is.
"Congratulations," Nicklas says finally, makes it a little dry, teasing.
Alex grins. "You do all the work."
"No, just most of it," Nicklas says. He leans back, too, lets his knee bump against Alex's.
They sit like that in silence until Braden gets there, while somewhere, a few people buy Alex's new song.
Nicklas takes back everything he said about Alex being good with the media.
Of course, it didn't help that the show before Alex's interview called the song the year's naked cash grab.
"Sorry about my co-worker there, but he calls 'em like he sees 'em," the host says. "What do you have to say about that kind of criticism?"
There is a PR-approved way to respond to that question, and then there's what Alex actually says, which is, "Well, not naked yet."
"I can be naked, if you think it help sales." Alex reaches for the neck of his t-shirt like he's going to pull it off. He's wearing a Titanic t-shirt, on which he has written #BROBEANS in sharpie. Nicklas has no idea where he got it.
"No, no, that's--"
"But cash grab, yes." Alex catches Nicklas's eyes through the glass of the radio booth. "I tell my manager it is shameless, but managers, you know..."
The host laughs. Nicklas flips Alex off. Alex grins.
"You haven't released an album since..." The host looks at his notes.
Alex's smile gets stiff around the edges, but his voice is still cheerful when he says, "Since rehab."
"Three years," Alex says. "Last album not do so good, either. No one remember."
"Right, well, was it good to get back in the studio?"
"Yes," Alex says. "It was fun. I want everyone to have fun when they hear this song."
"Well, that's a lovely motivation for--"
"Also want them to buy single," Alex says.
Nicklas sighs heavily.
Over the course of the next two weeks, Alex tells every interviewer he's there so people will buy his single, tells kids that music is more fun than drugs, which he knows because "I try both!", says that he wanted to cover a t.A.T.u. song but they couldn't afford the royalties, and somehow talks a morning talk show host into suggesting some kind of a ratings-related strip poker, wherein Alex will Tweet a picture of himself with one less piece of clothing for every week that his single moves up the charts.
"Socks -- one piece or two pieces?" Alex asks his next interviewer. "We're at number three hundred fifty-seven, need a new picture."
There is a five minute conversation about whether socks count as one or two pieces of clothing. The hosts take callers on both sides of the issue.
In the end, they decide socks count as a single item, and Alex gets Joe B. to take a picture of him in the radio booth in bare feet, holding a sign that says #357
"Next week, pants!" Alex says. "Buy my single!"
Nicklas's phone buzzes. It's a text from Leonsis, and he dismisses it unread. His head aches, Titanic are behind schedule on the new album, and this isn't helping.
"Could you not treat this as a joke?" he asks Alex in the elevator.
"It is a joke," Alex says. "You want serious artist, manage Sidney Crosby."
Nicklas presses his lips together, pinches the bridge of his nose.
"Nicky -- it is." Alex's voice is gentler, more serious now. "Old pop star sings old song, pretends it's new for more money. But if I say yes, it is joke, everyone feels okay to laugh. No one buys song if you look pathetic, like you don't see joke."
Nicklas closes his mouth on his first knee jerk response, which you are not a joke. He watches the floor number tick down and thinks about it.
"Okay," he says when the doors open on the lobby. "Sorry. You're right."
Alex clutches his heart, like he's astonished.
Nicklas's headache starts to fade. "Shut up," he says, the corner of his mouth twitching.
Alex smirks all the way to the car.
They crack two hundred the next week, apparently on the strength of the potential for a picture of Alex without pants.
Alex makes Nicklas take the picture. Alex started with a hoodie, a t-shirt, track pants, boxers, and socks. Now he's down to the t-shirt (still the #BROBEANS one) and black boxer-briefs. The sign he's holding says #179, which Nicklas still kind of can't believe.
Nicklas frowns at the picture he just took on Alex's phone. The boxers cling tightly to Alex's thighs, and there's a distinct bulge in the center. "Could you..."
"What?" Alex says when he trails off.
"Nothing," Nicklas says. He'll just -- adjust the contrast or something later. His face feels hot.
Alex holds his phone out where Nicklas can see. "You going?" he asks.
Nicklas recognizes what's on the screen, a Paperless Post invitation to the Capital Records Christmas party.
"Yeah," he says.
"Good!" Alex says. "Give me a ride?"
"You miss industry parties so much?"
Alex shrugs. "Little bit, yes."
Nicklas doesn't understand that, but if Alex wants to waste his Thursday night, Nicklas isn't going to stop him.
"Seven thirty," he says.
Alex is actually ready at seven thirty.
"No boyfriend?" Alex says when he gets in the car.
Nicklas feels a sharp twist in his chest, not quite anger. He can't tell if Alex is teasing, and it bothers him to think that Alex thinks he wouldn't know if Nicklas had a boyfriend. Which is ridiculous, because Nicklas would tell him if he was seeing anyone. For more than one or two dates, anyway.
"No," Nicklas says. He gives Alex a pointed glance. "No girlfriend?"
"No girlfriend, no boyfriend. Sucks, not being famous."
"Well, there will probably be plenty of options tonight," Nicklas says, and it comes out almost right, easy and joking.
Alex makes a noncommittal noise and lets it drop. After a minute, he says, "Why are you driving a mini-van?"
Nicklas stops in front of Tom and Mike's building, and all of Titanic spills out of the lobby. They climb into the back of the van in a rush of noise, all laughter and talking.
"OVI!" Tom yells, and Evgeny says something loud and excited in Russian.
"Oh, I see," Alex says to Nicklas. His face is serious but his eyes are bright with laughter.
"Seatbelts!" Nicklas yells over his shoulder.
Alex half-turns in his seat to reply to Evgeny. The rest of drive is the five of them talking excitedly in three different languages about music and new albums while Nicklas tries to remember the way to Leonsis's house.
He finds it eventually. The backseat goes quiet when Nicklas drives through the tall wrought iron gates and up the long crushed gravel driveway to Leonsis's imposing house. It's tastefully decorated with tiny white Christmas lights and garlands of pine branches. A valet in a red windbreaker comes up to take Nicklas's keys.
There's a coat check in the foyer. Nicklas eyes the boys' fashion choices, but they've all chosen acceptable suits, even if Evgeny's is plaid.
"Remember," he says, "You can drink, but don't get drunk."
Andre raises his hand, and Nicklas says, "Especially you."
Then he turns them loose. They at least do not run off like a herd of elephants.
He's a little surprised to see Alex is still waiting in the foyer.
Alex holds his arms out. "Well?"
He's cropped his beard close to his face, brushed his hair so it's not sticking up all over the place. His black suit with the pale pink pinstripes is a few years out of date, but not obviously, and he's wearing a pale pink button down under it instead of a t-shirt. He's not wearing a tie, and there's a glint of gold under his open collar when he turns his head. He looks older, grown-up in a way he hadn't slouching in track pants and scruff.
"Acceptable," Nicklas says, and his throat feels weirdly tight.
"You, too," Alex says.
Nicklas is wearing a plain grey suit with a white shirt and a black tie, enough to look put-together and successful, but not over the top. He straightens his cuffs, willing his face not to blush.
"I should talk to Leonsis first," he says.
Alex makes an after you gesture, and they walk into the party.
The room is huge and open, full of people. A string quartet is playing "All I Want For Christmas Is You". There's a buffet set up along one wall, complete with an ice sculpture of the Capital building, and a bar as soon as you enter.
Leonsis is holding court next to the Christmas tree at the far end. Nicklas works his way through the crowd, nodding to people he knows. Musicians, from Capital Records and their sibling labels, agents, managers, producers, record execs. Then all the people Leonsis has invited for decoration, models and actors, men and women both.
"Nick!" Leonsis says, slapping his shoulder. "And Alex, man of the hour."
"Oh, no," Alex says with a modest shrug.
Leonsis laughs. "No one here has had a single move up the charts so fast this month. Enjoy it."
"Thank you," Alex says. "I am."
Leonsis snorts, but if he has any opinion on how Alex has been enjoying himself in interviews, he didn't share them. "Your manager knows what he's doing, I hope you're listening to his advice."
Alex glances at Nicklas, quick and sharp. "Always."
A waiter appears at Leonsis's elbow with a tray of champagne glasses.
"Ah!" Leonsis says. He puts his empty one down and hands the others around. "We're expecting great things from you again, Alex. To the future."
"The future," Nicklas repeats obediently. He touches his glass to Alex's and Leonsis's, then someone else catches Leonsis's attention, and they can discreetly slip back into the crowd.
Alex hands Nicklas his glass. "You want food?" he asks.
"No, I'm fine," Nicklas says. He hates eating at these things. He sees McClellan moving away from Leonsis, and catches his eye. "You go."
McClellan changes directions and moves towards Nicklas.
Nicklas drinks Alex's champagne so he can put the glass down, and finishes his own, too. He exchanges polite chit-chat with McClellan and McClellan's newest client, deflects questions about Alex's next release. McClellan moves on, and Nicklas repeats the process with another producer.
He doesn't mind work talk when he is working, but when it is all indirect, when it comes with this thin layer of politeness, like everyone is just friends at a party, it makes his jaw clench and his stomach sour. What he hates about these kinds of parties is how hungry everyone is, for connections, for fame, for money, and how hard they try (and fail) to hide it. And it seems like this year, everyone is hungry for Alex.
Alex finds him later, presses a fresh glass of champagne into his hand. Alex is drinking something clear and sparkling with a piece of lime, and Nicklas looks away, doesn't ask questions.
Alex seems to be having a good time, at least. Nicklas sees him talking to a label executive at one point, then one of Nicklas's competitors, but Alex is doing that wide, fake grin and exaggerated shrugging that means he's pretending his English isn't as good as it really is. Mostly Nicklas sees him talking to other musicians, flirting and laughing with the models standing near the bar.
Nicklas has another glass of champagne and says something vague about Alex's schedule after New Year's Eve to someone whose name he can't quite remember.
He tries not to check his watch too often.
When he finally ducks out to use the bathroom, the roar of the party drops to a muffled buzz and his head feels wooly. He splashes some cold water on his face, but the champagne and the work talk has caught up with him. He's not drunk, just exhausted suddenly.
Alex is waiting when he comes out. "Ready to go?" he asks.
Nicklas checks his watch. It's late enough. "Yes."
Alex steps in close to him. Nicklas blinks, feeling slow and flustered, as Alex reaches inside Nicklas's jacket pocket. He pulls out the valet ticket.
"I drive," he says. "I'm not drink tonight."
"Oh," Nicklas says. He can feel the heat of Alex's body, smell his aftershave and the warm scent of his skin. "I. Okay."
Alex steps back, and Nicklas can think again. "Wait, I need--"
"Yes, yes, I find your brobeans," Alex says. He disappears back into the crowd.
Nicklas takes a slow, careful breath, and goes to get their coats.
Alex comes back with Tom, Mike, and Andre in tow.
"Kuzy went home already," Mike says.
"Secret marriage, very exciting," Alex says.
"It's not--" Nicklas starts, then sighs and lets it go.
He hands out coats while Alex gets the car.
It's just beginning to snow when the valet pulls up, tiny, fluffy flakes that don't stick to the ground. Nicklas rests his head against the cool glass of the window, and closes his eyes. He doesn't sleep, just zones out to the sound of Tom, Mike, and Andre talking about the party, the people they met, the women who flirted with them.
Or maybe he does sleep, because the next thing he knows, Alex is turning off the car. He lifts his head. Alex has found a parking spot in his neighborhood.
Nicklas will return the minivan to Jason tomorrow. He scrubs a hand across his eyes.
"How are you getting home?" he asks.
"Subway," Alex says.
Nicklas frowns. "No, that's silly. Stay with me."
Alex is quiet for a moment. "All right," he says finally.
Nicklas feels slow and clumsy with tiredness when he gets out of the car. The cold wind whips snow into his face as they walk, and he hunches his shoulders, shoves his hands in his pockets.
He trudges up the three flights of stairs to his apartment, Alex behind him. Alex leans against the wall while Nicklas digs his keys out, and doesn't laugh when Nicklas drops them, cursing under his breath.
Nicklas gets the door open eventually, and they stand in the tiny entry hall, taking off coats and shoes. Nicklas starts to take his suit jacket off as he goes into the living room, and somehow gets his elbow stuck in the sleeve.
Alex does laugh at that, comes over to help Nicklas peel his jacket off.
Nicklas holds out a hand for the jacket, but Alex catches his wrist instead.
"You still have," Alex says, running his thumb over the band of Nicklas's watch.
Alex gave him that watch after his first real tour. Not the ones where they slept in vans and played in basements and dingy bars, but one where the label paid for everything and they sold out big name venues. Alex gave one to all his bandmembers and the techs on that tour, too. It's a Breitling, the second most expensive thing Nicklas owns after this apartment, and the most extravagant gift anyone has ever given him.
It's not why he kept it, of course.
"Yes," Nicklas says.
Alex's face is soft, solemn when he looks up again at Nicklas. "Nicky...why you give me this song?"
"The timing--" Nicklas says.
"Yes, yes, nostalgia, Christmas." Alex waves that away with his free hand. "But it would be good song for your new boys. Better. Evgeny can sing the Russian, they sound better on English, too. Nostalgia but with new faces."
"They can't afford the royalties," Nicklas says.
Alex scoffs. He's right. It's a pop song, and Alex isn't a pop star any more. This could have been a perfect promotion for their new album, something to give them a bounce and name recognition before it drops in a month.
"They don't..." need it like you. Deserve it like you. Nicklas doesn't say either of those things, because he's afraid the first one would hurt Alex, and the second one would reveal more of Nicklas's feelings than he wants to admit.
Alex waits, and Nicklas doesn't say anything.
"Still your favorite," Alex says softly, watching Nicklas's face.
Nicklas half-shakes his head, his mouth wanting to smile. He looks down at his wrist and tugs it out of Alex's grip. "You know where the blankets are," he says, and goes to bed.
"Good night, Nicky!" Alex calls after him.
Nicklas wakes up to music, faint and thin. It's late morning, from the angle of sunlight in his bedroom. He drags himself out of bed and walks, yawning, into the living room.
He stops short on the threshold. There are some things Nicklas is not prepared to deal with before coffee.
Alex is sitting on his sofa, playing Nicklas's guitar. Alex doesn't look up. He's only wearing boxers and socks, the ripple of muscle in his forearms and shoulders visible as he plays. Nicklas's mouth goes dry, and his fingertips itch for something, to reach out and touch Alex's skin, maybe, or the strings of the guitar.
Honestly, he's not sure he'd be prepared to deal with this even after coffee.
He doesn't recognize the song.
Alex looks up eventually. He grins when he sees Nicklas watching, unselfconscious. "You take bad care of this guitar, Nicky."
"I don't use it that much," Nicklas says. He plays it occasionally, to work out the problem with someone's song, as a distraction when he's stressed. He loves the music as much as Alex did, but he never loved performing as much, never wanted to be the one in the spotlight. He clears his throat. "Sounds good."
"It's new," Alex says.
"Do you have words yet?"
"Only in Russian," Alex says.
"That's great, Alex."
Alex absently picks out a few notes. "You think maybe I can get some studio time?"
"Yes," Nicklas says, too fast. He takes a careful breath before he says, "It's slow after Christmas, usually."
"Okay, good," Alex says.
He puts the guitar down, and then he is just sitting on Nicklas's sofa in his boxers.
"Do you need another picture?" Nicklas asks, instead of all the other things that rush into his head.
Nicklas gestures at Alex's…everything.
"Oh! Not want to mess up my suit," Alex says. "But if you offer…"
"I'm going to find you some pants," Nicklas says.
Alex is in the top fifty the week before Christmas.
He gets Chimmer to take the picture, apparently. Alex sends Nicklas the link, though, so he doesn't miss it. Alex is down to just his boxers, holding a sign that says #48.
It's not as devastating on his phone as it was in person.
Nicklas finds some studio time, even though it means giving the brobeans an extra day off after Christmas. He talks to Alex about what kind of musicians Alex is looking for, who he wants to do back-up vocals.
It's like old times, Alex lit up and excited about his music, serious about the details.
Nicklas picks Alex up to do another morning show interview and finds Braden asleep on Alex's couch, and Alex asleep on the floor.
Alex's guitar is next to him, Braden's laptop on the coffee table, papers scattered across the room.
"Holtby help with arrangement," Alex says. "It's gonna sound so good, Nicky."
Braden mumbles something and rolls over on the couch. Nicklas didn't realize Alex had Braden's number.
Nicklas doesn't want to get his hopes up, but he's starting to think Alex might actually get this record done.
Alex is number eight three days before Christmas.
Nicklas negotiated for a bonus if the single made the top ten, but he hadn't really thought it would.
Leonsis throws a last minute party on Christmas Eve to wait for the final numbers, to see if Alex is going to make to number one.
It's not like Nicklas had any other plans.
Home is so far away, especially since he'd have to be back in the studio the day after Christmas. He'll call his parents Christmas morning. He's already promised a longer visit after Titanic's album is done.
He's got half a dozen invitations to Christmas dinner, but he still doesn't know what he's going to do. He'll ask Alex.
"You think it's going to happen?" Alex asks, leaning close to be heard under the music and talking.
Nicklas is standing at the edge of the room, a glass of Perrier going flat in his hand. The party is smaller than Leonsis's Christmas one, more media, less famous people. Williams and Oshie are there, because it's their song, too. Alex invited Titanic, and they're still young enough, new enough, that this kind of thing seems exciting.
"Of course," Nicklas says.
Alex clicks his tongue and bumps his hip against Nicklas's. "You jinx it." But he looks pleased.
Nicklas is making less of an effort than usual tonight to talk to people. He's content to stand on the sidelines and watch.
Alex doesn't have that option, everyone wants to talk to him. But he doesn't seem to mind.
The music goes quiet suddenly.
"Alex!" Leonsis calls. He's up at the front of the room now, a tall, beautiful blonde woman in a sequined red dress standing next to him, holding a bottle of champagne. Nicklas vaguely recognizes her from a perfume ad campaign. There's a little projector on a table, but it's just shining light on the exposed brick wall behind them. "Alex, come up here!"
Alex works his way free of the crowd and goes to stand next to them. He's wearing black slacks and a black-on-black embroidered vest, with a shirt that's so dark a red it's almost black, several buttons undone. He looks good.
"The final numbers are out!" Leonsis says. "Brian, if you would..."
Brian taps a few things on his phone, and then the Billboard Top 100 is projected up on the wall.
Alex is number one.
There's a roar of applause and congratulations. The woman next to Leonsis opens the champagne in a burst of foam and pours it into the glasses Leonsis holds out.
Alex looks stunned. He meets Nicklas's eyes through the crowd.
Told you so, Nicklas mouths, and Alex breaks into a huge grin.
The woman hands Alex a glass of champagne and then kisses him right on the mouth. Alex looks startled, but he takes the glass, puts his arm around her waist when she leans into him.
The music kicks back on, the original version of Alex's song, twenty-year-old Alex singing, I only want to go dancing tonight.
Nicklas can't see Alex anymore, the crowd of people surrounding him is too big. It's like the last ten years never happened, like everything is exactly the same as it was the last time Alex was at the top of the charts.
Except Nicklas feels old and tired.
He's not driving tonight. It's easy to call a cab, slip away in the renewed frenzy of the party.
where r u? Alex texts. come out w us!!!
too many late nights, Nicklas says. have a good time
Alex sends him a string of sad-faced emojis, which Nicklas ignores.
Nicklas takes off his suit, puts on sweatpants and a t-shirt. He's brushing his teeth when someone pounds on his front door. He sighs, rinses out his mouth, and pads over to the door.
It's Alex, of course, but he's alone, which Nicklas wasn't expecting.
"Nicky--" Alex starts, and then stops. "I come in?"
Nicklas steps aside. Alex comes in. His shoulders are dusted with snow, cold air and the scent of winter clinging to his coat as he walks past Nicklas into the living room. Nicklas closes the door behind him.
Alex turns to face him, and Nicklas raises his eyebrows.
Alex opens his mouth, closes it with a shake of his head. Then he closes the distance between them in two steps, cups Nicklas's face with his hands, and kisses him.
His hands are cold, but his mouth is shockingly hot. Nicklas gasps, clutches at the front of Alex's coat to steady himself.
Alex lifts his head. "Nicky," he says, and his voice is low, rough.
"I-- what?" Nicklas says. His mouth is tingling from the heat of the kiss, from the scrape of Alex's beard. "Why--"
"It's Christmas, Nicky. You should be with person you love on Christmas." Alex is smiling, but it's soft, like it's not entirely a joke.
"Are you--" drunk, Nicklas starts to say, because Alex was always an affectionate drunk, but he doesn't smell (doesn't taste, oh god) like alcohol.
Alex takes a step back, like he know Nicklas needs space to breathe. "Like old times tonight, yes?"
"But no, because you not there. I'm -- I miss you. Want to celebrate with you. You want go out, we go out. You want stay in, we go to bed." Alex waggles his eyebrows, his smile sliding over into something filthy that makes Nicklas's whole body flush.
Nicklas scowls and Alex's face softens. He reaches out, touches the back of Nicklas's bare wrist, where his watch should be. "Nicky -- all the good times in my life, all the bad times, you the best part, always."
"Sasha..." It feels like something is cracking open in his chest, and he can't tell if it hurts yet.
"I love you," Alex says simply, carefully.
"Goddammit," Nicklas says, and kisses Alex's mouth.
He has to go up on his toes a tiny bit to make their mouths fit together. Alex makes a soft, happy sound in the back of his throat, opens his mouth and pulls Nicklas close.
When Alex lifts his head, Nicklas is breathless and his heart is pounding in his chest.
"Still your favorite?" Alex asks, and he sounds breathless, too.
"Yes, obviously," Nicklas says. "I love you, too, Sasha."
Outside the snow is falling thick and soft and heavy, like a clean new start.