Word Count: 15,300
Summary: Nick always knew they'd have to grow up eventually, he just didn't think they would grow apart.
This is my ludicrously, unforgivably late help_haiti fic. Yes, Haiti; this story is about eight months overdue. It's dedicated entirely to tellcincinnati, who I cannot thank enough for her very generous donation to that cause, and also for her incredible patience when my RL got crazy intense and I lost my JoBros mojo. (...say that three times fast.) It's all for you, Lauren! ♥ I hope this at least puts a smile on your face, even though it was a looooong time coming. Also, my word count here accidentally drifted into JB Big Bang territory. What I lack in punctuality, I make up for in brevity fail?
The prompt for this story was: Joe and Nick growing up and apart and how that affects their relationship/dynamic. Especially with Nick going solo and Joe moving out and all of the outside changes on them, I think there could be a lot of difficult, angsty FEELINGS going on there. I'd just love to get into their heads about that and see what they're maybe not saying to each other. (But can show each other through kisses?)
Nick gets a little stir-crazy when he stays in one place too long.
He's been touring almost as long as he can remember, and life on the road is kind of comforting. There's a steadiness to that feeling of being in motion, always putting one foot in front of the other. Every day is a new city, a new show, a new chance to nail the songs and a new group of fans to connect with.
He's used to living in a bunk and the occasional hotel room, everything temporary and easy to throw back into suitcases. Living in an actual house, having a real room full of his own stuff, just feels claustrophobic.
It's only when he's on his solo tour that he starts to realize that might be because he usually brings everything he needs with him. There's nothing to miss because there's no one left behind.
"You having fun out there, rock star?" Joe says on the phone after his Detroit show. It's been a week since Nick last saw him, and it feels a little disloyal to say yes. He doesn't really know how to explain that the fun of being center stage doesn't entirely offset the loneliness of it.
Nick balances his cereal bowl on his knee and moves his phone to the other ear.
"I guess," he says. "It's weird, though."
"I bet," Joe says simply, and Nick gets a sudden rush of gratitude for the fact he doesn't have to explain anything.
The whole family makes it to the Atlanta show. Nick has a brief meeting with their dad after all the requisite hugging and high-fiving backstage, and when he climbs back on the bus Joe's sitting in the lounge.
"Did you take a wrong turn somewhere?" Nick says lightly, but he can't quite wipe the grin off his face.
Joe beams at him and shrugs. "Somehow I wound up scheduling my flight home from the airport in Memphis. Think you can give me a lift?"
Nick cuffs him upside the head as he comes up behind the couch, and Joe head-butts him lightly in the stomach.
"Yeah, I think we can do that," he says.
Joe only stays on the bus for a day and a half, but it instantly feels more like home. He drapes an arm over Nick's shoulder when they're watching TV, throws together meals out of the bare essentials in the kitchen, and reads him quizzes out of a girly magazine he buys at a gas station.
It's the most normal day and a half Nick's had in ages, and when they get to Memphis and Joe calls a car to take him to the airport, Nick almost asks him to stay.
"I wish I could go on with you again tonight," Joe says as the bus takes the highway off-ramp. He caught Nick's hand when he was walking through the lounge and yanked him down on the couch, so Nick's sprawled halfway across Joe's lap.
He struggled to get away at first, but Joe just kept tightening his grip and talking about how much he's been working out and how resistance was futile, so Nick gave up.
"Yeah," he says. "But then this wouldn't really be a solo tour."
"It could be a duo tour," Joe suggests, drumming his fingers against Nick's ribs. "We could be like Sonny and Cher. I totally call dibs on Cher."
Nick snorts and twists away again, but Joe's too fast for him.
"Yeah, that's all you," Nick says.
The bus lurches as they round a turn and pull into the parking lot of the Hilton. Joe's arm goes tight around him again for a moment, and Nick grips Joe's elbow in an echoing squeeze.
"Don't eat too much road food," Joe says. "You're getting fat."
It's such a lie Nick doesn't even need to protest, but he takes the opportunity to poke Joe in the stomach.
"Shut up. Not everyone can be a metrosexual gym rat."
"Hey," Joe says, resting his chin on the top of Nick's head. Nick shuts his eyes for a second as the bus shuts off, going still and quiet under them. "What's more masculine than a bunch of dudes getting sweaty together and complimenting each other's form?"
"Oh man, I'm stumped," Nick says. "I'll have to get back to you on that."
"Text me when you think of something," Joe says. "But it's like trying to find a rhyme for 'orange'. No can do."
Joe finally lets him up when the doors open and the guys wander over from their bus. He shoulders his backpack and tugs Nick into a hug.
"Melt their faces off tonight," he says against the side of Nick's neck.
"I always do," Nick returns.
Joe smiles at him when he pulls back, and then suddenly grasps the sides of Nick's face, tilting his head down so he can kiss Nick's forehead.
"Love you," he says before hopping down the steps. He gives Sonny a high-five as he walks over to the town car parked near the side entrance.
It's stupid to feel sad about it, Nick knows. That day and a half was way more than most big brothers would give, and Nick's practically an adult – he should like being able to spend time away from his family.
It's still weird, though, the way he can feel the bus suddenly hollow out. Just like that, it changes from home-away-from-home to a random vehicle, a way to get from one place to another and nothing more.
Joe and his roommates had only moved into their place a few weeks before Nick left on tour, but the apartment had already become the unofficial hang-out for everyone in their little social circle. The couches were available for anyone who wanted to crash there for the night, and the best efforts of a weekly cleaning lady couldn't stop the place from smelling faintly of beer, popcorn, and something Nick couldn't totally place.
"Incense," John said when he asked, in a tone that made Nick suspect it might be marijuana.
When Nick finally gets back to LA, he gives his driver Joe's address and texts his mom to let her know he made it back in one piece. He's still got that jittery tour energy under his skin, and the last thing he wants to do is have a sit-down dinner with his parents and talk shop with his dad.
"Oh my God," Joe screeches when Nick opens the front door. "Is that Nick Jonas?"
He sprints across the room like it's a field of daisies, reaching out as he hurdles over a foot stool and into Nick's arms. He smells both familiar and not, a patina of something different over the normal scent of his aftershave. Nick staggers under the sudden dead weight, laughing helplessly as Joe wrestles him into a hug and smacks kisses on his forehead.
"Ugh, Joe, you're slobbering on me," he says, trying to twist away. Joe just wraps his arms around Nick's waist and pulls him a few inches off the ground. Nick laughs helplessly, a flush rising in his face. "When I murder you with an axe, should I donate your body to science?"
"Of course," Joe says happily. "I'm all about charity."
It was only a week earlier when Nick last saw him, but for some reason it hits him hard right then, how much time has passed since they've really been together.
"It's good to see you, too," he says, his voice muffled against the sleeve of Joe's sweatshirt. Joe's arms go tighter around him until he's practically crushing Nick right into his chest, and when he pulls back he's grinning hugely.
"Sup, Nick," Jack says from the couch. Greg snickers, and Nick lifts his hand a little wave, but Joe doesn't completely let go of him. He just studies him at arm's length, like their grandparents do at holidays.
Nick shifts the weight of his bag on his arm, which finally seems to snap Joe out of it.
"Haven't been home yet?" he says. Nick rolls his eyes and shrugs, tucking his thumb under the strap of his duffle bag.
"Mom and Dad came to, like, every show," he says. "We don't have a lot of catching up to do."
"Awesome," Joe says. "Go put your stuff in my room, you're totally staying here tonight."
Joe gives him a little shove in the direction of the hallway, and Nick wanders back. The whole place seems a lot more lived-in than it used to, comfortable, like this is really the place Joe lives now.
The walls of his room are covered in old movie posters and photographs that Nick recognizes as Joe's own. He smiles as he pauses to study them, trying to place the date and time of each one. He recognizes a few from the last tour – group shots of the crew, Frankie with an ice cream cone bigger than his head, one of their parents with Kevin and Danielle – but most are just random moments lost to everything but Joe's camera.
He's heading back to the living room when he spots a black and white print of himself on his last birthday, rolling his eyes and smiling with a bowling ball in his hand. Seeing it there, hanging next to Joe's desk in a thick black frame, makes his smile pull wider.
"So there's a party tonight at my friend's place," Joe says when Nick returns. "Just a low-key kinda thing, but it'll be fun. You down? Or are you all jet-lagged?"
The guys all look at him expectantly, and Nick tries to not look as surprised as he feels.
"Uh," he says. Joe perks his eyebrows. "No, I slept a lot on the bus earlier. Yeah, let's – let's check it out."
"Suh-weet," Joe says. "Let's roll."
The last time Nick went to a party with Joe, it was throw by someone's parents – who also attended it, along with several publicists and a dozen caterers who kept everyone's cups topped off with their favorite soda.
This… is a different kind of party.
A weird, nervous tension started fluttering down Nick's spine when he realized they were pulling into an entirely unfamiliar neighborhood, and it solidifies into a uneasy knot when Joe and the guys tumble out of the car and head up the steps of a dumpy two-level house in desperate need of a paint job.
"Amy!" Joe hollers at a pretty blonde on the porch. She's leaning against a skinny guy in a knit cap with tattoos up and down both arms. They both get hugs and back-slaps. "Mark, dude, I'm so glad you're here. This is my little brother. Nicky J, meet Amy and Mark."
"Hi," Nick says. He puts his hand out, dimly aware that he's being stiff and awkward, but they don't seem to be laughing at him when they shake it. "Nick. It's just – just Nick."
"It's awesome to finally meet you," says Amy. She digs a box out of her jacket pocket as she studies him – it's black and has ornate gold letters on it, and it takes a minute before Nick realizes it's a pack of cigarettes. He's never seen anyone actually smoke in real life, and watching her pull one out and tuck it between her lips makes his heart start thudding faster. It's about as surreal as if she whipped out a needle and started shooting up.
She seems oblivious to the way he's goggling as she pats down her jeans pockets and materializes a lighter. "Joe talks about you all the time. You just got back from touring, right?"
"Uh. Yeah. Yeah, just got in today."
"Nice," says Mark. "You came to the right place. There's two kegs in the kitchen, and the Lanyard crew haven't got here yet, so get while the gettin' is good."
"Dude, tell me they didn't get PBR again," Joe says.
"Shiner Bock," Mark says, holding up a fist that Joe bumps with his own. "Jakey's splurging."
Nick feels a little like he just walked into an alternate universe – some kind of modernized Outsiders world where everyone says stuff like stay gold, Ponyboy, and knows what it means.
"One good turnout at an open mic and he thinks he's Ryan Adams," Joe says fondly. He puts a hand on Nick's shoulder and steers him away from the sweet, thick smoke of Amy's black cigarette. "Gotta make the rounds, kids, but I'll see you inside?"
Amy and Mark give them dismissive chin-jerks as Nick stumbles into the hallway with Joe.
"Who are these people?" he blurts. "How do you even know them?"
Joe tilts his eyebrows, confused. Somewhere at the end of the hall music is thumping and there's the loud, tinny noise of several conversations bleeding together.
"They're my friends," he says, shrugging. "They're all really cool. Mark and Amy go to CalArts. They know Jack and introduced us to Clint and Drew, who live here. You'll love Clint – he's an amazing artist. His work is all about incorporating, like, science photos of cells and atoms and stuff into paintings of people. Everyone's really psyched to meet you. I've been talking you up for weeks. C'mon, dude, let's chill."
Nick tries to swallow down his discomfort as Joe drags him around the house, pausing every few feet to give a, "Yo," or, "What up?" and introduce him to another throng of people. They're all nice and friendly, and all exude the same vibe – careless, scruffy, and way, way older than Nick.
He stays glued to Joe's side for almost an hour, clutching a water bottle someone handed him in the kitchen when he asked for a drink that wasn't beer. At some point the endless string of new names and faces ends, and they wind up sitting on a couch in the corner of the living room.
"Cool people, right?" Joe says.
"Yeah," Nick says. "Yeah, they all seem great."
Joe grins a little, giving Nick a look that seems to go right through him.
"I know, I know, it's not really your scene," he says. "But I've been, like, dying for you to meet some of them. I really think—"
Before he can finish, a guy stumbles over through the crowd and slaps Joe's shoulder.
"The gauntlet's been thrown, Jonas," he bellows. "Geometry Wars, upstairs. I just mopped the floor with Dave and it's time for that rematch."
"Rematch," Joe scoffs, giving him an elbow to the side. "Dude, it's like you like getting your butt kicked."
"Don't even play it like that. I called interference when it happened. It doesn't count if someone gets between you and the screen."
Joe makes a big production out of touching his thumbs together and raising his pointer fingers in a W.
"Don't hate the player; hate the game," he says merrily. He glances over at Nick, who's been taking this exchange in with a vaguely confused expression. "Oh, right. Alex, this Nick; he's a singer-songwriter prodigy who just got back from a sold-out tour. Nick, this is Alex; he likes wearing girls' underwear and getting publicly humiliated when I pwn him on Xbox."
"No way, this is the infamous Nick?" Alex shakes the hand Nick offers and studies him. "Right on. You talk as much smack as your brother?"
"Um. Not really," Nick says. "He got most of the… smack-talk genes."
"Psh, yeah. He's just being modest," Joe says dismissively. "Wait till you're in a recording booth with him and trying to explain that you physically cannot hit a high F because you were born a dude. The smack is mighty in this one."
"Then I guess you'll fit right in," Alex says. "Come on, you can play the winner."
Joe hops up from the couch and tilts his head in the direction of the stairs. "Let's go show him how Jonas boys bring the pain."
"I think I'm just gonna stay here," Nick says, trying to not sound as overwhelmed or irritated as he feels. Joe looks plaintive, but Nick shrugs. "Seriously, I'm good. Go… defend your honor. You can tell me all about it later."
"Oh, I won't need to," Joe says, giving the guy – Alex – a shove. "Wandering minstrels will write odes about my triumph for years to come."
They disappear into the crowd, and then Nick is alone on a weird couch in a weird house, surrounded by strangers.
He sits there for at least five minutes, pressing dents into his bottle of water and watching people. They're all paired off in little groups, deep in conversations occasionally punctuated by a waved plastic cup.
And it's weird, because Nick's never been Mr. Social, but he's also no stranger to crowds. He knows how to work a room; he can make small talk if the situation calls for it. At some point over the years he learned how to see everyone as either a fan or a future fan, and that makes them pretty easy to talk to.
These people don't fall into either category. The few that recognize him don't seem fazed – to this crowd he's apparently only notable because he's Joe's brother, and everyone knows Joe. It's a weird feeling.
He gets up after a while and wanders, threading his way through the kitchen and den and eventually making it out to the back patio. A small throng of people are already out there – more smokers – but there's an empty bench a few feet away. The chill of the metal seeps through his jeans when he sits, and he tries to focus on it, let it ground him a little as he gets his bearings.
The people huddled by the door throw a few glances his way, so he digs out his phone and pretends he's texting. Not that there's anyone to text. When this kind of weird, random interlude happened on tour, he'd have sent something to Joe. But Joe is upstairs, kicking someone's ass at a game Nick has never heard of, in a house that belongs to someone he's never met.
For some reason Nick's thoughts wander back to New Jersey, to when he was twelve and would lay awake waiting for Joe to come home from dates.
He can easily remember how he felt back then, how hard he would work to get Joe's attention and how good it felt when he got it. At some point they switched roles and Joe became the one always prodding at Nick, but there was a time when Nick was constantly chasing after his big brother and trying to reach all the grown-up things Joe hit first.
The Joe he remembers from back then – loud, wild, somehow cooler than everyone else's brothers – isn't anything like the person he knows now. Joe mellowed out, started reading a lot and taking pictures and dating girls who talked about French cinema. He changed, and even though Nick has changed plenty himself, he's suddenly aware that part of him is still exactly the same.
"There you are," Joe says a while later. The smokers have all wandered back inside, and Joe flings himself out of the doorway with so much force he trips a little, landing in front of Nick with a flushed, wide-eyed grin. "What're you doing out here, creeper? There's a party going on inside."
Nick shrugs, caught in the act of being antisocial.
"Getting some air."
"Oh no, did they run out?" Joe says, disappointed. "Man, it's good you thought to go get some more."
"Shut up." Nick rolls his eyes, but he can't help the smile that starts pulling at his mouth. "How was your ass-kicking?"
"Ass was kicked," Joe says modestly. "Epic pwnage was dealt swiftly and without mercy."
"Well that's a relief."
Joe plops down next to him and looks up at the sky; Nick follows his gaze, surprised at how clear it is. He hadn't even noticed.
"Is it good to be home?" Joe says after a minute.
"Yeah," Nick says automatically. "Of course."
Joe looks over at him, eyebrows lifting in a knowing way.
"But you'd rather be back on tour, right? You always hate it when they're over."
Nick shrugs again, not totally sure how he feels about Joe being able to read him so easily when he can't get a handle on Joe at all. He picks at his water bottle for a minute.
"Do you ever miss the way things used to be?" he finally says.
"You know, back when everything was blowing up. All of us living together and touring when it was new."
"Do you miss that?" Joe says, surprised.
"Sure. Why wouldn't I?"
"Because this is what you've always wanted. You're, like, you know. Living the dream." They both make faces at that worn-out expression, but Joe nudges him with his shoulder. "Seriously. People really dig your music now. People who matter, dude, not just kids. You think I don't read the reviews? I've got a whole clipbook of them under my bed."
Joe grins teasingly, but Nick suspects there's a seed of truth somewhere in that claim.
He shrugs again, a little embarrassed. "I don't need good reviews to be happy."
"Okay, now you're just lying," Joe says. He slides a friendly arm around Nick's shoulders, looking off into the distance. "I mean, yeah, of course I miss the old days. But we're not done yet. We're always going to be the JoBros."
"That, uh." Nick smiles over at him, ducking down to examine his water bottle. "That doesn't sound as inspirational as you seem to think."
Joe laughs then, lifting his hand from Nick's shoulder so he can chuck him under the chin. He drops his voice and talks out of the corner of his mouth in a spectacularly awful Bogart.
"Here's looking at you, kid. We'll always have Tiger Beat."
Nick jerks his chin away and gives Joe an elbow in the side.
"Shut up," he laughs. "Have you ever even seen Casablanca?"
"Duh, yeah," Joe says. He makes a few more grabs for Nick's face, but gives up after a second, slinging that arm back around him. "Don't you remember that time on Burnin' Up when we were all hyped on caffeine and couldn't sleep, and you found a Bogey marathon on TV?"
"Oh yeah," Nick says, the memory coming back to him slowly. "Wasn't that the night we started writing—"
"'Paranoid', yup," Joe finishes. Nick smiles and fiddles with his bottle cap, screwing and unscrewing it. They're both quiet for a minute, and then Joe shakes him a little with that arm around his shoulders. "See? Nothing's different. We'll totally have those kind of crazy nights on our next tour."
"Yeah," Nick says, swaying lightly against Joe's side. "Nothing's different."
It's only another few minutes before a girl Nick doesn't recognize leans out the doorway.
"Joe?" she calls. "You got a minute?"
"Steph!" he hollers, craning around Nick to look at her. "What's cookin', home skillet?"
She laughs, and gives Nick an awkward little wave. "Not a lot. Apparently you're needed in the kitchen, I guess? Jessie can't work a blender to save her life."
"Duty calls," Joe says. He slaps Nick's knee and stands up, tucking his hands in the front pockets of his hoodie. "You coming?"
Nick glances over at the girl – Steph – who's still standing at the window. She's pretty, with long red hair she keeps twirling around one finger. He's pretty sure anyone can operate a blender, and really, if they're bringing in Joe as the back-up, it's a lost cause anyway. Steph lifts her eyebrows at him.
"In a minute," Nick says.
Joe fires a finger-gun at him before disappearing back into the yellow light of the den, and Nick looks back up at the stars.
Filming starts a week later, and Nick makes a pretty smooth transition from nightly sold-out shows to the daily grind of scripts, blocking and craft services tables.
He's never been that crazy about acting, but the hours of actual work are way more condensed than the aimless, constant work of being on tour. He hangs out with Selena when her own filming schedule permits it, and starts a few new songs, but he spends most of his downtime at Joe's – or wherever Joe happens to be, which has become somewhat unpredictable.
Nick's not sure how it happened, but it's like Joe managed to become the center of a sprawling network of new friends overnight. There always seems to be a jam session or gallery opening or show, a game night at so-and-so's or a party at some warehouse. People Nick's never met before thread in and out of Joe's world like they've always been there, gossiping about mutual friends and cracking each other up.
Joe's not doing it on purpose, Nick's pretty sure, and it's not like he's being excluded. There's always an invitation extended his way for the jam sessions, gallery openings, game nights and parties. "You should come," is the new chorus of his life, always following enthusiastic descriptions of Joe's plans for the evening for weekend.
Sometimes he does tag along, which usually just makes him feel even weirder. Everyone is always nice and friendly, but the stuff they care about, the things they talk about – it makes him feel like an alien trying to pass for normal in a world he's only read about.
He's experienced this kind of fish-out-of-water sensation before, those times they've ended up at award show after-parties and had to mingle with people in a totally different caliber of fame. But at least in a room of Hollywood types he's protected by precedent. Few people completely write him off because there's always that laundry list of talent heavyweights who started out in his shoes; he has people like Sir Paul McCartney pulling him aside for photo ops and reminding him that no matter how simple or teenage your three-chord roots are, you can still make the world stop in its tracks with your music.
This new circle of Joe's doesn't even allow for that.
They're all musicians who don't want to be famous and artists who only care about making art. They aren't hungry for success – or if they are, they define it in completely foreign terms. They're never rude about it, exactly, but they really seem to think playing shows at artsy bars to crowds in the low double-digits is better than being on the cover of Rolling Stone. None of them worry about money, so their lives and are just weird, nebulous hobbies they deliberately don't take seriously.
It's no wonder Nick can't fit in. They're competing to see who can be the most average, and while Nick's good at a lot of things, that's never been one of them.
Maybe the weirdest part of it, though, is how comfortable Joe seems.
He's still Joe, and sometimes that's glaringly obvious. They're getting pizza after a show one night when Mark, bored with Dave's opinions on prog-rock, calls him a retard; Joe's bubbly demeanor suddenly goes sharp and serious and he gives them all a talk about language that demeans the differently-abled, which is so reassuring and familiar that it makes Nick grin.
But other times he fits into this world like it's his own. He's always had an easy time striking up conversations with random people and really caring about what they say, but now he's finally in a position where he doesn't have to up and leave them behind.
Nick accepted a long time ago that the only stable thing in his world was family. Friends came and went and were hard to keep, but at least he's had two brothers in the trenches with him – and more to the point, at least he's always had Joe, who can read him like a book and make everything better with a grin and waggled eyebrows and some dumb adventure up his sleeve. That's one of the only things that's kept Nick sane this long.
So now that Joe has other things to do, other people to care about and cheer up and spend his time with, Nick's just waiting. He's waiting for these people to drift away like they always do, so Joe can go back to blowing up Nick's phone every time they're apart longer than five minutes. He's waiting for the most important thing in Joe's life to be getting pizza and talk about the tour, driving around in the Mustang and singing along to Lady Gaga, watching lame movies and getting Nick to laugh at his impressions of the bad acting. Nick's waiting to feel like he's not just on the fringe of all the things in Joe's orbit – he's waiting to be the center of it again.
It's pretty messed up. He knows that. But it doesn't make him want it any less.
They're at another party when it really hits him how weird he's being.
It's a smaller thing, less crowded and loud, but that just makes it easier to watch Joe interact with people. Nick sits with Greg and Jack and distractedly takes part in a conversation about YouTube viral marketing while he watches Joe flirt with some girl.
It's someone he hasn't met yet, but Joe seems pretty familiar with her. They're leaning in a doorway talking, Joe's head angled down towards hers. From where he's sitting, Nick can see the way Joe's eyebrows are lifted earnestly, and how he smiles when the girl grabs one open side of his flannel shirt and gives it a tug.
"Earth to Jonas," Greg says. "You feeling okay, dude?"
"Huh?" Nick blinks a few times, trying to remember the last thing either of them said. "Sorry."
"You been hitting the beer or something?" Jack says.
"What? No," Nick snaps. He realizes a beat later that it was a joke, and shifts awkwardly. "Uh, I'm just tired. Filming went long today. Nicole and I spent, like, three hours running around on the beach for promos."
"I want your problems," Greg says flatly.
Nick rolls his eyes. "Yeah, who doesn't love getting airbrushed with orange paint and rolling around in the sand?"
"Cry harder, buddy."
Nick shakes his head and then pauses; Joe isn't in the doorway anymore. He scans the room, looking for him or the girl, but they're both gone.
"Did you see where Joe went?" he says, trying to sound casual.
Greg's mouth curves down thoughtfully as he glances around.
"No clue. My guess would be upstairs."
"You know what that means," Jack grins.
Nick swallows thickly. He doesn't know what that means, but he can guess.
"Who, um. Who was that girl he was talking to?"
"Maggie, I think? Something with an M," Greg shrugs. "They've been hanging out a lot lately."
For some reason that makes Nick's face get unpleasantly warm.
Joe's had plenty of girlfriends over the years – probably more than his fair share, actually. But that was then, and this is now, and they're alone upstairs in a house without adults, surrounded by people drinking beer and smoking, and suddenly Nick – Nick's just pretty sure that anything could happen. Joe's always been big on breaking rules, and he hasn't done much lately to make Nick want to give him the benefit of the doubt on this one.
"I'll be back in a minute," he says, getting to his feet before he can overthink it. "Where's the bathroom?"
"Through the kitchen," Jack says, and Nick's navigating his way around the coffee table before he's even finished speaking.
The stairway is at the end of the hall, so he loops around to get to it, not wanting anyone to know where he's going. His heart is beating a little too fast, like he just got done doing sprints, and he knows he's panicking for no reason. He knows it's completely none of his business if Joe's hooking up with someone right now.
But when he reaches the top of the stairs and hears Joe's voice coming out of the first door on the left, low and amused and followed by a high, female laugh, he doesn't even care. He only pauses outside of it for a second before turning the knob and pushing it open.
"Oh," Nick says. "There you are."
Joe's just sitting on a bed with her, knees touching in a way that's familiar but still casual. She has a hand on Joe's shoulder, messing with his hair under the edge of his knit cap, but Nick's seen Joe's girlfriends be way more gooey and affectionate than that.
So there's really no reason for Nick's heart to keep hammering like it does, or bone-deep irritation to set his teeth on edge.
"Hey," Joe says, surprised. His lips look wet and red from kissing. "What's up?"
"Uh." Nick swallows, forcing his shoulders to relax.
Nothing's up, and he suddenly realizes he had no plan for what he was going to do when he found them – especially if they'd been naked, or something. He's just being weird and jealous, and he's mad at Joe for reasons that seem incredibly immature when he tries to put them into words.
So he blurts out the only thing he can think of to explain why he felt it was necessary to follow his brother upstairs when he's trying to talk to some girl whose name might be Maggie.
"My levels are off."
It's the first time he's ever lied to Joe that baldly, especially about something so important. A sharp stab of guilt gets him in the gut when Joe immediately shifts gears, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees and peering at Nick.
"Are you okay? Do you need to sit down?"
"No, I'm—" He shrugs awkwardly. "They're just low, is all. And I'm pretty tired. I can, you know – I can probably get a ride or something. Forget it."
He can feel Joe scrutinizing him, like he's looking for evidence that Nick isn't taking care of himself.
"We should get you home," he says. He catches the girl's hand and gives it a friendly squeeze as he stands up. "I'll call you tomorrow, okay? We'll do that cupcake thing, for real."
"Sounds good," she smiles, looking only a little disappointed.
"So what's the deal?" Joe says as he follows Nick down the hall. "Mom not feeding you enough these days?"
Nick shoves his hands in his pockets and shrugs again, panic subsiding a little now that he's pretty sure he won't get caught in the lie.
"I eat. Guess I just… didn't eat enough."
"You're a growing boy, Nicky," Joe says nasally, catching him in a one-armed hug. He doesn't seem too broken up about leaving Cupcake Girl behind, which makes a little burst of pleasure warm Nick's chest. "Need to get some meat on those bones."
"Shut up," Nick says, but he's half-hearted about shoving Joe away.
It's already pretty late, so the roommates are all amenable to heading back with them. Nick ends up in the backseat of the Volvo, squashed between Joe and the door.
"You okay?" Joe says near his ear.
Nick shrugs flippantly, but he isn't quite able to stifle a yawn. Joe slings an arm around his shoulders, tugging him in.
"C'mere," he says.
Nick leans against Joe's side gratefully, resting his temple on Joe's shoulder. He's dimly aware of John turning around in the passenger seat and saying something to Joe about the music that's playing, and the rumble of Joe's chest as he laughs and makes a smart-ass comment.
He starts to drift off as the conversation turns to the girl whose house they were at, and whether or not she's into Ryan.
"Uh-oh," Joe says eventually, when John puts on a new song. "It's my jam."
Nick tilts his head, blinking awake, and Joe glances down at him with a smile. His fingers catch in Nick's hair, right where it brushes against his neck, and he lowers his voice a little when he jumps back in the conversation.
Nick's thoughts haze together warmly, and he smiles, turning his face against Joe's shoulder. It feels really good to be here, he thinks. The guilt of that lie is totally worth this – just the chance to feel like Joe's little brother, important and special and looked after.
He thinks everything might go back to normal after that, but it's all pretty much the same.
Joe makes an elaborated point of pestering Nick to eat more, but he still seems off in his own world half the time – interrupting conversations with a patiently raised finger so he can answer phone calls, always surrounded by one or two people Nick barely knows when he stops by.
Every one-on-one conversation between them feels like a victory that Nick fought for, and they're always over before he's had time to relish them.
"Oh, nuts," Joe says when Nick's roped him into a conversation about what they're getting Mom for her birthday. "I'm supposed to meet Steph for milkshakes."
"Milkshakes?" Nick echoes. "Are you going on a date in Pleasantville?"
"Oh man, I wish. We both just had a craving earlier. You wanna...?"
"Nah," Nick says, doing his best to keep his tone neutral. "I have to study lines for tomorrow. Think you can pencil me in to finish this conversation some time? Maybe my people can call yours?"
"Dude, don't be like that," Joe says, reaching over to mess up his hair. "We need Kev to weigh in on this, anyway. Oh! Almost forgot. James is having some people over tonight. Wii Sports party. You in? I can pick you up on the way."
Nick chews on his lip and flattens down his hair. "Yeah, sure. I guess."
Everything else aside, Nick should have known that was a bad idea. Joe probably should have known it, too.
Nick isn't exactly civil when it comes to competitive activities, especially not with people he already has reason to dislike. During one particularly grueling Road Dogs season Kevin coined the term "poor winner" to describe Nick's tendency to rub people's noses in his victories, and Greg once told him half-jokingly that being trapped in a bus with Nick after he's lost something should be used as a Gitmo torture technique.
So it's kind of inevitable that the whole thing goes horribly wrong.
Joe's in a good mood that night, and Nick actually has fun for a while. The crowd at James' places is mostly familiar, and Nick sails through several rounds of Wii Golf without incident. He's trying to fit in, he really is; he makes small talk with Amy about her upcoming show, and gamely offers his thoughts when some people on the other couch start debating a recent induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
It's going fine until Alex, the guy who dragged Joe off for Geometry Wars Nick's first night in town, challenges him to a round of Wii Boxing.
Which Nick loses spectacularly.
It isn't that big of a deal, but it would probably put him in a bad mood at the best of times. With Joe's new frat brother razzing him about it, the bad mood veers into something more like blind rage.
"Oh no, JoBro," Alex says, tossing down his controller. "Better call up Tiger Beat and tell 'em there's something this wunderkund can't do."
"That's – that's really funny," Nick says flatly.
"Your water's looking a little weak, man. You need a fresh tea bag?"
"Wow," Nick says. "You're a real comedian."
"I'm just messing with you, man," Alex says, not sounding particularly apologetic. "Come on, you gotta take it like you dish it."
"Guys," Amy says plaintively. "It's just a video game."
"I can take it just fine, man," Nick says, not even looking at her. His tone gets a little more clipped with each word, and he doesn't even know why he's so irritated.
It's just – too much, somehow. He doesn't want to lose his temper here, not over something so stupid, but he can’t help feeling like just a few months ago Joe would have said something by now – if not to this guy, than to Nick himself, trying to smooth his raised hackles and distract him.
But Joe's not even paying attention; he's deep in conversation on the other side of the room, explaining something and waving his hands around animatedly.
"I need some air," Nick finally says, dropping the controller and getting to his feet.
"Rub some dirt on it," Alex advises. Nick does his best to not slam the door behind him.
It's not particularly cold outside, so Nick just walks to the end of the outdoor hallway and leans against the railing, staring blindly at the pool down below. He's aware of the door opening and shutting behind him after a minute, and he knows who it is before he even turns around.
"What's up, sourpuss?" Joe grins, shoving his hands in his pockets. "I think they're taking a collection inside to pay for your anger management classes."
Nick knows this is how Joe and his friends interact. They're all constantly dishing out insults and cracking jokes about their own faults, sarcastically referring to themselves as winners and the leaders of tomorrow.
But Joe's way of teasing Nick is usually the opposite – his jibes always edged with a compliment, always harmless ragging about how Nick is a genius and dreamy and bent on world domination. Nick doesn't like being laughed at, and he sure doesn't like laughing at himself. He's spent a huge chunk of his life convincing people to take him seriously; if he doesn't, who will?
"Ha, ha," he says.
"Aw, loosen up, Nicky." Joe smiles, tugging at his hair where it's starting to lay flat, but Nick can see something serious at the edges of his expression. "It's just a game. It's not a big deal."
"I know," Nick says shortly.
Joe doesn't back off; he always seems impervious to Nick's bad moods, like he can just will them away by ignoring them.
"So what's wrong? You've been weird for weeks now," he says, leaning in closer and peering at him like he'll be able to spot the reason written on Nick's face. "What's the deal?"
"I'm fine," Nick says flatly. "I'm not acting any different."
"Uh, yeah, you are. Unless my little brother has an evil twin, which I think I would have noticed before now, because hello, how cool would that be?"
Nick sighs and scuffs his boot against the ground, not even sure how to answer that.
"Man, come on," Joe says. "I know when something's up with you, but usually you tell me what it is before I have to play twenty questions. You're my best friend, okay? You can tell me anything."
It's not the first time Joe's called him that, not by a long shot – he's been known to trill BFFs eternally at Nick while trying to kiss his cheek – but right then it hits a nerve.
"I'm not your friend, Joe," Nick snaps, his voice rising before he can check it. "I'm not one of your stupid new friends, so quit acting like I am."
A hurt look crosses Joe's face, settling into confusion.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"It means – I don't know!" Nick kicks at the wall, an ugly tangle of emotion rising in his chest. Fighting with Joe like this, for real, not over something totally dumb, is scary and unfamiliar. "You have this new life now and there's no room for me in it. It's like I left for a month and you're this whole other person. Maybe you like all this, but I don't, okay? I don't like hanging out with people who want to get drunk all the time, and girls who keep—"
"Girls who keep what?" Joe says, raising his eyebrows over the rims of his glasses and widening his eyes. "What is your trip?"
"They're all trying to hook up with you," Nick hisses. "They just – suck."
"They're real people," Joe says evenly. "And they're pretty cool, if you get to know them. You've never cared about my friends before, anyway, so what's really the problem?"
"This isn't you, Joe. You don't party and make out with skanky girls and care about dumb art shows."
Joe tilts his head back, studying some point over Nick's head. He looks like he's trying to figure out what to say, and that alone makes Nick's fingers tighten into pointless, useless fists. He wants to point out that they've never been like this – never at a loss for how to communicate, never on different pages – but he knows Joe would just tell him he's being crazy.
"You can look at it like that if you want to. But I'm not, like, going down some dark road here. I'm just older now. I have my own life, and friends who don't work with us and might not always think like us, and that's okay." Joe finally lowers his gaze, looking him in the eye. "It's okay to have fun, Nick."
"Is this fun for you?" Nick says. "Because it seems pretty gross to me."
"What is your problem?" Joe says, finally sounding irritated. "Yeah, I'm dating. It's what people do. I'm meeting people and making friends and doing stuff that I want to do. And right now I want to do this."
"What about me?"
It's out of Nick's mouth before he knows it, and he can feel his cheeks going hot before Joe even has time to knit his eyebrows. Nick looks away, breathing hard and trying to swallow down his embarrassment – trying to cling to anger, even if it's petty and self-righteous.
"It's like you're not even my brother anymore," he adds, voice thin.
There's a split second moment after the words come out when he knows he went too far, and then Joe comes at him like a freaking football player.
Over the years he's turned tackling Nick into a regular hobby, so he pins him against the wall easily, one arm bracing his shoulders as their chests press together. There's nothing silly or playful about this, though. Joe's not grinning or cuddling or mugging for invisible cameras as he accepts an invisible pro wrestler belt. It's not a game.
His face is inches from Nick's, eyes dark and lips twisted angrily.
A squirm of heat that's something between embarrassment and pleasure twists through him now that he's finally on the receiving end of the full weight of Joe's attention. Even if the circumstances are all wrong, that's all he's wanted since he came home. He can't help but feel a little victorious about getting it.
Joe's breaths cut out harshly against Nick's face as he leans there, and Nick realizes with no small amount of horror that he's getting hard in his jeans.
A cold, terrified sweat breaks over his skin, but Joe doesn't seem to notice the swell of his dick, or the way Nick suddenly twists his hips away from Joe's.
He just stays there, pinning Nick between Joe's chest and the brick wall.
"Joe," he manages, the word awkward in his mouth. Joe rolls his eyes and steps away, leaving Nick to hunch in on himself.
"You're such a brat," Joe finally says, his tone both weary and strangely affectionate. "Come back inside when you get over it."
Nick takes a taxi home that night and spends the entire twenty minutes staring out the window, trying to not think about it.
When he gets up in the morning, there's an enormous, frilly bouquet of flowers sitting outside his bedroom door. The attached card just says, "Thinking of you, my dearest friend. You're the wind beneath my wings. -Joe."
Nick blinks at it a few times, sets the flowers on his desk, and heads down to breakfast. There are five more flower arrangements on the kitchen counter, and his mom shoots him an amused look from her seat.
"It looks like your brother is playing a practical joke on you," she says, taking a sip of coffee. "Do I even want to know what this is about?"
"Uh," Nick says, scanning the other cards as he scratches his stomach. They're all variations on the same theme. "Probably not, but I don't know either."
When Nick gets to his trailer that morning, there's a chocolate sampler as big as his torso leaning against the door.
"Aw, it was supposed to be heart-shaped," Joe says when he walks in a few minutes later and spots it on Nick's sofa.
"Why is it here at all?" Nick looks up from his lines. "And what's with the florist shop in Mom's kitchen?"
Joe tugs the lid off the chocolates and bites one in half, then makes a thoughtful face as he studies the pink filling.
"These aren't half-bad for sugar-free." He glances up at Nick and blinks innocently. "What? You made it pretty clear you're all starved for attention. I just wanted to show you how much I appreciate your happy, smiling face."
Nick rolls his eyes so hard they might stick. "Seriously?"
"You don't like them," Joe says dejectedly. He pops another chocolate in his mouth and grins at Nick mid-chew. "Should I cancel the singing telegram? It's supposed to get here right at lunch, so no one misses it when they serenade you—"
Nick throws the back cushion of his chair at him. Joe catches it easily, tucking it behind his head and sprawling out with the box of chocolates.
"You are such a jerk," Nick huffs.
"You love it," Joe says. He holds the tray of candy out towards Nick. "Don't girls usually want chocolate when it's that time of the month?"
"You're hilarious," Nick says flatly. "No, really, when do you take the stand-up routine on the road?"
"Come on," Joe says, resting the tray on his chest. "You should be begging me for forgiveness right now, after that temper tantrum last night. You mind explaining that, by the way?"
"It wasn't a temper tantrum," he says. "I got mad."
"About nothing," Joe adds, "which makes it a temper tantrum."
"I just don't like this, okay?" Nick looks down at his hands and frowns, irritated that he even has to put this into words. It feels weird to say, like he's asking for something that he shouldn't. "I don't like the way things are right now. I don't like filming this show. I don't like being back in LA. And I don't like that I never see you anymore without a posse of – of gross hipsters."
"Posse?" Joe echoes. "I prefer the term clique." He sighs and sits up when Nick doesn't respond. "I don't know what you want me to say, dude. I'm not trying to change. It just happens sometimes, you know? It doesn't mean we've changed. You're my brother. Duh."
Nick looks away as his cheeks heat, somewhat mollified. "Yeah."
Joe studies him for a minute.
"Look, I'll make it up to you, okay? We'll log some serious bro time, just you and me."
"What about Steph?" Nick says, unable to resist.
Joe just eyeballs him for a minute, and Nick's throat tightens with the realization he may have just stomped all over an olive branch he really didn't deserve.
Then Joe pushes his lips out thoughtfully and taps his chin.
"I already bought a giant teddy bear holding a valentine to leave in your room while you were asleep." He shrugs. "Maybe we can re-gift it?"
Joe's first step in Operation Serious Bro Time comes when they wrap for the day. He drops to one knee, still in wardrobe and full make-up.
"Nick," he warbles, putting on something vaguely like a British accent. "My dear, dear Nick. We've been brothers for a long time now, and I think you know how I feel about you. Would you do me the eternal honor of accompanying me to Starbucks?"
There's some laughter off-set, and Nick can feel his face heat up, but he rolls his eyes and nods.
"You're insane," he mutters, trying to be mad.
"I'm a free spirit," Joe corrects, slinging an arm around his neck. It feels so normal – so familiar – that Nick can't fight the swell of happiness in his chest.
"So," Joe says when they're sitting in the corner of the coffee shop. It's a busy time of day, and no one seems to be paying them much attention. "Spill."
"Your guts." Joe waves a hand. "Unleash the dragon. Drop some knowledge. Tell me what's making you so grumpy lately."
"I'm not grumpy," he says defensively, and Joe lifts his eyebrows. "Fine, sorry. I'm just—"
"Not sleeping enough," Joe says, squinting at him.
"Maybe," Nick concedes. "I don't know, I just feel..."
"Grumpy," Joe supplies.
"Stop finishing my sentences."
Joe smiles and kicks Nick's shoe under the table.
"Sorry, sweetie, we're just so in sync! You complete me."
Nick rolls his eyes. "You make me want to punch myself in the—"
"—face," Joe says with him, his smile widening into a grin. "Come on. You've been in a bad mood for a month."
"It hasn't been a month," he protested.
"Nick. You've been acting weird ever since you got back from the tour. I figured you were just having a hard time getting back to normal life, but something is seriously up with you." He pauses, then looks Nick dead in the eye. "You've never faked me out about your levels before. The only reason I let you off the hook for that one is because you suck so bad at lying that I didn't even get freaked out. But it's seriously not cool."
Nick's throat tightens with embarrassment. "You knew?"
Joe shrugs, smiling a little. "Dude, come on. I've been keeping an eye out for your crashes for, like, the last century. I know what they look like."
"Oh," Nick says, busying himself with picking at a hole in his jeans.
Joe tilts his head like he can hear something far away, but his gaze is fixed on Nick.
"Sorry," Nick says. "I don't know why I did that. It was stupid. I've been stupid lately. Things have just been weird, I don't know. I've had a lot of stuff on my mind."
Nick shrugs and doesn't say anything right away, trying to figure out how to explain it without sounding crazy.
Joe leans in conspiratorially.
"Is this about what you're going to wear to the Grammys? Because I think we need to be a united front against Kevin's matching suits idea." Nick rolls his eyes. "I'm serious, man. We're gonna look like those guys who carry coffins at funerals. Or ushers at a wedding. I think—"
"It's not about the Grammys," Nick cuts in.
A smile plays around Joe's lips, and it's irritating in a way Nick can't even articulate that Joe can always cajole him into talking when he doesn't want to.
He looks out the window, tapping the bottom of his cup against the table.
"I guess it's just – everything's changing right now. Kevin's married and you're doing your thing, and I'm the only one who even cares that we're moving away from each other."
Joe leans back in his chair and plays with the wrapper from his straw. When he meets Nick's gaze, he's giving him a look that's equal parts amusement and exasperation.
"Come on," Joe says. "Save the angst for your next piano ballad, Nicholas. You're seventeen. You're constantly changing, and so is life. That's a good thing. Do you even remember when I was your age? We had to walk uphill both ways in the snow to make an album. Change has been pretty awesome for us so far."
"You guys have all this stuff I'm not a part of, okay?" He scrubs a hand over his face, warm from the coffee cup. "The Administration tour was supposed to be, like, this big growing up moment for me, but I'm still the same, and I can't be grown up yet. I'm not twenty, Joe. I can't move out or get married or whatever. I'm just stuck."
"Dude." Joe thuds his chair back down on all four legs, staring at him with wide eyes. "You have so many things you're going to do, Nick. You've done more now than most people do when they're thirty. You did everything Kev and I did way earlier than we ever did it. You don't have to be twenty right now. You'll get there when you get there."
"But I want to be there now," he says, knowing how childish it sounds even as his lips form the words.
Joe laughs, but it sounds fond. "I know. That's just how you are, man. You like being in charge. But there's some stuff you can't control, and that's just how life is. All you can do is take them as they come and figure out what your move is gonna be."
"That's deep," he says dryly.
Joe smiles and lifts his cup. "I'm an old soul."
Nick rolls his eyes and looks out the window, watching people pass by on the street.
"What's one thing you really wish you could do?" Joe says. "You know, something you just… can't?"
They talk about this kind of stuff all the time, but it's usually just pointless, lighthearted babble as they wind down from a particularly hectic day. Joe actually sounds serious this time, like he's curious.
"Go to college," Nick says automatically. It's crossed his mind so often that he doesn't realize it might be news to anyone.
"Why can't you do that?"
"Uh. Well. I'm kind of in this band."
"Yeah, but you could totally go to college. The Olsen twins even pulled that off. And while you're very pretty, Nick, you are no Olsen twin."
Joe reaches over to pat his cheek sympathetically, and Nick smiles as he shoves Joe's hand away.
"Shut up." Nick picks at the lid of his coffee, fingers aimless and destructive.
"You should do it," Joe says after a moment. When Nick doesn't look up, Joe touches his arm where it's resting on the table. "Just see what happens. We might take some time off to make it work, but I wouldn't say no to a vacation. Worst case scenario, Kev and I would finally have enough time to record that Property of the Queen album."
Nick smiles a little. "I guess. I don't know. I mean, I just – I love what we do, and I don't want to stop. I don't want us to end up on some Where Are They Now special. But I want other stuff, too. I want—"
He breaks off and looks down at Joe's hand where it's tucked around his arm.
"You can have it," Joe says. Nick glances up at him.
"You can have it," he repeats. He presses his lips together and looks at him, thumb sneaking up to rub at the side of Nick's wrist. "Anything you want."
Nick's pulse picks up, but he makes himself smile again, a little wistfully.
"I don't know if the admissions offices will think I'm as awesome as you do."
Joe smiles then, an echo of Nick's. It's more familiar than that funny intense expression it replaced, and it settles Nick's nerves.
"Oh, I don't know," Joe says lightly, tapping that his thumb against that spot on Nick's wrist. "You can be pretty convincing."