Nick doesn’t get there until late Friday night, and Joe walks him up from the visitor parking lot, past the vibrating noise of a party on the dorm’s first floor. Joe’s grinning and nodding at all Nick’s frivolous news from home, and Nick’s almost painfully grateful for his brother’s unwavering attention, like Nick’s still the most important person in the world even when they’re not sharing a house and an everyday life.
He drops his stuff at the foot of Joe’s bed, still talking. “And my new video has gotten almost 5000 views so far. Someone on some music blog linked to it. He said I was an up-and-coming talent.”
“That’s because he doesn’t know you’re already a has-been.” Joe ruffles his hair, and Nick smacks his hand away, stifling a smile. Sometimes he can smile when Joe teases him now.
“I cleaned,” Joe continues. “Can you tell?”
Nick looks around at the pile of dirty laundry in the corner, the tilting stacks of books on Joe’s roommate’s bed, the narrow strip of clear floor outlining Joe’s bed and desk. “No,” Nick replies. “I really can’t.”
“Brat.” Joe shrugs off his coat and tosses it over the back of his desk chair. “Ben’s gone all weekend, so you can have his bed.”
Nick looks at the other bed, covered in books and dirty socks, and wrinkles his nose. “I’d rather not.”
“Did you bring your sleeping bag?”
“It’s in the car, but I don’t know where I’d put it.” Last year, Joe’s roommate had been this neat freak from Arizona named Liam, who had forced him to keep the room clean. This year’s roommate is obviously different.
“Well, you can either make room or share my bed with me. Your choice.” Joe’s phone vibrates and he pulls it out of his pocket, looking at a new text. “Do you want to go to the diner with Jenna and Dave?”
“Now?” Nick asks reluctantly. He doesn’t want to seem lame, but he’s already tired from three hours in the car, and choir practice before that, and school before that. He likes Jenna and Dave, who Joe met in his theater history class last year. He likes the idea of drinking coffee with a bunch of college kids in a greasy diner, talking about books and music and theater with Joe in the booth beside him, his arm slung over the back of Nick’s seat. But it’s late, and right now he mostly just wants his brother and some sleep.
Joe grimaces a little. “You’re going to pass out any minute, aren’t you? Sorry. I totally wasn’t thinking. Let me just…” He gets the phone back out, tapping out a short message and sliding into full-on older brother mode. “Do you need to eat something? Are your levels okay?”
Nick rolls his eyes. “I’m fine. I know how to take care of myself. I’m just tired.”
“Okay.” He puts a hand on Nick’s head again, pulls Nick in close. Joe’s hugs have always been better than anybody else’s, the way the two of them interlock so natural and comfortable. Nick rests his chin on Joe’s shoulder, and lets Joe hold him. Nobody really touches him at home. He doesn’t like it much when they do, squirming out of Mom’s grasp and avoiding the girls in his group of friends who seem to always be cuddling and teasing and poking. He doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with hugging; he just doesn’t really like it except for Joe. Too many years of girls holding him down on the school playground and making him sing, probably.
“Do you want to go get your sleeping bag?” Joe asks, hands still locked behind Nick’s back.
Nick sighs, nuzzling into the side of Joe’s neck, where Joe’s skin is warm and spicy with cologne. “Can I just sleep with you tonight? The sleeping bag is falling apart anyway.”
“Are you sure you’re okay? You’re practically cuddly right now. My brother is not cuddly.”
“Shut up,” says Nick. “It’s just been a really long week.”
Joe pulls back. “Okay, well, go brush your teeth and put on your PJs, and when you get back you can tell me about it.”
Nick hasn’t seen the bathroom in Joe’s dorm this year, and he’s a little scared of what he’ll find when he opens the door. But it’s clean and bright, fluorescent light over the sink highlighting the dark shadows under his eyes. While he’s examining the zit on his forehead, the door opens, and Joe walks in with a towel around his waist. “Oh my god!” he shrieks, voice echoing all over the room. “Nick, is your skin less than flawless?”
Nick rolls his eyes. “Do you have a volume knob I could turn down or something?”
“Nope.” Joe comes up next to Nick and meets his eyes in the mirror. His summer tan is fading a little, and it’s not like Nick hasn’t seen all of Joe’s naked skin before, but it’s hard not to look, not to compare all the pale, soft parts of himself with the lean, toned lines of Joe’s body.
Nick looks down, fiddles with his toothbrush. “Go take your shower. I don’t want to share a bed with you if you’re dirty.”
Joe grins, wide and white, making Nick blush a little. “I bet you don’t.”
Nick starts brushing his teeth and ignores Joe until he goes into a shower stall. He finds Joe’s door propped with a shoe when he gets back, and he kicks it out of the way so he can change in private.
He looks through the papers on Joe’s desk while he waits: chemistry notes with a game of hangman spilling down the side, set design and lighting diagrams, a thick photocopy of a play called Arcadia. Nick jumps when the door opens, even though he’s not doing anything wrong.
“Finding out my dark secrets, huh?” says Joe.
“Your dark secret is that you need some file folders for your schoolwork so it’s not all over the place.”
“It is not all over the place. It’s on the desk, which is a totally normal place for it to be.” He comes up close, setting his chin on Nick’s shoulder to look at the desk. His damp hair brushes Nick’s cheek, smelling like the same shampoo Joe has used for years. Nick finds it hard not to lean back into him, even though he shouldn’t.
“Could you maybe put some clothes on?” Nick says. Joe butts the top of his head into the side of Nick’s neck, trailing wet over the collar of Nick’s t-shirt. Then he backs away to rummage in the dresser. Nick doesn’t turn, doesn’t like how he feels looking at Joe, the way his eyes linger without him meaning to.
The bed isn’t big enough for them to not touch, and Nick lets Joe lay an arm under his head, curling around his shoulders a little. “So,” says Joe in the dark, turning his face to Nick’s on their shared pillow. “What’s up with the length of your week?”
Nick sighs. “There’s just a lot going on. There’s choir and debate team and student council, on top of my actual homework. And rehearsals for the musical start next week, so I was stressed out about casting.”
“What’s the show?”
“West Side Story.”
“And you’re playing?”
Joe snorts. “You are so bad at sounding humble. That’s a pretty good role for a junior, huh?” he singsongs. “That’s like, the lead or something.”
“Well, you do have Broadway experience.” He draws out “Broadway” into three pretentious syllables, teasing.
Nick ignores it. “I wanna do it, but right now rehearsal just seems like one more thing. I never have time to write anymore. I barely have time to make lame Elvis Costello cover videos.”
Joe’s voice turns serious. “You always used to find time. No matter what.”
“Yeah, well, back then I wasn’t a has-been.” Nick tries to swallow back the bitterness in his voice, but it gets in anyway. It only hurts sometimes now, not the constant ache of failure in his chest that it used to be. When he was dropped into public school a year and a half ago to begin the second semester of ninth grade, it felt like the end of the world. Joe got to do six months of home schooling and then go off to college and be treated like an adult. Nick’s still stuck in this world of teachers and rules and piled-up extracurriculars, talked down to in this way that chafes on a daily basis. There are days when endless tours and screaming fans and being on MTV seem like a dream, something that must have happened to someone else. Sometimes it’s better that way.
Joe squeezes Nick’s shoulder, just for a second, not even long enough for Nick to form an objection. “You’re not always going to be a has-been,” he says quietly. “Quit something. Even choir. I’m sure Dad would understand if you told him you needed time to write.”
Nick shakes his head. “It’s okay. I’ll work it out.” Sometimes he still gets up in the middle of the night to jot down a few rough lyrics, to play through part of a melody; sometimes the urge to make his own music is as strong as it ever was. But there’s also this nasty clench of shame whenever he thinks about performing, about putting his songs out there in the way that used to be so easy.
Joe’s looking at him, eyes catching moonlight from the window, mouth in a solemn line. “Shut up,” Nick says, before Joe can say anything else.
Joe responds with a sharply accurate poke to the ticklish spot below Nick’s ribs, and Nick yelps and fights, and in a minute he’s laughing so hard his stomach hurts, Joe’s fingers dragging and dancing over his sensitive skin. “You’re so hard on yourself,” Joe says, going still on top of Nick just as Nick’s working up leverage to flip them over. His whole body is pressed hot and close to Nick’s, chest to chest, thighs overlapping, and Nick can feel the quick, even pump of Joe’s heartbeat against his own.
There’s this softness to Joe’s face when Nick looks up, startling and unexpected. It makes heat spark in his belly, the kind that shouldn’t be there, but it creeps in anyway. One of Joe’s hands is gripping his wrist, holding it over his head, the other poised at Nick’s side. Nick can feel himself responding, and he fights the urge to squirm. There’s this itchy half-formed thought in his head that the last time he was this close to someone else, it was Miley Cyrus, and she was kissing him. He can’t close his eyes because that would mean losing whatever warped staring contest he and Joe are having right now, but every second he keeps looking is one more second where kissing his brother seems easier, more plausible.
“Nick?” says Joe, and the parting of his mouth makes Nick’s eyes flick down, away, and he needs to push Joe off, but somehow he can’t make himself move. “You make everything so hard,” Joe sighs, and it’s pretty much what he said before, but there’s this edge to it that means something else, something Nick’s not ready to understand.
But it changes the moment, and Nick squirms sideways, out from under Joe and nearly off the side of the bed, catching himself with his free hand against the ground. “We should sleep,” he says stiffly. “It’s been a really long day, and I’m…” He doesn’t finish, settles himself on the edge of the bed instead.
“Okay,” Joe agrees. He scoots over until his shoulder hits the wall, giving Nick room to lie down flat. In spite of everything, he falls asleep in moments, weary and drained.
They have breakfast with Jenna and Dave at the diner, or what passes for breakfast at noon. Joe gets whipped cream on his nose from his hot chocolate, and Nick keeps trying not to look at him as they talk about the upcoming election. He can’t say anything intelligent about Barack Obama when Joe looks like a happy little kid next to him. He’s having trouble saying anything intelligent at all around Joe today.
Nick looks at his watch when the waiter takes their plates. “We should get going,” he says, swallowing the last of his third cup of coffee, his leg jittering against Joe’s under the table. “Mom’s expecting us for dinner.”
Joe raises his eyebrows skeptically. “Now? It’s only 1:30.”
“There might be traffic.”
Joe looks at him for a moment, hard. Then he nods. “Okay. Sorry, guys. Guess we’ve gotta roll out.”
They say their goodbyes in the diner doorway, and Nick promises he’ll come back sometime when they can hang out more.
The drive is smooth, and even the turnpike is clear of major delays. Nick would feel silly for saying anything about traffic, except they both know that’s not what he was worried about.
“Is Kevin around this weekend?” Joe asks when they’re an hour out from home, a slow drizzle of rain clouding the windshield.
“Kevin doesn’t really go anywhere.”
“He goes to Danielle’s.”
“She lives five miles away, and it’s not like he goes there all weekend. He knows you’re coming. He’ll be home.” Nick trails a finger across the cold window, watching the raindrops tremble on the glass outside.
“I bet he’s going to propose soon.”
Nick’s stomach lurches; Joe in college, Kevin married, Nick still playing the lead in a dumb high school musical. He’s doing nothing while everyone else moves on. “He might.”
“That would be pretty cool. I like Danielle, and she’s good for him. She laughs at his jokes. Not everyone could do that.”
“I can’t do it a lot of the time,” Nick agrees.
“You don’t laugh at anyone’s jokes. Except mine.”
“Don’t flatter yourself.”
Joe punches him in the arm, then returns to tapping his fingers against the steering wheel, matching the rhythm of the song on the radio. “Do you think they’ve slept together yet?”
“Joe!” Nick exclaims.
“What? Are you telling me you haven’t wondered?”
“No! Of course I haven’t. Because he wouldn’t. Just like you and I wouldn’t.” He realizes after a moment how that “you and I” sounds, but he can’t take it back.
“I might,” Joe admits. “I don’t know why it has to be such a big deal.”
“You do know why,” Nick insists. “You may not like it, but you know.”
“Not everyone has to live by your moral code, Nick.”
“No,” says Nick heavily. “Not everyone does.” He thinks about how he felt last night, how easy it would have been to let himself go.
They both get quiet after that, and Nick pretends he’s just trying not to distract Joe from driving.
“Play me something,” Joe says, trailing Nick up the stairs after dinner.
“What?” Nick asks. “I told you, I’ve hardly written anything.”
“Yeah, and you used to write ten songs a week, so hardly anything for you is epic for a normal person.”
“I swear it’s not.” Nick tries to shut Joe out of his room, but Joe shoulders in anyway. It’s not totally unexpected. “I haven’t written anything, just parts of things. Not like real songs.”
“They’ll turn into real songs. They always do.”
Nick flops down on his bed and looks up at the ceiling. “You’re wrong.” He used to be able to do it. It used to be easy to put words and music together and make something he was proud of.
“Your face is wrong,” Joe replies, throwing himself down next to Nick. They’re pressed up close again, Joe looking at him with this sudden intensity that makes Nick’s cheeks heat. “You lost your confidence,” Joe says. “I get it. But there’s nothing wrong with you. Just because you’re not Bruce Springsteen yet doesn’t mean you can give up. You’re so stupidly talented, and I love you, but God, Nick, you’re so dumb sometimes.”
Nick sighs and closes his eyes, taking the hit. “I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how to make it different.”
Joe wraps an arm around his waist. His nose nudges at Nick’s cheek, and Nick’s heartbeat kicks up. He imagines turning his head, letting his lips press Joe’s and testing how they fit.
Then Joe beats him to it. He kisses Nick gently, mouth soft and inviting, damp and slightly parted. Nick shivers, and this noise comes out of his throat, high and scared and wanting. He puts a hand on Joe’s shoulder, clutching at him, kissing back. Neither of them is supposed to be doing this, but right now there’s this feeling in Nick’s chest like if he stops his life will be worse forever for it.
Joe sucks at the fullness of Nick’s lower lip, sinks his teeth in and makes Nick moan. His arm slips lower, hand cupping Nick’s hip, holding him down. And that’s okay, because Nick feels like he might vibrate right off the bed without Joe there keeping him together.
There’s a sound of footsteps running past the door, Frankie yelling something down the stairs. Joe pulls back abruptly, blinks at Nick with dark, blurry eyes. “Don’t stop,” Nick whispers, and his mouth feels strange around the words, lips thick and tingling.
But it must be the right thing to say because Joe grins and kisses him again. For the first time in a long time, Nick stops thinking about all the things beyond his control, all the worry and uncertainty and disappointment. He lets Joe kiss him for a long time, until his body is aching for other things, things he won’t ask for even now.
“Play me something,” Joe says again, sitting up and shaking his hair out of his face.
This time Nick reaches for his guitar without arguing. “It’s rough, okay? You have to promise not to laugh.” When he gets his fingers on the frets, there’s a song there waiting for him.