"Hey can I sit here?" a voice asked from across the table and Nick looked up to meet a smiling face. He couldn't help but smile back.
Even as he nodded, he blurted out, "I'm in tenth grade." The older boy sat down anyway and laughed a little.
"I was in tenth grade once." He smiled reassuringly as if to say, once again, that it was okay by him to hang out with younger students. But he didn't know Nick.
Swirling his fork around his mashed potatoes Nick replied, sounding almost stubborn, insistent, "Yeah but I skipped a grade."
Shaking his head, smile still on his face, "Well good. You won't have to worry about the Freshmen Mixers, then." When the younger boy didn't smile, Joe's shoulders sagged. "Listen. It's no big. If you don't want me to sit here, I'll just go." He gripped the sides of his red tray, and stood. Both plate and milk carton slid as he started to lift his leg over the bench.
"Wait!" It was probably more urgent than Nick had meant it to sound, because his cheeks blushed right after, but it had gotten Joe's attention, and he turned back, waiting. "No. That isn't what I meant." There wasn't any apology in his tone, but he was serious, so Joe figured the kid really wanted him to stay after all. He sat back down and Nick smiled at him again. "It's just strange... That you'd be okay with hanging out with me. I'm younger."
Joe shrugged, taking a bite of his food. He smirked with his eyes just before he opened his mouth, food still inside and said, "Well people say I'm really immature for my age." Swallowing quickly after, he saw Nick giving him a hesitant look before laughing. Joe spent a lot of time making people laugh but that particular one, he decided then, was one of his favorites.
"My girlfriend thinks it's funny, too," Joe said proudly. He liked fitting her into any conversation possible. They'd never be super serious, but she was fun and sweet. He was happy to have people know that he got to be with such a cool girl.
"Oh yeah?" Nick asked, eyebrows raising a little, but he had a weird smirk on his face, just a playful one though. "Is she sick?"
Furrowing his brows a little, Joe looked confused as he answered. "No... She's right over there - with her sister." He pointed to a table down the hall where a group of four girls was sitting. Nick looked and turned back, smirk wiped off his face, and he looked sincerely curious then.
As Joe had finished replying, he remember that the younger boy didn't know him. How could he understand how Joe was with his friends, his girlfriend? That they weren't all that constant for him; he didn't depend on their company. "Sorry," he said quickly, breathing it out more than actually saying it. "We spend a lot of time with each other outside of school, so while we're here," he said, shrugging his shoulders, tipping his head to the side a bit, "We don't need to be all over each other. We aren't that couple. Besides, Aly and AJ are best friends. At lunch and in home room, they hang out."
"Which one is she?" He saw two girls who looked alike, and assumed it was the older one; she looked like she'd be a senior, same age his lunch buddy looked. They were both pretty, blond.
"AJ." As if on cue, the younger one looked over and waved. Nick turned his head and saw the older boy waving back before looking at him again. "She's a lot of fun." Nick just nodded. "My name's Joe, by the way."
"Nick. McKenzie," he responded.
Nodding and stretching, Joe looked like he was about to fall off of his seat, but he didn't, making Nick smile yet again. "You're new here." Nick nodded. He was sort of quiet, and Joe felt like his questions, the conversation he was making, was probably tearing a hole in some kind of bubble Nick had going.
Before taking a bite of his lunch, Nick responded, "I just moved here from Wyckoff."
Grin breaking across his face, Joe folded his hands together over the table. "I used to live there! Cool... But not for a long time. I don't remember anything about it." He took a bite of his sandwich, allowing Nick to eat a little more too. This time he chewed and swallowed before talking again. "So, do you have a girlfriend?"
Looking uneasy, he answered with a sort of distant look in his eye. A wall just went up. "She and I - We just broke up."
Never meaning to be insensitive, but always rather curious, Joe managed to soften his tone to ask, "Because of the move?" Nick shook his head no, but didn't say anything else. Joe was learning... It would probably take a lot of focus and time to figure Nick out, but he'd been doing a good job up until that point. "Well, you're here now. All you need is someone to distract you - and look! Here I am." Joe grinned when Nick looked into his eyes, searching.
Finally he said, "You don't have to -"
"I want to. You're cool, man. I can tell. So if it's all right with you, we should go biking some time." Nick's face cracked into a smile. "We got another biker!" His voice was a little too loud, but Nick just shook his head, smiling, and high-fived him when Joe put his hand in the air expectantly.
"No one bikes around here," Joe explained, jaw tightening just slightly to show his annoyance with that fact. He let his hand fall to the table with a small clap. "Not even my brother. But he can be a drag about pretty much everything." When he looked up from toying with his milk carton, Nick looked disappointed - like, in him.
Joe thought it over, lips pursing a bit in thought as he stalled, taking a drink from said milk carton, chocolate of course, and it didn't take him long to decipher the problem. He could just tell... It was because he'd just talked negatively about someone he was meant to care about. Putting on his apologetic half-smile, he amended, "Don't get me wrong, dude. I love Kevin. He's my best friend. It's just that he's not the adventurous type, which sucks when I am."
Lightening up right away, Nick gravitated, leaning in a little closer. "So. Biking?" Joe nodded with a satisfied grin.
In exchanging addresses, Nick and Joe found that they didn't live too far from each other, which they were both grateful for. It would be a lot more fun riding bikes together if one of them wasn't tired out by the time they got to the other's house. Had they been on totally opposite sides of the city, they would probably have met in the middle, but it was still nicer knowing they didn't have to.
The next day, a Saturday, in the morning, Joe showed up on his bike outside of Nick's small house. After laying his black and blue Trek Equinox 9 on the ground sparsely covered with grass, he jogged up the few steps to the door and knocked. A blond woman in a coral sweater opened the door and smiled at him expectantly. "Is - Nick home?" She looked behind her and Joe bounced on his toes, stopping when she turned back.
"Let me go get him for you, okay?" Joe nodded in response, flexing his fingers out in front of him while he waited. He barely noticed as a soft hum came from his own throat until Nick was standing before him, smirking. Joe fake-slapped Nick's cheek, before starting down the stairs without a word.
Following after, Nick took the steps two at a time, and was at the bottom in less than four strides. While Joe stood his bike up, Nick rounded the corner of the porch to the one-car garage and began lifting the door. Pulling his Equinox over to where Nick was, he leaned it against the railing and helped push the door up the rest of the way. From the side view, Joe could tell as Nick just stood there a moment, that he wasn't happy with something, even though he'd been just fine only seconds ago.
Not moving from where he was standing, only turning to face Nick more, he asked slowly, "What? What's wrong?" As soon as he started speaking though, Nick walked into the garage, stepping over boxes, and more boxes, and a tool box, and another box before he ended up beneath his bike that was hanging at the back of the garage. Joe moved in, coming to help get it down, because he was a little taller, at least, when Nick held up his hand while reaching for a hooked rod with the other.
"I got it." Joe could tell there had been effort there to make it sound not-so-huffy, but Nick failed and Joe quirked an eyebrow at such a response. But, indeed, Nick had it, and soon the bike was being cradled in his arms as he placed the rod back in its precise place, before heading out, pushing passed Joe in the process.
Muttering an, "...Okay..." before trailing behind Nick on his path, Joe shrugged, and when he got outside, he didn't bother to help Nick shut the door, even as the boy insisted on keeping his bike upright, leaning against his leg and waist, surely complicating things. Joe saw though, that the bike was an older Huffy and the kick-stand had fallen off. And maybe where he would have just let his bike fall to the pavement, Nick wouldn't.
As the door got shoved down, Nick wouldn't look at Joe, and that just spurred Joe into a different form of action. He closed in on Nick and gently folded his hand over Nick's arm, squeezing a little, before giving a soft smile, drawing Nick's eyes to his own. "Just so you know, when I offer to help - or well, when I just do - it isn't because I don't think you can do it on your own; it's just because I like helping people. Call me altruistic, but I like to."
Shifting his eyes down from Joe, Nick looked a bit ashamed of himself, as his lips parted before he spoke. "Sorry," he said quietly, sighing in disappointment with himself. Joe's immediate reaction was to step closer, to squeeze Nick's arm again. And Nick appreciated it despite himself. "I'm just used to people not thinking I can take care of myself. It gets really annoying, really fast, and I guess I've just - sorry."
"Okay," Joe said simply. It didn't really upset him that Nick was acting like that. He just wanted to make certain he wasn't offending him without any intention of doing so. "So, why do they think that? I mean, what happened?" Joe didn't want to be intrusive, but then he always kind of intruded anyway, figuring that if anyone didn't want to tell him, they could say so, or lie to him, and he would never know the difference, so it really didn't hurt.
"Well," Nick began, but he didn't know exactly how to continue. He hated getting into this. How did one launch into a story about how they almost died and then expect it to not be awkward, to not make things worse? But then, most people just let him be an angry mess when he was, and that was that, but Joe was different, and Nick wasn't sure if he liked that or not. "I just have Diabetes, so I guess - everyone is always on my back about it. Well - not now. Now it's just my parents, obviously, cause no one here knows me. Eventually more people will find out though. They always do - every school I go to. It's always the same. And I'm sorry if I act like that. It's kind of second-nature. I can't really help it anymore."
Stepping back, giving Nick space, Joe nodded his understanding. "How about you promise to tell me if you ever do need help, and other wise, I won't bother you? Does that sound like it would work?" Nick considered it, probably longer than most kids would, but then nodded, looking up at Joe with a thoughtful smile. "Great, cause I don't want to annoy you all the time, but I seriously have some sort of saint gig that goes on in my head, and it's like I'm engineered to step into people's business. So really, if you ever need any help - not that you can't be completely independent or something - just ask, and I'll be right there."
Skeptically, scoffing a little, but gratitude obvious in his eyes, Nick asked, "You sure you're going to be able to refrain there?"
Tilting his head he replied honestly, "I'm not really sure. But I will try. Just - remember I'm trying." With that, he pulled his hand away and then clapped it over Nick's shoulder, putting just enough pressure to make Nick lean a little, Joe grinned. "Bikes?" Nick didn't need any more invitation than that to swing a leg over his, and he couldn't help it as he sped to the end of the drive way and looked challengingly back at Joe who immediately got the hint, running over to his bike and copying Nick's actions, peddling as fast as he could, because Nick was already half way down the block, totally kicking his butt.
The next few weeks went by pretty fast, and Nick adjusted to the school well. It was difficult to make friends in his classes, however, because people seemed to think he was a little stuck up, which, sometimes he was... It really depended upon the situation. In P.E. however, he had plenty of people who wanted him on their team, and he didn't mind that attention at all.
One thing he really missed though, was choir, a class he had opted out of when he transferred to this high school, which they allowed since it was near the beginning of the year. Choir was where he'd met Miley, and being in that sort of class would have been a constant reminder of everything that had gone wrong. He still loved her, would continue on loving her, just in a way that could never work between them. She didn't understand that though, nor the way he needed his space from her, that he wanted their relationship to be something between them. Maybe he was in the wrong, but she still never respected him enough to stop making everything about their relationship the most obvious thing in the world. That had been their last fight, too. Miley didn't respect him, and he said he loved her, but obviously didn't. It went without saying that they were through. He just couldn't stand the thought of going through that again.
At lunch, there were only a few days he was left without Joe's company, where his new friend would be sitting at someone else's table, would wave and smile, but then continue on as if Nick wasn't there. Nick had never really been a clingy person, and he didn't want to start now, didn't want to have any other relationships ruined by that one, stupid, human reaction, didn't want to turn into someone else's Miley. The truth was, though, that he felt a little upset the first time Joe didn't join him.
Lame, is what it was. Joe didn't owe him anything. There had been no agreement to spend as much time with each other as possible. Heck, he hadn't even asked Nick, really, or said anything about actually being friends. Maybe Joe felt like they were just aquaintances. Nick didn't get that vibe from him when they did hang out, though. Truly it was one of the quickest friendships he had ever gained and felt so comfortable with. They just worked well together.
Some days after school, Joe would pop over to Nick's locker, lean his elbow against the one near by, and say the most random things that would make Nick double over. Some days he would pass by, arm around AJ's shoulder, and Nick would try to ignore the fact that he didn't like AJ simply for the fact she was Joe's girlfriend. He hadn't even talked to her really, so any opinion he had of her was completely invalid; Nick knew that. None of that reasoning seemed to change things though.
Every weekend, however, Joe was at his house, ready to bike, or climb the huge trees at the park twenty minutes away. When Nick finally got the garage cleaned up with the help of his dad, and found his bat, ball, and glove, he and Joe started pitching around, practicing for a team neither of them were going to try out for, even though Nick really wanted to, and Joe kind of wanted to just to see Nick blow the coach's mind. In fact, it would be pretty funny to see the bane of his existence impressed by Joe's best friend [who wasn't Kevin].
This Saturday came and went without Joe. Nick had waited, and waited, and tried not to seem too let down when his mother opened the door just to see how he was doing, rather than to inform him he'd missed the knock at the door, that the nice boy he was hanging out with was there waiting. Night fell, and Nick resigned himself to lallygagging, lying on his bed, blowing at pieces of hair that fell into his eyes, tossing a baseball up and catching it, sending it up again.
That Sunday morning, he realized that he'd been making Joe come over to his house all the time, but not once, yet, had he gone to Joe's. Making the decision that it wouldn't be a big deal if he just stopped by after church, Nick finished pushing up the knot of his tie, and walked out to the Hatchback with his mother going to the passenger seat, and his father sliding into the front. He received permission after a short period of hesitancy, from his father mostly, and then psyched himself up throughout the entire sermon. At the end of it, he practically jumped from his seat, taking the car keys from his mother and strolling out Michael Jackson-style to unlock the car.
After changing out of his Sunday clothes, Nick scruffed up his hair a little before slinging his bat/ball bag over his shoulder and riding off toward Joe's house. His friend hadn't mentioned being religious yet, and Nick had never thought to ask, even as he talked about the scriptures from time to time. When he arrived at the small house, there was a light on coming from the dining room, as it seemed, and he stood outside the house on his bike for a moment before deciding that if they were eating, he could easily apologize and not disturb them again.
Gently, he let his bike lay on the brownish-green grass that covered the lawn, slipping the sports bag from his shoulder, off and onto the ground, setting them under the rusting wheels of his bicycle. It only took two short knocks on the door before the white-paneled front door was being pulled open, and a man, taller, bulkier than Joe, but still young and smiling, stood before him. "Can I help you?" he asked gingerly.
"Yeah - yes, sorry - I was looking for Joe. Do you know if he's here - home right now?" He couldn't pin down the exact reason he was having difficulty forming sentences, just that it must have had something to do with wanting to impress Joe's family, and beats him as to why that would be so important. Then again, he reminded himself, this was him, and he wanted to impress every one pretty much all of the time.
"Let me get him for you," he answered, smile unwavering. He stepped away from the door, and Nick supposed he would walk all the way around the house just to find Joe and politely let him know Nick was there, but instead he bellowed out, "Joe! Someone is at the door!" Well, it was as much of a bellow as one could get from such a high-pitched voice. Nick liked it, as far as voices went. Simply, he couldn't ever see it being anything forceful, or any type of a navigation system for anyone else, meaning it didn't seem this guy could make anyone do anything he wanted. Almost like he would be too timid to push in on anyone, do anything, like he wasn't adventurous at all.
Taking a stab at it, Nick gave a well-mannered smile before asking, "Are you... Kevin?"
"Huh? Oh yes! You must be... -" Kevin held up his hand and closed his eyes a little in concentration, "-No, don't tell me. You're Nick." His eyes snapped open triumphantly as he asked, "Did I get it? You're Nick. Right?" Nick nodded his head, laughing under his breath, wondering if this guy was for real.
From behind, Nick heard another male voice call out, "Hey, bud, who is it?"
Holding up his finger for Nick to excuse him, Kevin called back, barely turning from the door, "It's Nick, Uncle Jack!" Kevin smiled more still, when he turned back to Nick, about to ask a question when Joe seemingly popped out from no where, hand on Kevin's shoulder as he grinned at Nick, eyes only getting wider for a moment.
"Hey," he said a little out of breath from running down the stairs.
"Hey," Nick replied smoothly, trying not to smile back, because he just wouldn't ever be used to smiling as much as he did when Joe was around.
Leaving the doorway and stepping out onto the deck, Joe sat down on the top step. Kevin closed the door behind them, leaving Nick and Joe alone. Watching, Nick followed suit soon after. While he sat wit his back straight, hands folded together between his knees, Joe sat with his back slumped forward, knees cupped by hands. Both were looking out to the street.
Nick had expected Joe to say something, tell him why he hadn't come by yesterday. Silence settled between them, however. They could hear, on a street near by, that there was someone skateboarding. A sort of scratching noise was the only sound to reach them as the wheels caught the pavement.
"So, um, your uncle lives with you; that's cool." He had to break the quiet. While it wasn't totally uncomfortable to just be sitting there with Joe, listening, but he was still trying to figure out his place with Joe and it was kind of awkward, not saying anything. Joe turned to him leisurely and smiled, letting out a huff of a laugh.
"Actually we live with him - and my aunt. Since I was three, " he informed. Nick remained quiet, searching Joe's eyes with his own for a minute, and Joe saw the question there. "My mom died in a car accident, and my dad couldn't take it or whatever, so he sent us to live here." Only a hint of bitterness was in his tone, but he snorted as he added, "He used to be a preacher, a 'real family man' as Uncle Jack puts it. ...I think we've gotten one letter from him in ten years. But at least he's alive, I guess."
Quiet again. He let Nick figure out whatever was happening in his head. As he sifted through his dark, slightly curly hair with his fingers, breathing steady, he watched curiously as Nick seemed to take it all apart and put it back together. Then Nick turned to him, a soft, sincere smile on his face. "I'm really sorry, Joe."
"I know," Joe breathed out, like he'd heard it a million times, and he probably had. Usually, though, he didn't smile after. This time he did, and even added a heart-felt, "Thanks."
They were quiet again, processing things. At some point, they seemed to be closer together than before, though neither could recall shifting any, but they must have, and that was okay, because they were friends [Nick knew now] and Joe had just talked about his absent parents. It was tough, and Nick didn't know what that was like at all, but he would be there if Joe needed him. It was easy to tell Joe understood, when they would glance at each other now and again, catching each other's eyes.
It was very slowly, steadily growing darker, but they'd been out on the deck maybe twenty or thirty minutes, so not much of a difference had been made yet, as Nick heaved out a breath. "Are you okay?" he asked softly, throat forming words with difficulty from the little stress caused by the topic of conversation, not having used his voice for a while. He was looking carefully at Joe when he asked, slumped forward now, like Joe. His opposite arm lay across his legs, and his other arm was bent at the elbow, his hand holding his chin.
Considering it for a moment, Joe was immobile, but then he leaned into Nick for a moment before answering, "Yeah... I'm fine." He didn't look at Nick's face though. If he had, he would have seen confusion and the sheepishness Nick was feeling.
"Well, good. I'm glad." Sighing, he sat up straight again, letting his hands fall back into place. Joe looked at him again, and he smiled awkwardly. "No. I am glad, Joe," he laughed a little. "It's just that yesterday..." Joe looked as though he was about to urge Nick on when he figured it all out.
"Oh god, of course. I guess I just - I've been trying not to think about it too much. No, um, I'm sorry I didn't come over," he said honestly, grasping at exactly what he wanted to say, how to say it so he wouldn't make anything harder on himself. "AJ came over yesterday. We talked things over, and I guess she was kind of tired of just... having fun," Joe started, sounding more and more at ease as he went on. Nick realized then that Joe really had been bottling this up. "I told her I wasn't going to be able to - that I guess I didn't really feel that way about her, that I could always be at her side, holding her hand and everything." Through to that point, he'd been looking in the direction of Nick's bike, but he finally turned to face his friend.
"I don't mean to be a prick about it, you know?" he asked, looking, hoping Nick would give him his approval, assurance that Joe wasn't being a jerk for what he had told AJ. Nick gave it, putting his hand on Joe's back and rubbing a little, nodding his head. Joe's eyes seemed to light up a little, something Nick had missed without realizing it, but then he let his face fall into his hands, still turned into Nick. "I just can't pretend to want to always be touching her, holding her and stuff. It's great when we're hanging out and I have that option, but I can't feel obligated to. I don't like to feel obligated to..."
"You shouldn't have to. That's not what being in a relationship is about. It should be wanting to... You're not a jerk for that, Joe. You're not." Nick was pretty terrible with personal stuff, and he'd known it all his life. As best he could, he avoided having discussions where he might be expected to show a certain level of sympathy or empathy. With Joe, it was a little easier. He felt sort of like he'd met Joe before, though he didn't think that was possible. His hand was still steady at Joe's back and after a few more minutes of quiet contemplation, Joe turned and smiled a genuine grin of thanks.
Sucking in a breath, Joe straightened his posture and Nick's hand fell to the wooden deck just behind his friend. "Sorry... That must have been some chute. Let's - remember how I said I would be your distraction?" Nick nodded, looking into Joe's eyes with understanding. "Feel like being mine for a while." Nick's face broke out into a big smile and he slapped Joe on the back before standing up and holding out his hand to help pull him up.
"Obviously that would be the only thing to make sense." Joe rolled his eyes, knowing that, obviously, logic and sense were not the only reasons Nick would agree. "Come on... Let's go find that boarder, and see if he wants to build a ramp." A flash went through Joe's eyes and his face seemed to brighten at the thought.
As they walked around the house to grab Joe's bike, he stopped and turned to Nick, lifting a hand and squeezing his arm really quick. "Thanks, Nick."
Instead of waiting around to see if Joe would show up at his locker, he was right by Nick's side as they walked into school the next morning. While they had become easy friends, there was a new level of comfort, of flow between them now, and Nick didn't want to think of the reasons why that was, but he knew. Now that AJ and Joe had broken up... Well, Nick would get more time with his friend, his best friend. There wasn't any doubt in his mind; that was exactly what he had become.
Spending time with people, talking to them, and actually having a friendship with someone were two different things, Nick knew. And those class mates that he would discuss projects with, sports with, were great, and sometimes they made it easier to be at school rather than out 'there' living. That didn't mean that there was any emotional, personal investment between them.
With Joe, on the other hand, Nick wanted Joe to be happy. Wanted Joe to be safe. Wanted Joe to be healthy. To live his dreams. To want those things for Nick too. And he did. Their wishes for each other were mutual, and maybe they didn't spend a ton of time over the next few months talking endlessly about the future and how to help each other get there, but the conversation ended up there more and more often as time went on.
The cool part about it was that they didn't just sit around talking. They actually did things. There was a long weekend that had come up, and Joe had gotten permission from his uncle and aunt to have a party. There weren't a ton of people invited, but enough to fill the living room with raised voices, laughter, and the occasional 'whoop!' when someone said something brilliant that their mini-circle agreed with.
Uncle Jack and Aunt Liz had agreed to 'go out on the town' that night, leave the boys to it, but Kevin was in charge, and he didn't mind sticking around, because Joe was his best friend too, and he usually got along with those that Joe did. Nick, on the other hand, didn't know many of Joe's friends.
As long as they'd been hanging out, spending time with each other until they hardly saw anyone else, Joe never really found it necessary to introduce Nick. He talked about Nick around them, and about them around Nick, so they knew of each other. Nick didn't even really care to meet them, either. He'd high-fived some of the guys when Joe walked down the hall with them, just before he broke off to stay with him, rather than carrying on along their path. Some of the girls had given Nick smiles, smirks, or looks that said, 'Aww... isn't he adorable? No wonder Joe wastes his time with that kid...' but none of them had ever done anything together.
It wasn't that he was shy, really... Nick simply stressed himself out, sometimes, when he was around people, trying to figure out what they wanted from him so that he could decide whether or not he wanted to give it to them. Then, once he figured all of that out, he had to decide how to go about it, or how to ... not. Kevin misconstrued his silence, his being stationary, sitting on the stool in the corner of the living room observing, as just that, shy.
Once Kevin had made his way in and out of the maze of people over to Nick, a friendly smile on his face, looking like he was prepping to break a wall down, Nick knew exactly where Joe got it from. Brothers... Nick wanted to laugh as he realized exactly what Kevin's smile meant, what his eyes were saying. 'Come on, Nick. It's okay! They'll love you! I'm going to try to ease you out of your shell now... Ready...?' Seriously, he wasn't shy. He just liked to know how to handle people before he tried to. He was a think first, act later kind of guy.
"Hey Kevin," Nick said before Joe's older brother could even say anything. For some reason, Nick felt really comfortable with Kevin. It was probably just because of the older man's demeanor. The way it seemed he could coax a kitten out of a tree, no problem whatsoever. Whatever it was, Nick appreciated it. He didn't spend a whole lot of time around Kevin, but with all the stories he heard from Joe and the few times Kev had driven them to a movie, or to get ice cream, or something, and the way Kevin spoke to them in a way that said he thought he knew a lot about the world, even if he didn't really, Nick felt like he'd gotten to know him. Nick sort of looked at him like Kevin was his older brother too.
"Nick," Kevin nodded, as if he had a hat on his head to tip, but he didn't. It was a quirk. Nick appreciated it more than he would ever let on with his wry smile. "You should go talk to that girl over there... She's been smiling at you all night," Kevin encouraged in a slightly hushed voice as he through an arm over the back of the bar stool. Nick looked at the girl, Marissa, Kevin had subtly [though not quite as subtly as Nick would have liked] pointed out, and then looked back at Kevin with scrutinizing eyes, asking if Kevin was serious, but Kevin paid him no mind. Nick just shook his head.
Breathing in and then out to get rid of the small bit of frustration that had just formed within him, Nick answered with a dry laugh, "Um... No thanks." Then Kevin turned his head so he could look into Nick's eyes. He looked like he was studying Nick, but it only lasted a second before a grin broke out across his face. Nick looked confused at that, but didn't say anything, just waited to see if Kevin would do anything else to help him figure it out.
Taking it wrong, he looked at it as though Nick was telling him to back off. "Okay, okay..." He put his hands up, mock-defensively, still smiling. "No girls. You like singing though, right? You were in choir?"
Nick got about half way through rolling his eyes at Kevin's gesture, when he stopped them and again, looked curiously at Kevin. "...Yeah. I was. But - I do like singing - why?" He didn't know why he got a little nervous over the question. Didn't know why it made him think something bad was going to come from it. He just did...
"Great," Kevin said quietly, leaning in just a bit. He turned around and before Nick could grab his shoulder, turn him around and ask just what he thought he was going to do with that information, Kevin was clapping his hands, once, loudly, and calling everyone's attention to their corner. "All right every body. It's been fun up until now." Nick looked a bit wild-eyed over at Joe, but saw that Joe was just looking at Kevin, half disappointed in the interruption, half-amused, where he stood at the counter, chip mid-way out of the dip bowl. He let out a sigh, resigning himself, already, to whatever Kevin was about to put him through.
"But now it's time to make this into an actual party! And you know what you gotta have to have an actual party?!" Kevin was obviously excited, a little to worked up about this brilliant plan he had for making Nick loosen up, let go, become a teenager, or something. When no one answered, attempted to, just kind of blankly stared at him, it didn't seem to phase him, and he answered his own question just as he had intended all along. "Karaoke! That's what!"
With that, Nick groaned a little, and he could hear others laughing, slowly warming up to the idea, as he brought his palm to his face and tried to wipe away all evidence that this was incredibly uncalled for. He liked singing. No, he really, really loved singing, but seriously? He didn't need everyone else to know that, didn't have to share it with people to feel good about it. Singing was his thing. His thing. That's why he'd been able to give choir up in the first place.
Nick looked up and saw Joe nodding, like he thought that was actually a really good idea, like he was surprised he was liking where this was going. Then his eyes shifted to Nick, must have seen the expression Nick was unable to wipe off of his face, and then Joe made his way right over to Nick and Kevin and grinned like he was about to take this up a notch. Nick didn't even want to think about how.
Looking from Kevin, and then back to Nick, Joe smirked, turning and Nick grabbed Joe's wrist to stop him, but simply ended up holding it as Joe announced, "We'll do you one better!" Barely turning his head to catch Kevin's eye, he said three words. "Kevin. Your guitar." That was it. Kevin nodded, ran around the room of people, and down a hall, emerging a few moments later with one of the most amazing guitars Nick had ever laid his eyes on, and for a moment, his grip on Joe's wrist loosened, calling Joe's attention back to Nick himself. Joe kept smirking as he watched Nick's eyes widen like he'd just experienced love at first sight, and then smiled even broader, happier, excited when Nick turned and looked up at him, all that adoration still in his eyes.
Exhaling slowly, Joe's smile faded softly, as he let Nick adjust his own expression into something more ... Nick-like, and then he turned his body to face him, leaning in. With a whisper, he asked, "Come on Nicky," the first time Joe had ever called Nick that, "For me?" Nick could only nod and swallow, heart beat speeding up a little, looking to his feet before Joe was pulling him off the stool. It was after a few seconds of standing, facing their audience, waiting for Kevin to get his strap over his shoulder that Nick realized he was still holding onto Joe and let go abruptly.
Once again, Joe leaned his face in toward Nick's and left another question in his ear. "Do you know "Tell Me Baby"?" Nick wracked his brain for the lyrics, the tone, everything he could possibly know about the song.
"Red Hot Chili Peppers?" Nick asked, voice soft as he considered it. Joe nodded, and Nick could feel the how close their heads were together, and he didn't really want Joe to move, but he shook that feeling off as music looked him in the face. The more he thought about it, the more it reached into him and pulled, the more he wanted to follow. "Yeah, I know some of it. Can we slow it up just a bit?" Joe nodded again.
Smiling proudly, Joe stepped behind Nick, and then over to fit himself in between his two best friends, part of his body pressed into Nick comfortable, arm around Nick's shoulders, hand squeezing Nick's arm, happy. He turned his head and whispered the song to Kevin and Kevin grinned. Nick caught his eye, and they both started smiling too. It was actually going to work... Nick could feel it.
The first few seconds before they began, Nick wondered how it was going to sound together, how they would do in front of these people who probably didn't expect anything special. When Kevin began playing though, Nick looked at him, surprised, when the sound was really good, and smiles immediately spread around the crowd. Joe raised an eyebrow at Nick and he laughed a little. Then Joe began singing, and Nick joined in where he knew the words, hitting the chorus perfectly. His eyes lit up when he realized how amazing all three of them sounded together, how well his and Joe's voice meshed, how much everyone at the party was loving it, dancing a little, some of them singing along while being quiet enough to hear Joe and Nick.
By the middle of the song, Joe's hand had slid up Nick's arm to rest on his shoulder, Joe getting closer still, until they were practically singing to each other, than for anyone watching them. When Nick would bring himself back to reality, less caught up in the song, and allowed his eyes to open, he could only smile at Joe when he did the same. Both found it sort of amazing how they were able to get so into it. This was no regular karaoke. Then again, Kevin and Joe had spent many nights pretending they were rock stars. It sounded better, more complete, with Nick there though.
When the song was over, the three of them looked at each other, un able to keep from grinning. Joe's friends all clapped for them, smiling appreciatively. Live music that was actually good? Yeah, that kind of made the party a million times better. One of the guys shouted for an encore, and Joe just shook his head smiling, pulling Nick back into him without a thought as Nick made to step away, and Nick kind of liked that, for whatever reason...
"Thanks guys!" Joe called to them even though the chattering wasn't all that loud. "But yeah, no, I think we're done. Your turn!" He turned to Kevin, not letting go of Nick. "Hey dude, your idea. Set it up for them?" Joe moved his head to point at his friends who were waiting to participate and Kev nodded with a slightly pompous smile.
"Of course." He slid his guitar off and handed it to Joe as he bent to his knees in front of the t.v. to set everything up. "You. Both. Owe me." he said slowly, nodding at Joe and Nick and finishing with a 'just kidding' grin. As if he hadn't had a blast... As if it had taken so much out of him to suggest it. Nick rolled his eyes and went to step away yet again, and Joe pulled him back yet again, causing Nick to let out a huff of insincere frustration. "Take that back to my room?" Joe nodded and began walking toward Kevin's room, guiding Nick when Kevin called after them. "In the case! Not just on the bed!"
"Sure thing!" Joe called back, not looking, just lifting the guitar into the air a little, and continued walking.
The hall was dark, and Nick started rubbing at his elbow with one hand. But he wasn't nervous... Not at all, for any reason. Except his stomach was kind of freaking out on him, and there was a buzz in his head he didn't recognize. For the most part though, he felt like someone had just pumped caffeine into him, his adrenalin level going up from having performed in front of people, even if it was only ten or so of Joe's friends. It was pretty amazing, and he couldn't deny that. His body wouldn't let him.
Turning Nick into Kevin's room, Joe flipped on the switch and finally let Nick move of his own volition. "That," he said, clearly happy about what just happened, "Was incredible..." Nick turned to face him and nodded his head, not smiling because of the buzz that still floated within him. Joe sat down on the bed instead of putting Kevin's guitar away. He started playing a few chords, looking down at his fingers. When Nick didn't sit beside him, he looked up questioningly, and then sighed, patting the bed when Nick gave him a 'What...?' look.
"Oh," said Nick, audibly, and he moved over to the nicely made bed, and sat down by Joe, trying not to slump his shoulders. After a few moments of listening to his friend play hit and miss notes, Nick turned to him, folding one leg over the other, jeans riding up one leg slightly. "You didn't tell me you were a singer." He hadn't meant for the tone to be accusatory but it was, and Joe fumbled over his next note before he continued playing.
Casually, he responded, "Yeah... Well, I don't consider myself one. Me and Kev just mess around with music. We don't - do anything with it." He pulled his bottom lip into his mouth a little, and tried to play something more complex than he had been, but it got screwed up. Looking up and seeing that Nick's face still looked a little disappointed, he pulled the guitar off his lap and set it on the bed beside him. "Kevin taught himself the guitar and for his birthday last year, we all chipped in and got him a Gibson because he seemed to really like it. He doesn't even take music at college or anything. And I'm not in choir. Literally the only place I sing is here, in the living room, the bedroom, and like, the shower. And sometimes when we go to church, with the rest of the congregation. - I didn't think that would be something anyone could get upset over."
"Joe..." Nick started, sighing, letting his back bend finally. "I'm not - upset. I guess I just thought since you knew I sang, that - I don't know. Don't you usually share interests with your friends? I'm not mad or anything. I just wish you would have told me," he explained, refraining from putting his hand over Joe's or something stupid like that... "This was fun. It was really fun. We could have been doing this, you know?" Joe listened intently, and when Nick finished, he sort of understood, and felt kind of dumb for not thinking to mention it to Nick.
"Sorry. It really didn't even occur to me. It's not like I'm any good, really." Nick scoffed, and Joe laughed, blushing a little, but it was hardly visible against his darker skin. "Well, I mean, I'm not as good as you or anything."
Quirking an eyebrow, Nick punched Joe in the shoulder lightly. "Dude, if you're not as good as me, you're better than me. And don't deny that - you can't. You've forfeited your right to." Nick had a really serious face on the whole time, but smiled after, but it was sincere, and he'd obviously meant every word of what he'd just said, which caused Joe to smile back, warm. He leaned into Nick a little and then pulled back when Nick sighed in frustration. "Sorry - not you... I forgot to check my levels, and it's getting late. I hate - I'll be right back," he said, a slight frown on his lips, and he stood from the bed but before he could exit, Joe stopped him.
"You can't do it in here?"
Pausing at the door, Nick turned half way back, chewing on his lip for a second before answering. "I don't usually do it in front of people. It tends to make them... uncomfortable."
"You can do it in front of me," Joe offered without letting a second rest between what Nick said. "I don't mind, Nick. I mean - I should get used to it, right? We spend a lot of time together. And you shouldn't have to leave every time you have to check your blood, just because you think it'd make me uncomfortable." His tone was soft, reassuring. Joe didn't want Nick to think he would dislike any part of Nick's life. He was his best friend and he wasn't going to shut any parts of Nick out. Not any of him.
A small smile, appreciative, kind of surprised, and a very slight blush later, Nick was back on the bed saying, "I guess it wouldn't be a big deal. I could. I just have to prick my finger a little and -" he trailed off as he pulled his blood-checker out of his back pocket, and proceeded to check his levels, Joe watching intently, sitting close, like Nick needed his presence to hold him up. And when he saw Nick's drop of blood, he tried not to act like it bothered him, like it hurt him to see Nick have to hurt himself.
Using his checker as a sort of visual aid, Nick ran through a quick list of facts, how you know if you're okay, what all the different numbers and symbols mean on the electronic screen. Joe had asked him, quietly, to tell him about it. He had been sort of in awe, as he watched Nick process everything sitting on Kevin's bed next to him. By Nick's tone, he had somehow managed not to grimace in empathy, which Joe was grateful for. Nick seemed really comfortable as he explained everything. When Nick finally looked up again, Joe threw him a wide smile. "Thanks."
Brow furrowed, but smiling none the less, Nick asked, "What for?" He had his eyes focused on Joe, but he knew his way around the bag he kept everything in, and on his lap, he began putting everything away. Zipping the bag up, he held it between his hands, thumbs protectively settled on top as he took in Joe's response.
"For - being cool with this, about this. For teaching me about it, a little. For trusting me, I guess." Nick didn't know why he blushed at the last part. It wasn't like a huge, revealing statement or anything. Still, it was the acknowledgment, and yeah, he definitely trusted Joe. Part of it, maybe, could have been that Nick gave a certain amount of trust to everyone, and it was all fine until they knew they had it, and then it was dangerous, and it usually made him trust them less. Maybe the trust he was used to giving out was fake... But he couldn't see it going anywhere with Joe.
He was going to say something, like that was ridiculous of Joe to think otherwise, or just a simple 'You're welcome.' but Kevin stepped into the door way, hands casually gripping the edges of the molding. They both looked up at him, and he had a questioning look on his face. "Nick just had to check some-" he tossed a look at his friend, and Nick nodded his head without even having to look back at Joe, a small tug at the corner of his lips, "-His blood really quick."
Face cleared of all suspicion, Kevin nodded and looked at Nick with only a shadow of concern, but they all knew it was there. "You good?" he asked, tone casual.
"I'm good," Nick said confidently, rising from the bed, giving a grateful smile to Kevin, then to Joe. Then he nodded his head toward the doorway, looking Joe over quickly before breathing out. "Should we get back to the party?" While he stuffed his blood-checker back into his back pocket, Kevin stepped further out of the room, but remained in the hall way a little ways down.
For a moment, he actually thought Joe was going to say no. It wasn't that Nick would have minded or anything, but they were in his older brother's room, which didn't seem fair to Kev, and really, Joe was the host. He couldn't just bail on everyone, no matter how much he wanted to. No matter how much Nick felt like hanging out with Joe was good enough, better. He really didn't need the rest of Joe's friends to be happy and have fun. Frankly, the party would of been a lot better, in his opinion, if it had just been him, Joe, and Kevin. Joe didn't make Nick have to back-pedal, have to pull Joe out of the room, and tell him that his question wasn't really a question, though.
"Yeah." He sounded a little resigned to the fact, but he stood up, patted Nick on the back, and then they walked back out to the party, each grabbing Kevin by an elbow and pulling him along, as if he weren't the adult, as if he wouldn't have gone back anyway. Kevin was awesome though, played like it bothered him, and it was easy going into this type of brotherly game they played sometimes, with Nick included.
When they entered the room, there were a couple of people singing along to the words on the screen while others were pouring soda from the near empty two-liter bottles. There was still a lot of talking and laughing going on, but Kevin noticed a couple of kids sinking into the couch, the bean bag chair Joe had brought out from his room, and in a couple of the chairs around the dining room table. He nudged Joe silently and Joe looked around and nodded.
The last karaoke song ended and Joe stepped in front of the t.v. real quick, which had Nick standing in front of everyone again. He'd been experiencing over half the party without Joe, so he wasn't going to let Joe go so easily. If he just kept to Joe's side, he figured, then he wouldn't end up alone, in a corner again. Joe looked around the room with raised eyebrows and a smirk. His friends were good, awesome, and they were usually filled with energy, but he had to admit that this past week of school had been kind of crazy, and they were all a little drained. Plus the party had been going on for a while now. So even though eleven wasn't very late, he figured it was time to give them an out.
"Okay, guys!" he said warmly, smiling, "A couple more rounds on the karaoke machine and then I think this place is closing down." He added a wink and a few of the girls giggled remembering the most cheesy lines they'd heard in their lives attached to that very wink. Together Nick and Joe stepped out of the way. While AJ was out with Bennett, Aly had decided to come to the party anyway. With Vanessa, she sang a duet, a rendition of "U Can't Touch This" by M.C. Hammer, leaving everyone giggling, or at least smiling. Mostly the giggles came from the two singing it...
They didn't know who sang the song after that, just going around, getting lost in conversation with other people before it was time to go. While Joe and kevin ushered people out the door with grins, high-fives, loose hugs, tight hugs, and pecks to a cheek or two, Nick hung back. Waiting for the line on the way out to shorten, Nick stuck a couple of chips into his mouth. His stomach had begun growling a few minutes earlier, hungry because he hadn't eaten an actual dinner.
With only two people left talking to Joe, pro-longing the evening, Nick made his way to the door, turning his watch on his wrist a little, checking the time. It was edging closer to eleven-thirty. Joe shot him a glance, and Nick looked up to meet his eyes. With a quick good bye, he sent the last two girls on their way out the door. Kevin smiled and waved them good bye, and then turned to Nick. "You'll be able to get home safe?" Kevin asked Nick, looking a little concerned again. Nick always rode his bike. His parents had offered many times to drive him, but he loved the free feeling he had on his bike and rode it when he could.
"I'll be fine," he said, smiling back, shaking his head a little. The truth was, he was a little worried, with it being so late and dark, but Joe and he had installed a light on the front and back of the bike, made sure the reflectors were still good. [In fact, Joe had even surprised him with a new kickstand just last week.] He would be fine, he was sure. When Kevin still looked uneasy, Nick added, "Really." Kevin shrugged before walking away a bit.
"Wait," it was Joe's voice this time, not sounding concerned as much as well, a little urgent. Nick had one foot out the door, really, but he had planned on turning back around and saying goodbye. Both Nick and Kevin turned to face him at the same time. Looking between the two, he asked hopefully, "Nick could stay. Uncle Jack and Aunt Liz wouldn't mind, right Kev?" Kevin looked at Joe closely, studying his intentions. About some things... Kevin was slow. About Joe, he usually just knew. It was harmless, though, and he nodded. Really, he just wanted to make sure Joe hadn't planned some late-night adventure that would earn him and Nick a ride in a police car.
Nick had been focusing on Kevin, and when he nodded he looked back at Joe, eyebrows raised a little, asking if Joe was sure he wanted him to stay. Joe smiled, and pulled Nick into a hug. For a moment, Nick's arms hung at his side as he breathed in, Joe. Then he put his arms around Joe too, hugging quickly and then pulling away. He was back in the house all the way, but when he stepped back, he was out on the deck again.
Shifting on his feet a little, Nick rubbed the back of his neck in thought. "But wait... I don't have any of my stuff." His eyes were slightly narrowed, upset at the prospect of not being able to stay just because he didn't have pajama pants or a pillow, something stupid like that.
A snort from Joe, and Nick blushed a little, because, what? What had he said wrong? "You need 'stuff' to sleep?" Nick looked down at his shoes, thinking, and then looked back to Joe, cocking his head a little.
"I... guess not. I mean, I do have my insulin with me." Joe broke out into a huge grin, grabbing Nick by the shoulder and pulling him back into the house excitedly. Nick smiled back, laughed a little. "I'll need to call my parents though."
"Of course," Kevin said from the side, and Nick snapped his head in his direction, nodding a quick thanks. "I'll get the phone." Kevin walked through the living room to the kitchen and pulled the phone from the cradle hooked to the wall. Joe began following after, and so did Nick. When Kevin turned, smiling because it was really quite useless for him to go get the phone when they would just follow after, he dropped the phone into Nick's hands.
The answer came quickly after Nick assured his mom he had his medicine. Nick smiled up at Joe, and Joe pulled him into another hug as he told his mother a muffled goodbye before Kevin grabbed the phone up from between the two, turned it off and hung it up. "All right, bed time guys." Kevin shook his head at Joe's reluctance to let go, but then Kevin shrugged his shoulders and pulled Nick into a much shorter hug of his own. "Night!" he called back to them as he walked down to his bed room.
Joe and Nick began clearing the kitchen, washing out dishes, throwing cups away, folding bags of chips mostly gone, and sticking them in the pantry. "Thanks for letting me stay," Nick said suddenly out of their quiet cleaning, as he slid another bowl into the dish washer, comfortable in a house that wasn't his own. He was sponging out a glass cup not used at the party when Joe stepped up to his side. He reached in front of Nick, getting water splashed on his arm from the sink, and picked up a plate, sliding it under the falling water before putting it into the dish washer.
"Thanks for staying."
They finished up cleaning the kitchen together, starting the dishwasher, stepping back from its rumbling and exiting. Joe switched the light off, then did the same with the dining room fixture. As they made their way toward the stair case, Nick raised his hand to switch off the light of the living room too, but Joe grabbed his hand, holding it midair. "No, it's okay. We'll leave it on for Jack and Liz. They should be home soon." Nick smiled, looked down awkwardly, trying to clear his tightening throat before Joe finally dropped his hand, letting it fall to his side. Joe pushed Nick a little, laughed shortly, following him up the carpeted stairs.
The hall was dark, and if Joe weren't right behind him, he might have gotten nervous. Nick wasn't afraid of much, but sometimes, in the dark, he got paranoid. The stupid thing was, it was always in a house, never outside where something bad was more likely to happen. But with his friend behind him, Nick didn't have too much trouble.
At least, he didn't until he tripped over his own leg, and almost fell into the wall. Joe caught him, putting his hands on Nick's shoulders to steady him, and they slipped around, Joe's hands meeting in the middle of Nick's chest. When Nick started giggling, Joe knew he was okay to let go, dropping his arms, but running one hand down Nick's forearm as he did so. "You okay there?" Joe asked, smirking, trying to hold back his laughter but failing.
"Shut up," Nick said, laughing more, and Joe could imagine his eyes creasing at the corners. Nick made it down the rest of the hall all right. He knew where Joe's room was, but he'd never had to find it in the dark before. When he pushed a door open slightly, he made to turn into it when Joe fake-coughed. Something sounding like 'bathroom' joined the sound, so Nick kept walking ahead, shaking his head at himself, purposely swinging his arm back and bumping his fingers into Joe's stomach, making Joe shoot out another bark of a laugh.
"Hey, I was helping you," Joe chided, smiling.
"Mhmm..." At that lack of faith, Joe took a bigger step forward, managing to find his way in between Nick's legs with one of his own, and slipped one arm around Nick's front, pulling him back a little. "Joe!" Nick cried out, and then it became muffled laughter as he struggled to get away from Joe's fist one his head. Noogies were by far one of the most unpleasant things ever. Joe was actually quite gentle about it though, so when Nick escaped, he was also gentle when he shoved Joe away from him. "Jerk," he muttered, but it was obvious he didn't mean it.
They made it to Joe's room, Nick guessing right the second time. He pushed his hand slowly across the wall until his fingers ran into the light and turned it on. Both boys blinked for a few moments, and then Joe walked in, brushing passed Nick, going to his closet and pulled the door open. The blue on the walls made it feel clean with the white molding; Nick really liked Joe's room. He always felt comfortable. Usually, though, he would throw himself down on the bean bag chair that was still in the living room downstairs.
As Joe pushed hangers one way and then the other, he looked over the clean shirts that hung inside. "You want a looser shirt, Nick?" he shot over his shoulder. Nick nodded, trying to figure out where he'd be sleeping before Joe cleared his throat, and Nick realized that Joe hadn't been looking to see the action. Stepping up to the closet, looking in after Joe, Nick fingered one of the dress shirts he'd never seen Joe in.
"Do you like church?" Nick asked. His mind was growing more tired, even though he was still having a good time. That would mean his topic of conversation would drift to things he was really comfortable with. He felt Joe's gaze turn to him, didn't hear the movement of hangers against wood anymore.
"It's okay, I guess." Joe shrugged, turned back to the closet. "So what do you say, Nick? Looser shirt?" He looked this time, in time to catch Nick nodding, and pulled one of his most comfortable shirts from the closet, leaving the empty hanger in its place. Joe handed it to Nick who propped it over one arm, still looking at Joe's dress shirt as if it held answers to questions he'd always been asking. Stepping back a little, smile dropping complete, shoulders drooping, Joe asked, "What?"
The tone caught Nick's attention, and he turned back to Joe, offering a soft, neutral smile. "Nothing, Joe, nothing. I was just... wondering. Church is important, but it doesn't always have to be." He wasn't sure if that made sense, and he was grateful for the yawn that emerged from him after ward, hoping that Joe would know to excuse him if he'd accidentally said something wrong. He hadn't though, and Joe pulled the shirt from Nick's arm and tossed it over Nick's head, covering his friends' face, laughing. Nick laughed from beneath it as well, pulling it from his head, dragging curls into his face that popped back out of the way when the shirt was hanging from his hand beside his knees. "Thanks, by the way," he said, holding the shirt up limply.
They both began undressing, pulling off jeans that would be too uncomfortable to sleep in, and Nick pulled off his tee-shirt, replacing it with the bigger one Joe had given him, shrugging into it until it sat comfortably on his shoulder. Joe stayed without a shirt, and Nick just smiled at him. He didn't know how, exactly, Joe knew he would want a shirt, not want to be exposed like that, but he did... Joe raised an eyebrow before leaning toward the bed, and then side-jumped onto it.
Giving Joe an expectant look, he silently asked where he should go, to the cough downstairs maybe? Joe scooted over on the bed, though, leaving an obvious space on his bed. Nick felt his ears turn red, and he was grateful his hair was longer. His heart started beating faster and he urged it to stop as he balled his hands into fists, flexing his fingers against his palm. He knew it was a ridiculous response to such an innocent invitation, but the thought of being so close to Joe for so long made him nervous, a good nervous, a happy nervous. Still, it was stupid that it would, so stupid.
Shaking his head at himself, Nick decided to pretend he didn't know what Joe was offering. "So should I just head down stairs? Your aunt and uncle won't mind me sleeping on their couch, right?" Nick waited for the answer, holding his breathe.
A confused look was what met his question first, before a laughing smile spread across Joe's face. "Nick..." Joe's eyes were bright and warm. Nick felt a sigh let out from deep inside of him, his shoulders dropping significantly lower as he admitted defeat.
"I just don't want to crowd you," he explained, half-lying, he guessed. Nick took a step closer to the bed, and then another when Joe didn't give him any help. When a few more seconds of silence passed, Joe smiling at him, watching him patiently as he got closer, not giving him an out, Nick finally slipped onto the bed, laying back stiffly. After a few moments of just lying there, keeping his hands and legs to himself, staring up at the ceiling, Joe nudged his arm. Instinctively he scooted over, thinking Joe was asking for more room, muttering an apology.
"Nick." He looked over at Joe. "Jesus, man. You're acting like - would you get under the covers? You're going to freeze." Joe looked genuinely concerned, like that might actually happen, and then Nick remembered how late in the fall it was. Earlier he'd been so warm from the body heat, maybe from the feeling and glow of friendship; he'd forgotten. Nick nodded, getting off of the bed again to slip under the covers with Joe. Before he could, though, Joe looked at him somewhat apologetically. He stopped moving. "Could you get the lights, sorry?" Nick breathed out in relief, walked over and turned them off, careful not to trip over his shoes on the way back.
Slipping in, his hand bumped into Joe's, so he pulled it out from underneath, and layed it at his side on top of the blanket. For a few minutes they layed silently together before Joe moved in just a little closer, sharing body heat as the cold seemed to get into their bones more as they stopped moving. "Night Nicky," Joe said softly. Nick tried to keep the chords in his throat in check, tried to keep his voice from cracking as he repeated the sentiment, winning at something, finally.
Fifteen more minutes passed when Nick's stomach growled, breaking the silence that was only interrupted by their breathing. "Shoot," Nick mumbled quietly. He didn't think Joe was asleep yet, but he was worried about waking him up anyway.
His worries faded as an emotionless voice spoke, slowly forming into fake-concern. "Well, gee, Nick. You didn't tell me you turn into a monster at night. A warning would have been nice. You're not going to eat me, are you? That's not why you were avoiding staying in here, was it?"
"I forgot to eat dinner," Nick said simply, folding his hands over his stomach like that might keep the sound inside. It growled again, and then Joe's facade cracked as he began laughing, huffing it out, tired. Nick blushed a little, again, always around Joe, and he felt stupid, but Joe's laughter was contagious, and he started up as well until their bodies were curling into each other a little. They were both more tired than they realized, their laughs becoming involuntary and necessary at the same time, brains releasing built-up energy that might keep them awake despite being sleepy.
When they were finally able to calm themselves, they were on their sides facing each other, quietly breathing each other in, just looking, understanding. Then, Joe took Nick's top elbow in his hand and said quietly, "Let's get you something to eat, mm?" Nick nodded, smiling, lazily.
Blinking into the light, Joe and Nick stepped down from the last step and headed toward the kitchen. "Sorry," Nick said quietly, "I should have eaten before." Joe waved him off easily as he pulled the refrigerator door open. Moving a few jars around to see what they had inside, glanced back at Nick and motioned for him to come closer. Stepping up to Joe's side, Nick bent down a little at his waist and looked in too, arm to arm with his friend.
"See anything?" Reaching in, Nick lifted a few containers up, then set them back down and tapped his fingers on the lid of the top bowl of food. Turning to look at Nick, Joe smiled while his eyes watered with a yawn he was holding back. "Aunt Liz makes great chicken..." He nodded his head to the container under Nick's hand. I can heat it up for you. Nick watched him, swallowed and then successfully pulled back with a tight nod.
"Yeah, thanks. That would be great." Joe's smile went crooked for a moment before he picked the container up from underneath Nick's hand and pulled the lid off as Nick shut the door. "You don't have to heat it, though. It'll be fine cold," Nick informed him, raising his arms to fold over his chest as he moved to the cabinet to pull out a paper plate. When he turned back to him Joe was looking at him with an almost-smirk. "...What?"
Laughing just a little, Joe set the chicken on the counter beside Nick's plate. "Nothing. You must be really tired you can't spare thirty to heat it up." Nick elbowed him on "accident" as he pulled a few strips of grilled chicken and set them on his plate in a line. Joe plucked one out for himself, dropping it into his mouth as he closed the bowl up and put it away again.
"I'm not. I really do like it better cold." Joe raised his eyebrows up, and somehow that triggered a yawn. When he could open his eyes again, he didn't care enough to pester Nick about it. But who liked their chicken better cold...? Leaning back against the counter with his arms over his stomach, Joe watched Nick eat, quietly observing. A half-smile spread appeared every time Nick licked his lips. The chicken barely even touched them, so it was something compulsive, had to be. "Do I amuse you?" Nick asked suddenly, having peeked up every now and again out of the corner of his eye, taking a break from emptying his plate.
"Greatly," Joe responded simply, with a full smile.
Looking directly at Joe, Nick smiled wide. "Good." Joe nodded once in affirmation, like it was a good thing they'd made that decision. Gripping the edge of the counter, Nick leaned forward, sucking in and he made himself look so small in that moment that Joe was tempted to poke him in the stomach, to get him to stop. Nick's eyes were focused on the back splash, beige and white tile his aunt had chosen. He had tried to keep away from the subject, almost from the beginning, but even more so when AJ left. It was a sore spot for both of them, he figured, at least a little bit. For some reason the feeling that he should breach the subject kept coming to him. He had an idea of what that something might be but...
Sighing, Nick looked down. "What do you think about dating?" Joe seemed surprised after he yawned, arms stretching down to the floor, his hands and fists, before he turned, looking rather sleepy, to Nick with a questioning look on his face. Nick caught it, shrugged, and turned back to look at his plate. "Never mind..." Nick stepped back from the counter and Joe let his arms loosen over himself. When Nick caught his eye again, he shook his head and then shrugged a shoulder again. "Just tired thinking, I guess. I'm done," he said, motioning to his plate. Joe smiled, patted Nick's arm, and then took his plate to the trash for him.
Nick was picked at a thread at the hem of his borrowed shirt when Joe turned around to see if he was following or not. Rolling his eyes with a gentle smile, Joe stepped back into Nick's space and put a hand over his opposing shoulder. "Come on, Monster. I'm tired, and you're acting like sleep might do you some good too." Nick tried to hold back a blush as he nodded and walked forward, stepping as far ahead as he could so that Joe couldn't see his face. He mumbled an apology, and in return, Joe settled both hands on either side of Nick's head, and gave his shoulders a squeeze. "Such a polite, unnecessarily apologetic Monster, too." As they stepped back into his room, he gave Nicks' curls a ruffle and then pushed Nick gently into the bed before he climbed over him, grunting as noisily and over-dramatically as he could, making Nick laugh again. Before they drifted off, Joe found Nick's hand between them, squeezed there too, and then rolled over. He smiled when he heard a faint goodnight from behind him.
As the snow started falling, bike rides turned into penguin marches and random snowball fights. When their faces were red, their gloves wet, and their joints became harder to move, they would go inside either the cafe in town, or to one house or the other and drink hot chocolate or coffee. Warming up was one of the best and worst parts of winter. It was an interesting feeling to feel the blood moving on, warmth slowly return to the skin that covered their bones. The drinks were good, and the laughter from conversations had while teeth were chattering made it worth it. Still, it could get boring every now and again, incredibly boring. Especially when they only came in when they were too cold to talk at all, and moving took up all their energy.
Nick's mom usually made hot chocolate for them when they were near his house, and often took to calling them in before they really felt like it, but were grateful for the warmth never the less. When they were at Joes' place, it was Uncle Jack, and it was coffee, black until either Kevin, Aunt Liz, or themselves (sucking up the consequences), poured in some creamer and sugar. Nick took his near black, while Joe liked a little more creamer, and only a bit of sugar in his. At Joe's house, they each had their own mugs, basically, Nick with the blue and green stripes, and Joe with red and purple polka dots. At Nick's house they just used the decorative snowmen mugs his mother had bought, three marshmallows for Nick, and five for Joe. Nick had once made the mistake of making the off-hand remark that his mother loved Joe more than himself. Well, the next time he didn't get any marshmallows at all, and Joe laughed at him. At least, he laughed until Nick stole his mug and chugged it down.
When they were unwilling to bundle up, or stay bundled up for more than a few minutes, Nick and Joe stayed inside watching movies. If Kevin wasn't too busy, they'd make him sit down to watch and eventually join in on a popcorn fight.
Their time off was a lot more fun, but school was really busy too. With break getting closer, projects with nearing due dates popped up, preparation for exams straight after their return in order to end the semester on a good note. Nick and Joe attempted to do their homework side by side for the first few nights when the chaos started picking up, but they found that homework was a lesser priority when the other was around. It didn't bode well for their grades, and with reluctance, they stayed in their own homes with their assignments on their lap. It worked well, almost, until Joe discovered the phone and called Nick after only an hour of studying. Try as he might, Nick couldn't ignore Joe as he added figures together for math, and as he put note cards together for a research paper. Instead he got less sleep, because he waited for Joe to hang up, and by then he felt forever behind.
"Did you get any sleep at all last night?" Nick blinked and looked up at Joe from across the lunch table. He sniffed a little and frowned, wondering if he was getting a cold. He moved to shake his head, but then nodded it instead. Joe didn't need to bug him about sleep when he could see the circles clearly under his own eyes. Neither of them were sleeping, and so what? "Liar," Joe said, a soft smile on his lips as he put the tip of his pencil back to his math homework.
Sighing, Nick tilted his head to the side. "Well..." he said, drawing it out until he had Joe's attention again, "Maybe if you stopped calling me every night, we'd get our work done on time and then we could sleep." His tone had the same gentleness to it that it usually did, but Joe was sort of surprised to hear actual irritation in Nick's voice.
Hands going up in defense, pencil held to his palm by his thumb, Joe answered quickly, "Sorry. I thought you liked it when I called you."
"I do, Joseph." Joe didn't know when, exactly, it had happened. Probably some time soon after the first time he called the kid 'Nicky'. But Nick had taken to calling him 'Joseph' every now and again, mostly when he was trying hard to 'deal' with Joe. He'd never used it anything but a warm tone, however, and this time wasn't any different. Joe's eyes brightened significantly, though he was still treading carefully. The conversation didn't seem like it could really end in his favor at that point. Nick reached over with both hands and pushed Joes' palms back to the table softly, removing his hands a few seconds later. "I just think that we'd both be a lot - healthier, if we slept more, and God knows I never have time for it after you call."
"Well, I just don't want to waste time. My family is going up to the mountains over break and I-"
With raised eyebrows, Nick interrupted. "What? You're leaving...?" Joe tried to read Nick's expression, and when he thought he had it pinned down to total disappointment, and maybe a little anger, he sighed. "Were you... even going to tell me? Or was I just going to end up at your house with a Christmas present and no one to give it to?" Joe rolled his eyes.
"Nick, of course I was going to tell you. But we haven't even talked about vacation until now, so no big, right?" Joe asked hopefully. Nick's scowl finally began to erase from his face but a bit of it stayed in Nick's lower lip, where a sort of pout was stationed. Smiling, Joe raised his eyebrows up and down, suggestively, which Nick ignored. "So, you got me a Christmas present?"
Blowing a curl from his face, Nick subtly rolled his eyes. "Not anymore..." It was Joes' turn to pout.
"When are you leaving?" Nick asked through the phone. The pencil that sat in the crease of his math book was short, but sharpened, and he pressed his thumb into the pointy tip of the lead.
From the other side of the line, Joe answered sounding like he didn't want to talk about it, "The day break starts."
A small frown formed on Nick's face and he pressed his thumb into the tip harder as he used his pinky to hold the pencil still by pressing down on the eraser. He hissed quietly when he pressed it too deep into his skin, and pulled his hand away, ignoring the 'What's wrong?' he earned from Joe. "When do you come back then?"
Sighing, Joe's voice sounded really disappointed when he replied. "Day before we go back to school..."
For having just met Joe in September, Nick felt like kind of an idiot for knowing how much he'd miss him when he went on the trip with his family. They'd gotten really close, and sooner than Nick realized, he had started spending all of his time with Joe, and sometimes with Kevin, but hardly anyone else had a place in his life. As always, in his classes, there were those he talked to and laughed with, but it was different. He didn't plan on seeing any of them during break, and he didn't think he'd miss them a bit, unless it was out of boredom, of course.
The next few days at school held a mixture of feelings. Everyone was laughing, getting excited for the much-desired break from school and the teachers that stuffed work down their throats, but it was still strained from the final projects being turned in. Not only that, but between Nick and Joe, it was sort of off. Nick felt sort of trapped in his feelings, and Joe hated making Nick anything but happy. Neither could really alter the fact that Nick did have feelings he didn't feel prepared to have, and that Joe was upsetting Nick, by leaving.
When break started, Nick made his way to Joe's house at nine in the morning, bundled up in a coat, wearing snow boots, and ignored the way his nose threatened to drip, using a tissue his mother had stuffed in his hand on his way out the door to wipe the offending one. As he walked up the drive, bags were already sitting in the trunk, and the entire Jonas family was outside (except for Kevin who came out as Joe made his way to the car, probably deciding which pair of boots were safest to take along, Nick thought).
Joe stepped up to him, smiling. "Hey!" His tone was cheery, and Nick could tell he finally let himself get to the point of being somewhat excited for the trip. Hesitating for a moment, Nick breathed out and then pulled Joe into a hug, one arm over his shoulder, and one coming around his side. Joe made a surprised noise but hugged back with a smile. "I'm only gonna be gone for a week and a half, Nick."
"Yeah," Nick said, barely loosening his hold. "I know," he continued and then made to move away, but Joe pulled him back in.
"I'm in favor of hugs," he explained simply before letting Nick pull away from his arms finally. Nick had a smile on his face and Joe took a second to admire it before he studied the object Nick had pulled from his pocket and stuck out in front of him. "What's that...?" he asked unnecessarily, taking the carefully wrapped - gift card, obviously, from Nick and turning it over in his hand, poking at the small bow on top.
"I know it isn't very thoughtful, or anything," Nick explained, stuffing his hands in his pockets as he avoided making eye contact. "I thought that it was something we could do together when you get back though. Just shopping. I can tell you what looks awful so that you can turn around and buy it," Nick added with a smirk on his face as he met Joes' eyes. Joe laughed a little at that, put the gift card in his pocket and then patted it.
"Thanks, Nicky." Joe pulled him in for another quick hug before he walked over to the Cherokee and climbed in. Nick nodded as he watched his friend get in the car, but turned when he felt an elbow resting on his shoulder.
Kevin stood there with a half-smile, and let his arm fall away. "You're probably the best friend he's ever had, you know," he told Nick, looking at his brother who sat in the car. Nick glanced back too and then caught Kevin's eye again.
"After you, of course," he said, a smile playing on his lips.
"After me, of course," Kevin said. His tone was playful though, and some sort of gentle sarcasm. Brows furrowing slightly at that, Nick ignored the tone, because he couldn't be Joes' best friend, really, could he?
Shifting on his feet in the snow, Nick looked down and then back up. "Who are your best friends, Kevin?" He hadn't thought about it much before, but Kevin had to have other people he hung out with. Honestly, he felt bad for not knowing. Kevin was like an older brother to him, and without a doubt, a friend, his only real friend after Joe, and it was something someone should know about their friends.
After a second Kevin adjusted the backpack on his shoulders and gave a big smile. "Zac and Danielle. They're in a couple of my classes at College. They're pretty awesome," he said, face telling how much of an under-exaggeration he thought that term was. Taking in his expression, Nick nodded.
"How come I haven't met them?" he asked thoughtfully, looking back when Uncle Jack dropped something with a clang, a tire jack. Aunt Liz fussed at him over it as she put her second suit case in the back, stuffing it in as best she could. He turned back when Kevin began answering him.
Bouncing up on his feet a little, the cold getting to him, he responded, "I guess we just like hanging out outside of the house. Restaurants, the theater, the parking lot after school." Memories flashed behind Kevins' eyes as he listed the places off and Nick smiled.
"I'd like to meet them some time." Aunt Liz climbed into the car too, and the door shutting caught his attention for a moment. Uncle Jack was getting everything situated in the back still. Joe looked a little restless, his hands tapping out a beat on his knees, maybe to the radio, but Nick could barely make the music out through the rumbling of the engine.
Clapping Nick on his upper arm, Kevin said with a satisfied, almost proud sort of smile, "Sure. When we get back, we'll all get together." Smiling wide in return, Nick nodded once again and then moved back a foot in their driveway. Kevin waved a little, and then started walking back to the Jeep.
"Hey Kevin?" His friend paused and turned back with questioning eyebrows. "Did you really mean it? That I'm Joe's best friend?"
After a moment, Kevin nodded with a smile. "Yeah, I meant it. This is going to be the first time he'll ever have a problem being away." Nick felt butterflies in his stomach at that. He hadn't expected that. With a soft smile, and a blush that didn't show through his already cold-flushed cheeks, Nick took his hands from his pockets and rubbed them together for warmth.
"Help him have fun then?" Nick asked, catching Joe's eye through the foggy window, before looking back at Kevin who had made his way to the other side of the car, moving to sit behind the drivers' seat.
"Sure thing, Nick." Kevin got into the car and sat by Joe. They immediately started a conversation, but Nick couldn't tell what anyone was saying. As Jack got into the car, he waved to Nick once, and when the door shut, Joe looked out through the windshield, right at Nick. He gave a soft smile that Nick returned. It was going to be a sucky week and a half...-
The drive up to the lodge was mostly quiet as everyone took the time to unwind. Kevin, who had his own phone, and own phone plan, spent a majority of the time texting Zac and Danielle, or elbowing Joe to show him a text he was sent. It had been amusing the first few times, but eventually Joe had risen his voice enough to warn Kevin off from doing so again. The most irritating part of it was that Joe knew once they hit a certain point, roaming charges would be placed on anything, and if he could get his aunt's cell phone in his possession, it would only be fore a few minutes.
Liz and Jack sung along to the radio while there was proper frequency, and after that they talked in snow-hushed voices whenever a thought cropped up on them. Mean while, Joe spent his time psyching himself up as he wrapped and unwrapped the gift card he'd previously placed in his coat pocket. For a wonderful hour, he drifted off to sleep, only to be woken up outside a small diner to eat. That had definitely been the best part of the trip so far; diner food was always good on vacation. When they got closer, he finally allowed himself to stick his ear phones in and let his music distract him as the sky grew darker.
When the tires crunched to a stop outside of the cozily-lit lodge, Joe was asleep. Kevin shook him awake, mostly using his elbow, and jabbed at his younger brother until he woke up, wiping a hand over his face as he yawned and stretched. "I got f-the floor," he said sleepily as Kevin unbuckled himself and pulled his back back from around the back of the car.
"We can trade off," Kevin offered, not expecting Joe to give in immediately. They weren't poor, but they weren't rich, so to save money, every other year when they did make it up to the mountains, Aunt Liz and Uncle Jack only booked a two-bed room, and Kevin and Joe usually fought over who got the bed. Joe shook his head as he blinked his eyes open and Kevin shrugged as he opened the door. "Well, if you get sore and everything, just say so and you can have the bed then." Mumbling his thanks, Joe climbed out of his side of the car, instantly shivering as the cold air hit him and a soft wind sifted through his hair.
Around the back of the car, the family gathered, grabbing their bags as quickly as possible as the sound of the engine clicking to a complete stop was lost to the sounds of those dining within, sitting by the fire and chatting. Of others checking in. It was always a really great place to stay with lots of friendly people. Kevin and Joe usually came home with a few stories to tell about friends they'd made, about mishaps, and how Uncle Jack and Aunt Liz almost drove them nuts with their on-and-off fighting when all four were finally trying to rest in their room.
After the first few days though (the day after Christmas, actually), Joe had lost his excitement and he became more withdrawn, Kevin noticed. Where Joe would usually be flirting up a storm with two or five different girls, Kevin found him, more often than not, just sitting around in the lobby with hot chocolate, or going down bunny slopes alone instead of standing at the top of one he had no hopes of ever being able to ski, acting like a big-shot.
The third night in a row he found his younger brother sitting in front of the fire with a closed magazine on his lap, his face in his hands, Kevin came around and sat himself on the bench and tightened laces he didn't need to just before he knocked into Joe's side. "Joe, Nick's not your girlfriend; you can talk to other people..." he teased, a smile on his face. Joe shifted in his seat at his brothers' words but didn't say anything, just looked deeper into the burning logs. Kevin wasn't always good at reading people. In fact, a lot of the time he was horrible at it, and it was known to happen where Joe was concerned, even, but when it was something like this, well, it wasn't that hard to tell. "...Okay..." he started, cautious in his tone, looking into the fire himself, momentarily. "One, Nick isn't a girl. Two, Nick isn't a girl."
"I know, Kevin," Joe replied instantly, lifting his face from his hands and folding his arms over his lap. "I know." Finally Kevin allowed himself to understand what he was hearing, and what he wasn't, and raised his eyebrows in surprise. He cleared his throat and then raised a hand to pat Joe's back as comfortingly as possible. When Joe sagged, Kevin opened his mouth to ask if he wanted to talk. Instead, Joe turned to him and asked hopefully, "Kev, can I borrow your cell?"
Nodding, Kevin pulled out his phone without a thought. "Yeah. Don't - don't worry about all that stuff Liz talks about. Use it for however long. There's um - no one in the room right now." Joe nodded his thanks, took the phone and left his older brother to sort everything out in his own head.
The second the phone started ringing, Joe clenched his first tight and then loosened it as he waited for a voice to answer him. "Hi Mrs. McKenzie, it's Joe. Can I - Thanks," he said with a slight chuckle as she called Nick for him before he could even finished. He waited for a few seconds before he heard a questioning hello, and he couldn't help but laugh. Nick recognized him immediately, and said his name in surprise. "Hey Nicky..."
"I didn't think you'd be allowed to call while you were up there!" He sounded so happy that Joe couldn't manage to let the smile fade from his face.
"Well, Kevin let me borrow his cell phone, so I really don't have long I guess - he said, but you know how he is." Nick agreed and asked how Kevin and everyone was doing and Joe quickly answered that they were all good, having fun. "How about you. Having fun?"
That seemed to knock something back into their conversation, the something Joe felt holding him back even though he was pleased with how good Nick sounded. Sobering up a little, Nick answered, "Well, I mean, I wish you - and Kevin, and everyone... Were down here, but I guess it's been okay. Mom keeps forgetting you're gone, and she keeps surprising herself when she finds me on the couch just watching t.v. by myself. It's kind of amusing, actually. But everything is really great. And I have a surprise for you when you get home!"
Joe's eyebrow shot up. "What...? You already got me-"
"It isn't for you-for you," Nick said in a teasing voice, and Joe rolled his eyes. "I just want to show you my Christmas present from mom and dad. It's really great Joe. You'll love it. Well, I hope you will..." Nick sounded doubtful for just a second, and before Joe could even ask, Nick added, doubt gone, "And no, it isn't a bike. But I don't know. It's about ten times better."
He got Joe really curious, but their conversation molded into something more normal and natural between them. Joe cringed when he realized an hour had passed and Kevin found him stretched out on the bed, his ear feverishly hot from the phone and his skin buzzing from talking to Nick. When Joe spazzed out and practically shouted at Nick that he had to go, Kevin cracked up, shaking his head.
"Weirdo... I told you not to worry, and now your -" Kevin paused, having had time to mull things over, and then plowed on "Boyfriend's going to be all upset. Would you call him back and say goodnight the right way, please?" Joe nearly choked on his own spit when he heard it, blushed a little and quietly told Kevin that Nick wasn't his boyfriend. He did, however, call Nick back and tell him to sleep well and that he'd see him soon, that he couldn't wait to see Nicks' surprise.
Leg shaking, bouncing against the floor of the Jeep, Joe head-banged to some non-existent music. He didn't know why he was so nervous to be coming home but it was like the adrenaline just wouldn't stop coming. They were almost there; he knew because he started recognizing street names and Uncle Jack started driving slower, like he was more at ease. The worst part of vacation is the drive home, when all of the fun has already been had and everyone is just dying to be somewhere relevant to their lives again. This trip back, however wasn't as bad since his thoughts were a pretty good distraction.
After talking to Nick, Joe had been able to loosen up again and started skiing, and flirting again. Kevin had been pretty happy about that; it was good to see his brother acting like a human being again, but he also knew that he'd have to let Joe use his phone at least every other night. He supposed the cost of it would be worth it in the end. Joe had a lot of entertainment value so keeping Joe lively seemed like a good investment. Of course, he let Joe know that it'd be best if he only used the phone for fifteen minutes or so, which Joe readily agreed to since he hadn't even considered Kevin letting him use it again. Of course, since Joe got back into experiencing everything, he'd had less time to think about what he'd do when he got home, so it was in the car that he started forming plans in his head.
"Liz can I use your phone please?" Joe asked when they got further into town, and she handed it back to him. He used it to call Nick and told him they were almost home. He could feel Kevin watching him every now and then, but it wasn't intrusive, just more like curiosity, so he just let it happen. When he hung up the phone he asked if they could drop him off at his friends' house. Nick still had a surprise for him, and he felt like jumping out of the car just to go see him. This way seemed easier.
Nick must have been waiting for him, because as soon as the jeep pulled up, the door opened and he came out to meet Joe at the car where they hugged before Joe guided him away from the car and waved his family goodbye, Kevin winking at one of them as they pulled out. "Hey..." Nick laughed at him before he pulled away and punched Joe softly in the arm.
"I want to get my coat, and then we'll go for a walk," Nick told him, sounding suspiciously excited. Joe nodded, but when he went to follow, Nick stopped him with a hand flat on his chest. He quirked an eyebrow but remained where he was told. When Nick came back out, he was bundled up and looking behind him. Joe followed him with his eyes and soon realized there was something following behind him. When Nick looked in his direction, he had one of the biggest grins on his face Joe had ever seen. "So... This is my surprise!" Nick said, definitely excited, and Joe tilted to see if he could see what was behind him.
At last it came into view when Nick started down the stairs and Joe lifted his eyebrows in surprise. "You got a puppy?! No way!" Nick nodded, watching as the dog ran up to Joe and began sniffing at his pants, wagging its tail.
"His name is Elvis."
"Costello?" Joe asked, knowing that was one of Nicks' favorite singers, and he received another nod with a proud sort of smile. "Hey. I remember things."
"You do," Nick said, stepping closer. "Come on, let's walk to your house."
They started making their way. With gloves on and coats that covered their necks, it wasn't too bad when the snow had mostly melted, for the week at least. They talked about how they spent their breaks, in more detail than they'd had a chance to over the phone while Joe was at the lodge. Neither had too much to say, but they still found things to laugh at and soon they arrived at the Jonas' mail box and stopped to rub their hands together and warm up a little, to continue their conversation.
Joe and Nick were just standing there talking when the puppy started prancing around them. Each felt the leash up against the back of their legs but continued talking, not thinking much of it until it came across a second time and they tripped into each other, the heels of Nicks' palms going into Joes' chest and Joe's hands gripping Nicks' elbows. Both laughed while Nick ducked his head down and turned, trying to see exactly where his Christmas present was. "Elvis," Nick laughed, "Stop!"
"I thought this only happened in Disney movies..." Joe said after the leash came around them both a third time. He was shaking his head and smiling when Nick looked up and shrugged. Swallowing, Joe tried to keep his face neutral, but when he started speaking again, he couldn't help but be a little nervous. "Nick I -" Missed you, is what he was going to say before Nick leaned up and kissed him, pressed his lips right up against Joes'.
When Nick pulled back again, it wasn't very far or they'd both fall down in the snow, and while that wouldn't be so bad, it really wasn't an option to accidentally crush the puppy, so they were both trying to stay balanced on their feet. "Nicky," Joe said softly, sliding his hand up from Nicks' elbow to the side of his neck. Nicks' eyes were kind of wide, as though he'd surprised himself, so Joe kissed him again, warmed their lips up until Nick kissed him back, kissed him again.
It took one more tug against their legs before Nick and Joe broke apart, both opening their eyes as they did. Joe tried not to laugh when Nick turned to look at his puppy hopping around in the shallow snow and said, laughing a little himself, "God, Elvis. Stop!" When Nick turned back to him, he was blushing and Joe was pretty sure that would be his favorite part about their first kiss - mutual kiss anyway, but Elvis was a pretty close second.
"Here," Joe said as he pulled Nicks hand away from his chest and took the leash out of his grasp. Pulling it around himself and then reaching back around Nick, Joe untangled them, sometimes getting his face closer to Nick's so he could reach better, sometimes pulling, and stretching back for the same result. After a minute, he had them unwrapped, and they didn't step apart. Nick had this look in his eyes, like he was just waiting for something to happen, so Joe pulled on the leash. "Come on Elvis," he said in a higher-pitched tone. He tried not to notice how disappointed Nick looked because he was sure it wouldn't last long anyway. When he sat on the porch, he smiled and waved Nick over.
They sat by each other for a few moments, close and shivering a little because of the cold before Nick took the leash back and hoisted the small golden retriever into his lap and turned to Joe seriously. "I don't really -" he paused and bit his lower lip for a second, Joe watching closely, "- This is going to sound stupid but I don't really um... like guys?" Joe laughed and leaned in, placing a quick kiss on Nick's slightly open lips. Nick rolled his eyes after leaning into it. When Joe sat back against the wooden column, Nick continued, "Well, I like you, obviously."
"Obviously," Joe shot back with a warm smirk and Nick used the back of his hand to hit Joes' knee.
Smiling back, Nick was quiet for a moment, thinking, and then his eyes half closed and he realized what he'd been trying to ask in the first place, maybe; he'd just sort of started talking, not knowing what else to do. "Have you, you know, liked other guys before or is this just -?"
"Really strange for me?" Joe asked and Nick nodded, blushing again. "I mean, yeah, but not really... I don't know. I missed you. I just missed you a lot."
"I missed you too," he answered sympathetically. "I think without Elvis, I probably would have gone insane this week. I don't really know how this," he motioned vaguely between them with the hand that wasn't petting the dog in his lap, "Um - happened. I really do want it though. I don't know if that's weird to say, but I want you to know that."
Joe slid over on the top step in order to be closer as he smiled warmly and shook his head. "I don't think it's weird. I think we're going to have a lot of - well, awkward things to get through, because let's face it, this is really new to both of us, but I want it too. I can't remember the last time I've wanted to be with someone so much," he told Nick before bringing a hand to the opposite side of Nicks' neck than before and kissed him again, allowing them to take their time with it.
When Elvis started shivering in Nicks' hold, Joe walked them home, smiling wide when Nick kissed him again before asking him if he was sure he could make it back on his own. "Night, Monster," Joe had told him, after assuring him he'd be safe. Nick shook his head, but was beaming when he disappeared into his house.
When Nick woke up the next morning he could already feel butterflies in his stomach. It was pretty clear what had happened last night but at the same time he wasn't sure where they would go from there. He'd been feeling pretty strongly about Joe for a long time, but he'd also been trying to hold back and then yesterday - well yesterday it was like he forgot. He'd just kissed Joe out of no where, and Joe had kissed back, which was perfect but kind of scary if he thought about it.
Really this meant opening up a whole new set of doors and he didn't know how to handle that, what that meant. It probably would have been easier if Joe had told him he didn't like him like - that. Sure he was happy, almost blissed out with it, but he was also suddenly nervous to see Joe again.
Most likely, Joe would show up that morning to walk to school with Nick just like they had been before break, but everything felt different, new. Pulling himself out of bed, Nick made his way downstairs and into the kitchen for a quick breakfast and then got ready, reminding himself to breath over and over again. By the time there was a knock at the door, Nick had almost convinced himself it would be just like dating anyone else - were he and Joe dating? - but the second he opened the door and saw Joe smiling somewhat shyly at him, he sort of lost his footing. It must have shown on his face because Joe's smile faltered.
"What? You didn't like... come out to your parents or anything right?" Joe said, quieting to a whisper on the last part. Honestly Joe didn't know a time when Mrs. McKenzie was very far. She was very - dedicated. Nick half-smiled and then it broke into a full-out grin before he started laughing and Joe couldn't help but smile as he spoke normally asking, "What..? Well did you?"
Nick shook his head, curls moving side to side and Joe reached out, to test it, he guessed, to see if he could, and ran a hand carefully over them until Nick, who watched him carefully, stopped moving all together. He'd seen Joe with AJ but they were hardly the affectionate type and after yesterday, Nick was pretty sure they'd be the exact opposite. As his stomach did a flip, he couldn't help but wonder if Joe was going to kiss him right there where his mom could see if she stepped out of the kitchen. "Um," he said, voice kind of rough, "We should - Joe, we should go to school or we'll be late."
Snatching his hand back, Joe smiled guiltily, and Nick ran his palm down part of his arm to let him know it was okay before grabbing his backpack from the chair beside the door. "So..." Joe said aimlessly, following Nick down the steps before they each climbed onto their bikes. Nick looked at him expectantly before pedaling towards the school, Joe wheeling up to his side. "Remember that surprise I talked to you about?" For a second he saw Nicks' eyebrows furrow, but then realization dawned on him and he looked over, questioning Joe silently, almost apologetically. "Well... I was sort of wondering if you'd like to - I don't know - go to dinner some time? With me?" Nick laughed, and Joe smiled again even though it made him weirdly nervous; he was being completely serious.
Nick just smiled, biting the corner of his lip, but Joe could see exactly what that meant. Relief settled in Joe's chest and they continued to school normally, mostly silent but talking when a thought came to them that they thought was worth mentioning, and some they didn't (mostly Joe).
After chaining up his bike, Nick turned to Joe and took a deep breath in. "Um, PDA isn't really allowed... at school, right?" Joe had been smiling while hooking his bike up but it fell away. Putting his palm on top of Joes' arched back, he offered a smile. "It's not that I don't want to. I'm just pretty sure those 'get-a-room' rules apply to us too. Besides we - we hate people like that. Don't we?"
Getting his lock in place, Joe straightened himself out and put an arm over Nicks' shoulders. "Yes. Yes we do... Alright. No PDA. I mean, this isn't like a lot has changed between us anyway. I wasn't really planning on attacking you today or anything. I mean - unless you want me to...?" Joe's face was straight, but Nick could hear the tone he was taking and laughed.
"Yeah, no. Not really. Not - here anyway." Joe's eyebrows shot up at that and Nick blushed, shifting on his feet as he pulled away from Joe. Maybe he shouldn't have said that... Before he could get too far, a hand tightened on his shoulder and he was pulled back into Joes' chest, Joes' arm slipping over his own chest in a half-embrace.
"Hey. I'm never going to actually 'attack' you but I definitely feel like letting go of you just to go to class for an hour is going to be pretty difficult, so don't be - don't be afraid to say stuff like that. It makes me happy to hear, okay?" Nick nodded, closing his eyes for a second as he inhaled and felt himself calm on his exhale.
Bringing his hand up to his face, he rubbed at his skin a little. "God, I don't want to be insecure with you." Joe let go, pulled back, but then stepped around, in front of Nick so he could pull his hand down to his side and look him in the eyes.
"Then don't be." Nick thought it over for a second and then one side of his lips pulled up. "I'll see you at lunch - hopefully in-between classes. Kay?" Nodding, Nick breathed in again. Today was going to be another long day after a very long week.
They spent lunch sitting with their sides pressed together, brushing knuckles when their hands were on top of the table and holding each others' underneath when they'd finished eating. After school Joe took Nick home and the first time he caught Nick staring at him, he kissed him softly over their textbooks, reminding him it was allowed. Through a steady week of getting used to being together, they decided to go on their date that Saturday, just a simple dinner, and maybe a movie after. (Joe was hoping that they'd compromise and go back to his place, change into their pjs, and watch a movie there... He hadn't asked Nick if he'd sleep over yet, afraid it'd be awkward, but he was hoping for it.)
"Sorry I don't have my license yet," Joe said, dropping his head a bit so that his hair draped over his head momentarily. Nick, who had opened the door and hadn't even gotten the chance to say hello yet, laughed, stepping out on the porch so that he could wave at Kevin. It made his stomach twist a little, though. They hadn't told anyone yet, but he wondered if this meant Kevin knew or if he thought it was just like any other time they'd asked him to drive them somewhere. Not to mention, he felt kind of bad taking up his Saturday night like that.
On the side where Kevin wouldn't see, Nick placed a palm over Joe's side and squeezed. "It's fine," he said warmly, smiling when Joe looked up at him again, smile on face. "But, Joe, does he -?" Joe shook his head, letting his hand rest on top of Nicks' for a moment before they both let their hands fall to their sides. "So this might... Well -"
"Suck, I know. But he knows I like you... And I think he thinks you like me too, so I don't think he'll think anything out of the ordinary is going on if we act - I don't know. I mean, but if you absolutely have to," Joe started with a smug tone, "You can kiss me and we'll tell him. It's not that I don't trust him..."
"We just don't want to make a big deal about it, or earn ourselves lectures."
Joe beamed. "Exactly." Joe flipped his hair a little, before he nodded toward the car and watched as Nick called out a goodbye to his mother before shutting the door and following his date down the stairs. Joe opened the door for Nick, but just to keep up appearances, Nick slid over in the seat and Joe entered on the same side.
"What am I, a chauffeur?" Kevin asked with a playfully offended tone. It was good enough to make Nick elbow Joe in the side however.
Scoffing, Joe explained, or lied, rather, "Nick has to show me something Kev, and he can't do that if I'm in the front seat. Besides, I remember when you first got your license and you liked driving me around."
Quirking an eyebrow, Kevin tossed back a look in the rear view mirror that could hardly be seen since the sun had been well on its way. "Oh. So I don't count." Joe had said that wrong. Nick heard it and had hoped Kevin wouldn't take it the way it sounded, but he did. If Nick had something to show Joe, why wouldn't he want to show Kevin? And Kevin wasn't just driving them around. Not usually anyway...
Stomach twisting once again, Nick felt a bit guilty. Here they were using Kevin, pretty much lying to him and Joe was making him feel like he wasn't their friend. Kevin was one of the best friends Nick had ever had, so he didn't need Kevin thinking he wasn't appreciated. "Kevin..." Nick said, sighing a little. "Joe's being stupid. I'll sit up front -"
Laughing and shaking his head, Kevin told Nick simply, "No. It's fine Nick. I was just giving my brother a hard time."
"When do you not?" Joe retorted.
"Hey, I think I'm one of the nicer brothers in the world." It was matter-of-fact and honestly, from what either of the boys knew, Joe and Nick actually had to agree.
Still, Joe felt the need to push buttons. "Well you would think that, wouldn't you?"
"Joe..." Nick hissed and got his attention. He liked the expression on his face, chastised and kind of dopey. Joe leaned into him and put an arm over his shoulder.
"Sorry," Joe apologized, sounding sincere. Nick leaned into him a little more and gave him a wink that told him it was fine. Before it was easy, but Joe couldn't believe how hard it was, after that first kiss, to keep from kissing Nick all the time. It was like being thirsty and having a water bottle in your hand, but having to keep from drinking it. Instead, he tightened his arm around Nicks' shoulder and sighed when he felt Nick take in a deep breath.
After Kevin heard Joe get in trouble, he smirked a little and began humming along with the music on the radio, singing when he knew the words. Joe watched as Nick played with the thread hanging from his jeans, and when it got suddenly darker as it does at night, he leaned his head into Nicks' just before they pulled up to the restaurant. When Joe asked, it had taken his older brother by a bit of a surprise that they wanted to go out of the way for a restaurant, but Joe had heard it was a really good place for burgers, the best in the three surrounding cities, so Kevin agreed.
The Iron Horse wasn't anything fancy. On the outside was a metal carved train with yellow, block letters giving the name of the restaurant. Inside it was simple wood floors, shined wood table sets, with green padding attached to the chairs. The lighting was low but comfortable and everything looked clean. Arm still over Nicks' shoulder, Joe followed his older brother to a table, and sat himself beside Nick, moving his chair subtly closer to Nicks'. Kevin, though, smirked at him from across the table, so maybe he hadn't quite succeeded at the 'subtly' part.
Joe cleared his throat and looked down at the menu already set flat at his place setting. While he held the menu up at a better angle with his right hand, he put the hand that was in between them on Nick's upper thigh and gave a gentle squeeze while Nick also looked the menu over. He peeked out of the corner of his eye and spotted Nick's lips turn up in a small smile.
"So... You guys just gonna get burgers or something else?" Kevin's voice asked, and they both looked up at him.
"Well, they have the best hamburgers, so it'd be pretty weird to get anything else," Joe told him. He looked over at Nick and Nick just smiled in agreement. Kevin nodded and set his menu down. "But they have so many sides. I'm not sure which one to get. What are you guys getting?"
Nick laughed and when Joe gave him a curious look, he explained, "I don't think nachos count as a 'side' Joe. I'm pretty sure that's just fries." Lifting his hand from Nick's thigh, he gave his stomach a soft pinch and Nick's jaw dropped slightly before he laughed again.
"Well if I got nachos, you'd share with me right?"
"Well yeah. I don't want a pig for a," Nick started, teasing, but then paused at Joe's warning look, "Friend. Um, Kevin, you wanna share a nacho platter?" Nick asked, swinging his gaze to across the table and blushing under the look Joe's older brother was giving him. He was sure that was quite a give-away but he couldn't help the heat in his cheeks. He just hoped that he'd mistaken Kevin's expression.
Smiling, Kevin said a simple, "Sure. But I'm actually gonna get the pulled pork sandwich... I think anyway." Nick sighed at that and set his menu down when he realized Joe was going to keep his hands in his own lap for, probably, the rest of the night.
A waitress stepped over to their table soon after and smiled at them before raising her eyebrows and asking politely, "What can I get for you gentlemen?" Kevin responded first. Then she looked at Nick, but Joe bit his lip and ordered for he and his date, ignoring the small cough Kevin gave. "And to drink?" They hadn't discussed that yet, so they all responded separately, Kevin with an iced tea, Nick with a diet coke, and Joe with a lemon-water.
After she walked away, Joe avoided looking Kevin in the face. His cough had said well enough that he was suspicious along with the smirk from before, and Nick. Of course, Joe couldn't blame Nick for what happened. Besides, he had recovered pretty well, and Joe thought it was pretty damn cute. He couldn't really blame himself, either, for being a gentleman. If Kevin found out, oh well. Kev was a cool guy. Hopefully it wouldn't be a problem.
The waitress returned quickly and set their drinks down in front of them before offering another smile and telling them their order would be out soon enough. When she walked away it was still too quiet. Sensing the discomfort between the three of them, Kevin swirled his straw around his tea and asked with practiced nonchalance, "So how's school going guys?" Joe looked to Nick and let him answer first.
"Well, busy. But it's not too bad. We just changed our classes for second semester so I'm still trying to figure everything out, but I think it's going well. None of my teachers seem horrible. But Joe's got a bad one. Mrs. Brown, right?" Joe nodded, grimacing, and bringing his hands to fold on top of the table.
"She's horrible! She thinks she knows everything -"
"She probably knows more than you," Kevin interjected, smirking.
"Shut up, Kevin. Anyway, yesterday she was all, 'Joseph, stop doodling and pay attention!' right in the middle of some boring old speech about cannons and bayonets or something. I don't even know. But why would that even be on an exam? Cannons and guns don't teach us anything about history. The people do. Or ...whatever." Nick laughed at his side, and Joe turned a bright smile on him while Kevin snorted across the table.
"Does she really sound like that Joe?" Kevin asked, laughingly, of the tone Joe had taken upon quoting her.
Joe nodded seriously. "Exactly like that." Kevin and Nick both scoffed at the same time. "What?! She does! I happen to be very good at imitating people!"
"All right," Nick said cheekily, "Do me."
Joe's eyebrows raised before he could even think to school his expression and turned to look at Nick slowly. When Joe didn't even try, just sort of looked at him, Nick ducked his head back to the menu still sitting in front of him and ran his finger over the edge again and again. "Um, well - I'm only good at girls. Like impersonating them. I mean." Joe said after a second, and then took a deep, long drink of his water.
Instead of laughing like he felt the urge to, Kevin decided to ramble into a story about college. He talked about Zac and Dani. He told them both that he might ask her out soon, but he wasn't sure. He didn't want Zac to feel left out. Apparently Zac had a girlfriend, Vanessa, but Zac liked hanging out with Kevin when Vanessa was busy and he figured that dating Dani might make Zac feel unwelcome or something. It wouldn't make Zac unwelcome at all, but he thought that's what Zac would think anyway.
Both Joe and Nick were very grateful, and even more so when the food arrived and they had food to stuff in their mouths to keep from anything else happening. Kevin was the last to finish, having continued to abate uncomfortable silence. When they got up to leave, Joe passed his and Nick's share of money to Kevin. He just didn't say that Nick hadn't given him any money.
Sure Nick tried to but Joe just pinched him again and swatted his hand away when Kevin turned around to look at them from the cashier's podium. They both gave their best, innocent smiles and got in the car. Nick sat up front with Kevin just to be sure, but let Joe open it for him just the same, smiling softly when Joe brushed a few curls from the side of his face before closing the door.
The ride home started out quiet. The radio was on low so Joe could hear Nick faintly singing a song of his own. He laughed out loud, catching Kevin and Nick's attention when Kevin started whistling along to the radio music, and Nick's at the same time. "God, we're music geeks, you guys," he explained with a wide grin. "Kevin, up there, can't help but make a medley, and Nick, you're just going off on a lyrical tangent or something." Kevin had to keep his eyes on the road, but Joe could tell he was smiling, proud, as he nodded his head. Up front, Nick turned to look at him and gave him a soft smile.
It was a good chance, Joe realized, to bring up what he'd been wanting to ask. There was still plenty of time before they got home, so they could talk about it and call parents and guardians before it was too late. "So I was kind of wondering... Nick, you wanna come spend the night? Watch movies until we fall asleep?" Nick bit his lower lip before turning his eyes on Joe once more and then glanced at Kevin before saying anything.
"Well, I could ask my mom and dad, but Joe -" He stopped himself, looked unsure. Joe understood his hesitance, but this was their first date and he wanted it to be fun, mean something more than a struggle of a dinner with extra company. At home there may be other people, but usually when the kids had friends over, Liz and Jack would leave them the living room, and Kevin always had homework, or was too tired to just slump down on the couch this time of night.
"You know it'd be cool with my aunt and uncle Nick, come on. Please." He couldn't really help the smile the spread across his face at Joe's plea. Joe took that as an answer and tapped Kevin on the shoulder. "Dude can Nick use your phone?" He was surprised by the silence, the hesitation that met his question. It was a simple request, really. "Kevin." His older brother seemed like he wanted to say something but after another tap on his shoulder and a glance at Nick's worried-confused face, Kevin sighed and handed over his phone.
Nick received permission from his mother, but was told he still had chores to do the next morning, and to be home before noon; he agreed quickly and hung up before she had time to fuss over minute details such as pajamas. Nick would just borrow some of Joe's again, and this time, he thought as he ended the call, he'dget to enjoy being surrounded by Joe's scent, instead of being a nervous wreck. Or at least, he hoped.
At the Jonas house, Nick was ushered upstairs by Joe and told to pick out what he wanted to sleep in after offering to help do the dishes Kevin said he needed Joe's help with. They both told him no, Joe because he didn't need Nick to feel like a slave around the house, and Kevin because he wanted to speak to Joe alone...
"Kevin, cut it out," Joe snapped. Kevin had turned around with a plate gripped in his hands and told Joe that he thought he should take Nick home. When he demanded a reason why, after realizing his brother wasn't joking, Kevin had gone off on a rant about being responsible, and not jumping into things too soon. Joe couldn't help it if he was offended. He'd told Kevin to shut up, rolled his eyes in response to the rant, but Kevin just said it over again, that he was going to take Nick home.
"I'm serious Joe. I don't think this is a good idea."
Joe rolled his eyes as he folded his arms together and leaned one elbow into the counter top. "Alright. If anything were ever to start between Nick and myself, I swear to you I will take care of him and do everything in my power to make sure he is both comfortable and - abstinent or something. Okay...?" Kevin's forehead was creased three times in the center, but Joe just raised his eyebrows further, pressing Kevin into a decision that would mean leaving Joe and Nick alone, finally.
Finally Kevin let out a sigh and stepped forward, looking Joe in the eyes. "I've never felt the need to talk to you about this before, so I'm not sure how to tell if you're serious, but you better be. He's just a kid." Joe let out a huff. "Hey, and so are you, so just don't."
Face returning to a neutral expression, and then more sincere, Joe pushed one side of his hair back before looking at his older brother. "Listen, I see where you're coming from but you don't have to worry about it. I know you think I'm pretty stupid a lot of the time -"
"You do. But even though you do, I've never done anything to hurt my friends on purpose, right?" Joe waited for a nod. "Well Nick's my best friend, so why would I hurt him?" He watched, smiling triumphantly as Kevin seemed to weigh it out before him, and gave him a look that said Joe had made a very valid and appreciated point.
"Are you telling me you won't try anything with him?"
"No... I'm telling you we wouldn't do anything unless we were ready for it - not that we would ever have that opportunity - that I would. God Kev, I was just trying to watch a movie with him. Why'd you have to go and make it feel all awkward? I feel like some kind of jerk now." He was finding it harder and harder to deny that he and Nick were together, but obviously Kevin couldn't handle it if they were. And he'd almost felt bad about lying earlier...
"Sorry... I - You guys just seem closer than before."
"Maybe that's because of what you found out while we were at the lodge, genius."
"Right well... Some people might see this as taking advantage of him. If you had a friend who was a girl, who you liked, would you invite her to sleepover without her being aware of your crush?"
"Ew you make it sound like middle school. And if that were allowed, um yeah."
"You wouldn't feel guilty about it?"
"It's not like I would be feeling her up Kevin, Jesus."
"Okay well there's still a reason that isn't allowed, Joe."
"You're gonna tell Liz and Jack?!"
"No, but - just think about it, all right?"
"I already told you I wouldn't touch him, Kevin, what more do you want?"
"I - don't know. Okay. I guess, just be careful."
"Duh. Thanks for that. I was planning on being really reckless before so thanks for this wonderful conversation. I might have to take a damn shower now to feel clean again."
"You are so over-reacting."
"Whatever. Nick'll sleep on the bean bag, and maybe he'll even sleep on it down here, while I'm up in my room, okay? So I don't accidentally rape him or something."
"Joe... Look, I'm sorry. Like I said, I've never had to do this before."
"And you still don't, so you can leave me alone now." Kevin pursed his lips before giving a tight nod and walked out of the kitchen, presumably to his bedroom, but Joe wouldn't be surprised if Kevin went into the lower bathroom to shower-mope about having lost the argument. If that's what it was. Joe didn't even know anymore.
"Most awkward night ever," Joe huffed as he walked into the living room, meeting Nick's gaze where he sat, waiting, on the couch, the t.v. set to a blue screen in DVD mode.
"Sorry," Nick said, sort of small, with a frown.
Raising a fist to one of his eyes, Joe rubbed furiously, a sort of tic to get out frustration when he couldn't yell, stomp, or throw things because he was almost an adult now. "No... Nicky, it's not your fault. Kevin's just doing exactly what I thought he'd do and we didn't even have to tell him."
When Joe made his way to the couch, Nick scooted over a fraction, and Joe took up the space sitting right beside him. "So he knows?" Joe hated how nervous his voice seemed about it. Joe probably hadn't helped him feel at all comfortable. Nick was probably under the misconception that if anyone found out about them, they'd be forced apart when that wasn't the case at all. Hell, with the way Kevin talked about Zac sometimes, Joe didn't think he'd have much of a standing ground to ridicule.
"Not exactly..." Joe explained, putting on a ha-ha, isn't-that-funny smile.
"Joe. You lied to him?" He realized then, listening to Nick's disappointed voice, that earlier he'd been feeling guilty because he knew Nick hated it so much. It all went back to the first time they met. Family was really, really important to Nick and in not having any siblings to butt heads with, he didn't know things like this just happened. Face falling slightly, Joe slid his arm in between Nick's arm and thigh, taking his hand.
Still exasperated by the conversation he'd had in the kitchen, Joe couldn't seem to remove all of it, even if he wanted to apologize to Nick for putting him in this situation. "Well, Nick, he just doesn't get it. I'm not - he thinks I'm going to try to you know - do stuff, that we're not going to do. It's so frustrating, that he'd just assume it, and like it's any of his business anyway."
Without a response, and Nick just looking down at the floor, Joe sighed in failure and pulled his hand back, leaning his back into the arm of the couch and laying down slightly. He brought one leg up and bent it on the couch. Silently Nick stood up and then knelt before the t.v., picking out a movie. Joe watched him carefully, with one hand on his stomach and the other pulling gently at his hair in frustration and a loss of what to do.
The music started from the movie, but Joe's eyes were still focused on Nick as he stood up and walked back toward the couch, but he didn't sit down. Instead he stood before Joe, looking him in the eyes and nodded, also sighing. "Okay. Don't lie to him anymore, please? It makes me uncomfortable and he doesn't even deserve that. I don't want to be away from you either but if he asks you again, just tell him, kay?" Joe looked away for a second, but a smile tugged at his lips when Nick reach down and pulled the hand from his stomach up to his chest, cradled in his own two hands. Looking back, he smiled, acknowledging silently that they had an agreement.
Joe tilted his face up and to the side while Nick hovered slightly above him, and as they pressed their lips together, Joe muttered a soft, "Monster." He couldn't say he loved Nick yet, couldn't say it, but he did. He used Nick's nickname to portray it in a much safer, more reasonable way. Nick reached out just before they broke apart and smoothed his thumb over Joe's jaw, filling Joe up on an even higher level.
Setting his hand back down on his stomach, Nick gave it a squeeze before going to rest his back against the other side of the couch, their feet meeting, resting against each other in the middle.-
Eventually Joe and Nick felt it was okay to touch, hold hands at school, and other small forms of affection, but they were careful not to do so in front of teachers who might get them into trouble, and very rarely did they even do it when another student could see. Those of Joe's friends who did, usually blessed them with a hesitant smile and a nod, keeping quiet. It wasn't as terrible as it could have been.
They were both laying with their backs on the floor a week before Spring Break, books held awkwardly above them when Nick turned his head to look at Joe. "Book reports," he said with a hint of discontent, but moreover, boredom.
"Yeah," Joe agreed, and Nick watched as a small smirk grew on his face. "I haven't actually been reading for at least twenty minutes."
Nick's eyebrows rose along with his cheeks pushed up in a smile and he laughingly replied, "We only started like twenty minutes ago."
"I'm well aware, Nicholas, thank you," Joe said, sticking out his tongue. They had the same English teacher, but obviously with different classes with appropriately aged classmates and coursework, so they were both stuck doing a book report for the last week before break. Joe's book was just a little deeper than Nick's, picked from a set list of acceptable text, just as Nick had been forced to choose from.
As Nick lowered his book, setting it open on top of his chest, Joe let his fold closed over one thumb as he stretched his arm out to the floor, letting it slide away from him on the carpet. Nick laughed, book jumbling on top of him. Joe tossed him a happy smile, proud, always, of giving him a reason to be so happy. "You're not gonna lose your place?" Nick asked skeptically. Joe shrugged, making Nick's smile grow again.
They lay there, just looking at each other for a few minutes before Nick slid his hand across and flipped it palm-up so that he could gently scratch at Joe's side through his tee. Joe clapped his hand down on top of Nick's, holding it, making Nick's soft expression brighten. "I wish I were older," he said suddenly and Joe gave him a considering look before he squeezed Nick's hand and told him he did as well. Brows coming together slightly Nick asked, "I thought you said you didn't care about age."
Joe turned his head up to the ceiling and huffed out a short laugh. "Are you challenging me from when I first met you?" He didn't have to look at Nick to know that's where he got his information from. Sucking on his own tongue, Joe thought for a minute. He didn't want to end up offending Nick somehow. Plus, if Nick took what he was feeling for what it was, it was a big step up. He didn't know how it'd go over. "Well tell me why you have a problem with it," he decided on, finally, turning his cheek to the floor again and looking into Nick's confused eyes.
He watched as Nick sucked his lower lip into his mouth and smiled soft and amused. Nick was nervous, he realized. Joe squeezed his hand once more before inter-twining their fingers, mouthing a, 'Come on,' that Nick only half acknowledged with a flicker of a smile. "Because..." Nick began, shifting his gaze away from Joe's face, "Then I wouldn't feel like... my feelings had to be fake."
Losing his smile, not because he was unhappy to know that Nick had strong enough feelings that he'd question them, but because he understood why Nick had to question them. "Me too, Monster." Nick looked back up at him then, looking him over like Joe was something to be studied. Joe let out a surprised laugh when Nick rolled over half on top of him, smiling down at him.
"Can I say it without you laughing?" Nick asked, pecking a kiss at the corner of Joe's mouth. Joe chased his lips for a moment before giving up and letting his head fall back to the floor. Joe thought about saying something similar back, but instead he nodded, bringing his arm up, and over Nick's back and waist. Nick licked his lips. "Well, I love you."
"I love you too," Joe said, beaming, and sliding his hand up Nick's back, into his curls and urging him into a sweet series of kisses.
"A lot," Nick added seriously, when Joe had placed a kiss to his forehead before guiding his head to rest on his chest.
"A lot more than a lot," Joe said, still smiling.
Being boys, Joe and Nick tended to get bored easily, but it felt nice just laying there, so nice in fact, they were both nearly asleep when Nick quietly asked, "What happens when you graduate?" He knew it was pretty girly. To ask. To care that much. To know he'd probably end up crying and moping up through the next year of school if Joe answered with what was entirely possible. They had talked about Universities, of course, since Nick helped Joe keep entertained while filling out applications. He even put some of the stamps on himself. But then, it hadn't seemed like such a big deal. Then it seemed like nothing would ever have to change.
Joe inhaled deeply, and Nick could feel it beneath him. If it didn't seem like Joe was about to say something upsetting, he would have let slip a smile. Joe's hand had drifted down Nick's back while they half-napped, but he moved it back up into Nick's hair, massaging, sweet touches that made the nerves on Nick's neck stand up in a pleasant way.
"Well I've been thinking about it and I'm not exactly in a rush to get to a university. If I go to the community college like Kev, I can save a lot of money on my first two years of school. Plus if I get my GPA up, I might have even more options than I do now. Or I can take it slower and work part-time. Save up money. So I think that's what I'm going to do. I'm not a hundred, but you know." Joe lifted his head slightly to peek down at Nick. Nick's eyes were a little wide, and a sliver of a smile was on his face. "That'd be okay with you right?"
He didn't actually get an answer, not a vocal one, but by the time he went home he was pretty sure Nick was more than okay with it.
Joe didn't graduate with honors, but when the ceremony ended and he came to his family, Nick was there, hugging him long, hard, and proud.
That night they talked about plans for the summer, but mostly they decided to spend it together.
For New Jersey it was hot. Biking was okay during sunset when the sky had turned mostly blue, meeting purple, meeting yellow. Because it was earlier in the day though, when the sun was higher in the sky, and Mrs. McKenzie was out shopping for groceries while Nick's father worked, they spent time indoors.
Nick was sitting, twisted in his chair so that his legs were parallel to the desk but so he could still play the game currently displayed on the computer. It was some alien game Joe hadn't really understood the appeal of, but Nick found it really interesting, and Joe was content to busy himself with the mostly unfamiliar things in the office.
While they had done a fair amount of trading between hanging out at Joe's house and Nick's, Nick was particularly comfortable at the Jonas house while Joe felt like Nick's mother was slightly over-bearing. He liked her a lot, really, but she seemed to worry about Nick a lot more than necessary. He appreciated it, Nick was sure as hell special enough to worry about, but it could get a little suffocating. In all that time, however, they'd only really been in the office once, maybe twice, and not long enough for Joe to get his curiosity satisfied.
Sitting between Nick's legs on the floor, Joe lifted his head from the chair in order to reach at the silver button of the file cabinet. He knew it was rude to go through people's things, but it wasn't like he'd understand any of the business forms or anything else anyway. Before he could start rifling through it, Nick kicked him softly in the side. Joe laid his head back against the chair and looked up at Nick where he was graced with an adoring smile. "Hey," Nick said.
Joe rolled his eyes, but smiled back and replied with a hello of his own. "You're okay with hanging in here, right? Cause if you're bored, we can find something else to do." Nick's hands were still positioned over the key board and mouse. Joe realized he'd paused the game, wasn't busy dying just to talk to Joe, so he took his time to answer, sliding a hand up the back of Nick's leg, just under the hem of his shorts. There was a soft flush rising on Nick's cheeks as he did, so Joe pressed a kiss to the side of Nick's other knee.
"Nope, I'm good," Joe answered finally, when he had his eyes back on Nick. He smiled somewhat triumphantly when he realized Nick's eyes were on the leg Joe had his hand up, still. They hadn't done anything really, but it was satisfying to know he could get to Nick like that, that when they were eventually ready, Nick would want it. Really want it. Joe pulled his hand away, and a smile snapped onto Nick's face, kind of caught and surprised with himself. He moved his hands from the computer, just temporarily, and placed them on Joe's shoulders as he bent down to awkwardly place a kiss between Joe's eyes.
"You're pretty cute, you know that?" Nick asked, which Joe didn't really get. Technically he should've been the one to tell Nick that, but he accepted it with another warm smile. He didn't really mind when Nick sometimes got things backwards so long as he was on the receiving end of something good.
"Thanks," Joe said, using a playfully cocky tone. Nick lifted a hand to run his thumb, down Joe's upside down cheek, smiling. "Play your game, you sap." Nick held his hands up in mock-surrender, chuckling as he turned back to his game. Joe shook his head when he heard the sound of an explosion followed by Nick's quiet cheering.
Joe reached for the file drawer one more time, first running his fingers over the tabs, and then reading them. It wasn't until he felt Nick's feet squeezing lovingly at his sides that he decided to actually pluck one out. This cabinet in particular held familial folders, medical records, that kind of thing. He was nosy, but not nosy enough to pick Mr. or Mrs. McKenzie's own file out, but Nick was his... So he pulled out Nick's folder, smile brightening when he opened it to artwork Nick had apparently done as a child.
"This is cute, Nicky," he stated, not actually meaning to distract Nick from his game.
"What?" Nick asked, hitting the button on the keyboard to pause the game once again so he could safely look over Joe's shoulder. When he saw that it was a file, he frowned slightly. "Um, Joe, I'm not allowed to go in that cabinet. Put it back, babe, okay?"
Joe's smile faded as a look of confusion took its place. "Why? It's just stuff from when you were a kid. Parents trying to make you forget you could be an artist when you grow up or something?"
"Shut up, could not," Nick said bashfully before running a hand down Joe's chest as he leaned down and flipped the folder closed. He kissed at Joe's ear and then tried again. "Put it back, please."
Placing his hand over Nick's where it was set back on his upper chest, he bit his lip. He became even more intrigued by the fact that Nick wasn't even allowed to see the files. It would probably kill him if he sat there not looking through them. "Just your folder, please?" Joe asked, eyes hopefully. Finally Nick huffed out a sigh and slipped his hand out from under Joe's just to pat the back of Joe's hand where it thumped against him.
"And you'll put it back exactly where you found it." Joe smirked up at him, giving Nick a not-so-reassuring wink. Nick shook his head, but smiled despite himself. "You're a pain in the ass, Joe Jonas." With Nick back to his alien conquest, Joe re-opened the tan folder and set it on his lap so that he could flip through the different papers without losing the order.
It wasn't until Joe was near the back of the file that he found something extremely relevant to the here and now. At first, when he looked at it, it was just to happily outline Nick's name with his eyes, to take in something he thought was extremely important to him, Nick's birth. But when he actually looked at it, saw what was on it, he felt his stomach knot up in his stomach. Printed on the birth name line was Nicholas Jerry McKenzie, which was perfect. The problem came when Joe's eyes got to the line of mother and father. There weren't any last names there, but what was happened to be enough to give Joe a bit of a heart attack. In a short moment of panic, Joe looked back down at the folder like it might alert him to a prank. Instead his eyes widened even more when he saw a picture. It wasn't something he'd see before but he recognized the fact that it was of him, a three-year old boy, Kevin, five, his father, and his mother... looking pregnant..
"Nick," he finally asked, voice thick and tongue heavy in his drying mouth. It didn't come out loud enough, and when he realized it, he could've cried at having to try again. "Nicky," Joe croaked, closing his eyes tightly against what was in his hands. That time Nick heard it, and instantly his face shadowed with concern and he let the game go as he petted at Joe's hair.
"What's wrong, are you okay?" Joe shook his head slowly. So Nick pulled himself around so that he could kneel beside Joe, not thinking about the way Joe's hands flinched and slid the paper and picture father away from Nick. "Joseph? What's wrong?" The back of Nick's hand was on Joe's forehead in a second, and then a palm was on Joe's cheek, eyes creased with worry. Joe didn't feel hot, but that didn't mean he was sick or hurt, but how could he have gotten hurt?
Swallowing again, throat contracting, Joe focused his eyes on Nick, and pulled Nick by the chin until their foreheads were pressed together. "I need to talk to Kev. We need to." Nick nodded, standing up before he put the file away, trying to get the extra paper from Joe, but when Joe shook his head looking as serious as he did, a shock went through Nick and he left it out before pulling Joe up beside him. "Come on," Joe said, finally regaining his voice as he dragged Nick to the door where they hastily put their shoes on. The spindles on their bikes spun faster than ever before as they tracked a path to the Jonas household where Joe prayed Kevin would be.
When they got inside, Joe hugged Nick before asking him to stay in the entry way. Nick nodded, biting his lower lip, feeling completely lost and helpless but to do as Joe asked. Forming a fist in the hand not holding Nick's birth certificate, the picture of himself and his family, Joe pounded on Kevin's bedroom door until it opened an irritated look on his older brother's face. "You were five," Joe said immediately, angry and loud enough that Nick could hear it down the hall. As soon as the door closed, Joe's voice would be muted, but Nick would still hear bits and pieces, and he'd close his eyes to try and work out what, exactly, was happening in the other room.
"You were five, Kevin... When mom died," Joe explained body rigid and unable to dispel the tension increasing in his muscles. "God, Kevin please fucking tell me that this isn't what it looks like!" He handed the paper over, the family photo that was as good as proof, barely giving him a chance to see what it said. "Fucking hell, Kevin, do we have a goddamn brother?!" Kevin cringed when he saw what Joe was talking about, turning away as his younger brother yelled out the possibility Kevin had always known was there. "Kevin, answer me!" Joe pleaded, face breaking from anger to something like despair. "God," he muttered, rubbing his palm roughly over his face as he looked at Kevin's hunched shoulders.
"Shit," Kevin whispered. "Shit, Joe, I didn't... Jack and Liz and dad, they all told me that it was something I couldn't understand and that I didn't need to worry about it and I was only five Joe..."
"What so mom, is she alive? Did she and dad just ditch us? For fuck's sake is Nick our brother, Kevin?!"
"No..." Kevin said softly, turning back to Joe and pulling him into a fiercely tight hug, even as Joe struggled slightly in his grip. "No mom, died. She must've died giving birth, or complications after. I don't know how that happens now, but something went wrong. But, I could... I saw her at the funeral Joe. She's gone. And Nick? Fuck, he must've only been around for five or so days before dad sent us to live with Jack and Liz and he never told me what happened. I didn't know. For all I knew the baby could've been sick, could've died too."
Joe's chest felt like it was collapsing and even so he heaved out breaths as tears starting running gently down his cheeks. "But it didn't, did it? Kevin, Nick was the baby wasn't he? That's our parents names on the certificate isn't it? No one could be born with the same named parents, not Denise and Paul, right? And that picture. That's us. It's him?" Kevin breathed out, a little shaky even as he held Joe up.
"It's the same hospital... It's the right time. It's... I'm sorry Joe, I didn't know. I didn't know we'd ever see him again. I just thought it'd be better if you didn't have to know, man. I'm so sorry." Joe shook his head, pushing Kevin away so that he could wipe at his eyes.
"Where're our certificates Kevin?" Joe asked harshly, walking toward the door.
"They're in the office, third drawer, I think... That's where she kept the surgery papers from your accident. But Joe, shouldn't we wait for Aunt Liz and Uncle Jack?" Joe shook his head, turning to look away from Kevin.
Just before turning the knob, he bit out, "Look Kevin, you kept quiet for this long. You don't know any of this, got it? You're going to keep it the fuck to yourself." Kevin was about to respond, but Joe slammed the door shut behind him. When Nick heard the door, he opened his eyes, rushing up to Joe's side. When he saw the tears, he stepped in front of Joe, and took his face in his hands. "Nick, no... I have to show you something."
Nick's face fell even more, concerned about what was going on. He realized, yes, that it was something huge, but he wasn't able to piece it all together from the snippets he got. "Joe..." he said softly, following after. When they reached the room, Joe looked like he was a second away from throwing all their papers around the room, but when he found what he was looking for, he just shoved the papers into Nick's hands.
Finding himself looking at Joe's birth certificate, Nick felt even more confused, but looked it over quickly before looking at the paper underneath. It was own certificate. He'd never actually seen it before... He skimmed it, thinking everything would be in its proper place, but he felt a sinking feeling when he realized one huge problem. "Those aren't my... Those aren't my parent's names. Joe, is this-?" Joe just shook his head, because whatever, however Nick thought to twist it, they were in a real situation. "Joe," Nick asked, looking up to Joe, asking for help. Then Joe handed them the photo that had been in the folder under the certificate.
There were a few more soft and slow-flowing tears, without the yelling, as Joe explained everything. "What are we - What are we supposed to do? I don't understand..." Nick said, clenching at his stomach, eyes screwed shut as he inhaled and exhaled slowly, trying to keep from throwing up the bile that was catching in his throat.
"I don't know," Joe said honestly, pulling the papers and photo back into his possession. "I think, we just need time, okay? Can I - I'm begging you Nicky, just don't say anything to anyone? Please?" Joe asked, his eyes wide and sincere when Nick looked into them. Nick nodded his head numbly, but stood. He couldn't stay there. Not like that. Without a real goodbye, Nick walked his bike home slowly, stopping to breathe deeply whenever he felt like throwing up. When he got home, he couldn't even look his parents in the eye.
A week went by with no other contact from Joe but quiet and short phone calls that ended with headaches and both of them missing each other worse than they ever thought possible. Joe pretty well shunned Kevin until one day he just walked up and hugged Kevin for a full ten minutes, before sitting him down and begging him over and over to keep it a secret, explaining that he and Nick liked each other, but not explaining just how much. Kevin took it in as well as he could, but in the end he couldn't say an encouraging word, just patting Joe on the back and telling him that he wouldn't say anything. Nick ignored his mother's inquiries of what was wrong. But eventually he felt bad for treating her like she was a bad person and told her he'd be fine in a while, and not to worry, told his father the same every time a heavy hand was placed on his shoulder.
"Listen, I know that this isn't... that this isn't fair, and it's going to sound insensitive but Nick..." Nick moved out of the way as Joe barged into his house and started straight out toward the back yard where the grass was growing yellow at the wrath of the sun. He followed Joe out the back door, letting the springs on top snap it shut. Where Joe sat on the steps, Nick could see over his shoulder that he was holding papers, the papers and there was the tip of the picture poking out of his back pocket. It took Nick a moment before he decided to sit down beside Joe. There was a lot they hadn't discussed yet, too many things he was unsure about.
In the mornings when he'd wake up, he'd open his eyes thinking happily about Joe, hanging out with him, kissing him, and in those moments it'd seem like the answer was simple. Only, the moments didn't last long and Nick knew there'd be a lot to get through. Age gap and gender had already been difficult, and now they were finding out where the real strain on their relationship would be. Half the time Nick wished Joe had never touched the cabinet of drawers in his parent's office. The rest of the time he wasn't sure what he wanted.
Maybe if they'd found out sooner, towards the beginning of the year, it would have stopped them from becoming what they had, but Nick knew he didn't want that, wouldn't have wanted that. Only, it'd be nice, to actually have a brother. Maybe instead of dates and bike rides, it would have been fights Nick never got as an only child, checking out girls together, cars and family vacations. But maybe it could still be like that now. Without the girls, and a different kind of family vacation if they told Joe's aunt and uncle, his aunt and uncle that they were together.
That was just the problem though, wasn't it? They'd found out they were brothers and now they had to make a decision. Before it was a completely innocent mistake. No one told them they had to check to make sure their biological parents hadn't gotten them separated from a sibling before kissing someone. Most people, Nick was pretty sure, had it easy enough that their siblings were all in the same house with them, that they'd known them all their lives. Now they knew. He felt like it should disgust him, make him want to do something dramatic and stupid, or maybe not so stupid in this case.
At times, if he thought about it too long, tears would prick up behind his eyes, but that, he realized, was more from the fear that Joe would be disgusted by them, or that maybe Joe didn't feel like he did after all. Because even though they were suddenly related, Nick was still in love with Joe and it wasn't something, he knew then, that couldn't be taken away. By anything, even by this.
"Nick," Joe continued once they were side by side, "I think we should burn them." Joe's eyes were heavily focused on the papers he was holding, and Nick took them gently into his own hands, looking their birth certificates over.
Quietly, Nick sifted through the papers before holding one above the other on his lap. "Joe, it's our lives. This," he repeated, thumbing at his own, "Is my life."
When Joe had come into the house, it was with stiff, hurried movements and Nick had know it was some sort of panic, but he'd thought it had been confident too. Turning his eyes back to Joe, he could see that any confidence that had been there, dissipated completely. Joe was smoothing out his shorts with his palms, too many nerves firing up inside of him, and his eyes were wide, set on his lap. "Nick," he said carefully. "I know. But, please. If they don't know, they can't take you away, right? They'd have no reason to," Joe reasoned, eyes matching Nick's, tone pleading. For a moment, Nick felt like Joe was the younger one. He wished it could be that easy, for Joe. But it gave him hope, while breaking his heart that Joe thought anyone would try to take Nick away from him, and maybe they would. Nick didn't know.
"There are other copies," Nick reminded him softly, handing the papers back. "The school has our records, the hospital. It wouldn't make any difference." He could see why it was so important to Joe, understood, but unless they planned on breaking in to every place their guardians had ever shown their birth certificate as identification, it really wouldn't do any good. Joe stood, gripping the bottom corners of both his and Nick's certificates in his hands, and turned to face Nick, glancing up from the papers. Nick knew there were things he wanted to say, that he wanted to protest again. "Besides," Nick said as he stood up also, taking Joe's wrists in his hands, and a tone of one trying to appeal to somebody, "I like being your brother, okay?"
"We'd still be brothers!" Joe argued, desperate, outright denying the fact that what Nick had said was true. It wasn't something they could get away from.
From the way he was reacting, Nick realized that maybe Joe really didn't feel the way he did. He realized how he really felt, that it was something that would take a while to get used to and deal with, but in the end the fact that they were brothers didn't affect the way he loved Joe, unless it was to reinforce it. Maybe Joe wasn't willing to... Not until he'd destroyed everything that connected them except their blood. Pulling his hands back, Nick pursed his lips, Joe's name on his tongue, and sat back on the steps.
He couldn't look at Joe if that's what was happening, if he was being told they couldn't be together anymore. He'd thought about that happening, sure, but it made his stomach twist, and he couldn't prepare that way. Nick put his face in his hands, forcing himself to breathe, to keep calm. He had to, if Joe wasn't going to be, and he had to save himself some kind of dignity if Joe was going to let all of this go. Nick told himself to just breathe, but as he felt fingers carding through his hair, his lungs hitched up.
"Nicky, I don't... know what's going through your head right now. But I love you either way." Joe's voice had gone soft and soothing, but it made something kick up inside Nick and he had to push into his eyes to keep from pulling Joe down and into a hug. He wasn't sure what he was supposed to do. He would turn fifteen in about two months... Wasn't this supposed to be the easy part of his life? But when was he ever supposed to know how to face loving Joe more than anything else, and dealing with all of these questions at the same time?
Joe kept his fingers massaging at Nick's scalp, hoping it would calm Nick enough for him to speak. He didn't know if Nick was mad, or just upset, but he needed Nick to tell him, everything else be damned. When it didn't seem to pry Nick's hands away from engulfing his face, however, Joe sat back beside him, setting his thigh on top of the papers so they wouldn't be blown away if a gust of wind rolled by. With one hand on Nick's back rubbing in slow circles, Joe stuck his nose between Nick's neck and shoulder so that he could speak to him, but quietly. He wrapped his other hand around Nick's furthest wrist, thumb smoothing over the sensitive skin covering Nick's veins.
"I don't know if I'm losing you, if I made you mad," Joe started. Nick pulled his palms away just enough so he could turn to look back at Joe from the corners of his eyes. When Joe saw how red and sore-looking they were, he sucked in a breath. "Nicky, please don't."
Nick inhaled his own shaky breath before covering his face up again, feeling childish. "Just tell me if you're going to leave me, Joe. If you can't handle this, then you just need to tell me because I -" he cut himself off, not sure if he was about to say something stupid.
Interrupting as well, Joe pulled Nick around to face him, forcing his hands away from Nick's eyes and making him look as best he could. "What? Of course I'm not leaving you. I'm sorry. I'm sorry I made you think - it doesn't matter. I just don't want people treating us like we're insane for loving each other. I'm sorry, baby boy..." Joe watched as Nick took it in before he took his chin in his fingers and kissed him softly, watching Nick's eyes close. "You're not gonna leave me either, are you?" he asked softly, face near, and then kissed Nick again.
"Duh," Nick said, and Joe smiled through the kiss Nick initiated next, less soft, and deeper than they'd probably ever kissed before. When they pulled back, their breaths were shallow, and Joe felt heavy, enthralled and held within Nick's space. "Love you."
"I love you too, okay? We'll get through this, but we need to talk. How about we go up to your room, huh?" Nick nodded, and took the hand Joe offered, allowing himself to be pulled up as Joe picked up the certificates. Joe slid his arm up and around Nick's shoulder as Nick's arm went around his waist. He kissed the side of Nick's head once they managed to slide through the door, but as they passed the door to the McKenzie's office, he stopped and told Nick to head to his bedroom. "I'll be right there. I just wanna put this back before they find out it's missing." Nick's eyes still had lines of worry around them, so when he leaned forward to kiss Joe again, Joe caught his bottom lip with his own lips and thumbed gently under Nick's jaw. "I'll be there, Monster, promise." He pulled the picture out from his pocket, and handed it to Nick with a sad sort of smile on his face. "Put it somewhere." Somewhere safe.
Before moving down the hall and around the corner, Nick squeezed at Joe's hip. It gave Joe extra warmth and comfort enough to face putting the paper back in its place. It took him a minute, after he'd pulled up the right file folder, but he breathed in again, closed his eyes and slipped it in before shutting the cabinet drawer. When he got around to Nick's room, his birth certificate had creases from his fingers holding it too tightly, but he let it fall on the desk as he walked in and closed the door. Nick offered him a smile from where he sat on the bed, hesitant, but inviting.
Putting his knees up on the mattress, Joe thought he meant to just sit beside Nick and talk to him, but he slid up the bed, straddling over Nick's lap, careful not to put too much pressure on Nick's thighs. Nick looked at Joe, open wide, and noticeably stopped breathing as his face was cradled in his brother's (god that'd take some getting used to) hands. "As far as I can tell, we have two options," Joe breathed against Nick's lips as he stuck a sliver of tongue out to lick his own. "Either we can tell your parents that we found the certificate - and baby I'm so sorry that you're dealing with all of this extra... I know it must be hard for you," Joe finished messily, setting his forehead on Nick's as he stroked his cheekbone with his thumb.
Nick had been adopted and spent nearly fifteen years completely unaware. Joe knew the McKenzies would always be Nick's mom and dad, no matter what a stupid piece of paper said, but it still had to be a blow. Realizing your parents hadn't told you, afraid of your reaction. It was still their responsibility to be honest, Joe thought, but he wasn't sure, if he ever adopted (If he and Nick could figure things out, if they could do what Joe hoped Nick would want to do, maybe someday they'd be adopting a kid of their own.) that he'd ever be prepared to tell his child either.
"I'm okay," Nick assured him softly, forcing his lips to meet Joe's quickly. "It'll be okay."
"Good, I'll make sure you are, too. Love you." Nick nodded against Joe's forehead, their eyes still trained on each other's. "Is that what you want to do baby boy? Did you want to talk to them about it?" At that, Nick let his eyes fall closed. He'd been trying to come up with an answer to that question ever since he realized what being Joe's brother meant. It had been a sucker-punch to find out he was adopted but he knew his parents loved him and that was all Nick had ever known he needed from them before. They were probably just trying to protect him, he'd decided. But Joe and that issue had taken up too much time to decide if he needed to disrupt that in order to be okay again.
Running things through in his mind, he still couldn't settle, and asked low, "What's option two?"
Swallowing thickly, Joe dropped one hand to Nick's shoulder, and around the back of his neck before he pushed in with a kiss at a different, easier angle, psyching himself up. It was like a business pitch only a million times more important. It was practically a proposal. He pecked one more kiss to Nick's lips before answering. "Well... Option two: We keep this between us, and Kevin, and we can be together." Joe wanted to go on about how good everything would be if they kept it a secret that they were brothers but knew he couldn't pressure Nick. And because he couldn't lie to him either, he mentioned the down-side.
"But we'd have to be careful. I don't think we'll have to use are birth certificates for anything else but there's always a chance, and if that happens, and somehow people find out - we'd have to keep track of who knew and who didn't. It'd be tough. But," Joe said, feeling the need to give one more point to the decision he hoped they'd make, "I don't think the chances of someone finding out are very high. Not many things require it... we could use our driver's licenses and our social security numbers." He wanted to add that they could get married, but he wasn't even eighteen yet, and Nick wouldn't be for three more years. It would be too much, and even if he was sure he could wait that long, Nick had a long ways to go, and so much time to change his mind.
When he finished explaining, he felt like burying his face in Nick's neck. It didn't have to be about their relationship. Nick's decision could be built entirely upon getting things straightened out with his parents. Joe would get it, but he didn't want to have to hide their relationship from their families for the rest of his life, and he was almost certain Jack and Liz knew he liked Nick anyway (he hadn't done much to disguise the fact). Everything would be awkward and stiff from then on.
Instead, he let his eyes shut tight and stayed still as Nick silently thought everything over. Nick had already known what both options were, of course, but he wanted to hear what they could be from Joe. "Joe," he asked after a moment and waited for Joe to open his eyes and pull back. "If I say option two..." He didn't want Joe to get his hopes up, so he kept his tone low. Joe urged him on with a gentle squeeze to his neck. "I know we're not supposed to discuss this yet, that we decided not to because I have to graduate and you're going to college and there's a lot of time in between then, but... If we decide to be together openly I can never take that back and talk to my parents, and don't you think that... it'd be too hard to be just your friend."
Taking in every word and looking back at Nick seriously, Joe nodded, muttered a, "Yeah." He didn't know what he was supposed to say to that. If Nick was saying he wanted this to be a proposal or if he was merely pointing out that it'd be a horrible breakup. "Nick," he started carefully, his other hand now at the side of Nick's stomach so he wouldn't over-heat his face, "I don't want to break up with you." It was pure honesty, and risky but he needed Nick in this way too much to put up barriers just then. It was too important.
"I don't want to break up with you either," Nick said, smiling sadly, cheeks growing more prominent and eyes just a little more wet than before. "Joe, I think it'd make my parents happy if they were the only ones..." Nick told him, eyes hopeful. Joe licked his lips again, knowing what that sounded like Nick was agreeing to.
"Would -" Joe sighed, getting his bearings together, "Would that make you happy?"
"Being able to kiss you whenever I want would make me happy," Nick responded, pulling Joe's lips to his. Joe bubbled up with how happy he felt, pulling Nick forward, hand slipping to his back and bringing Nick into his chest.
"I love you so fucking much."
"You too," Nick laughed from where Joe had forced Nick's face into his neck, hugging back just as tight.
Sitting together, holding on tight, Joe realized that it wasn't just going to all be okay right away. "Listen... I know sometimes it's going to get difficult, so just, talk to me. Always. Whenever you need to, about anything. I don't care if we end up having the same conversation thirty times. If you need it, you got it, right?" Nick sighed against Joe, forming closer just before pulling back. He took a long moment to look into Joe's eyes before he started kissing him, pushing Joe back against the bed, smiling as Joe wrapped an arm around his shoulder, forcing him closer, making their legs entangle.