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ten hours, give or take

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It’s 11:00 a.m. on the West Coast, 2:00 p.m. on the East, and they’re on a filming break when Joe’s iPhone chirps in his pocket. He pulls it out, taps a few keys, and pulls up a message he’s all too used to seeing these days.

I’m dropping out.

He sighs, rolls his eyes, and books a flight to Logan International Airport.

*

Nick Jonas has performed for Paul McCartney, won an American Music Award, sold out Madison Square Garden in less than ten minutes, and went multiplatinum before he could drive.

He cannot, however, finish the tenth page of his paper for Dr. Lepore’s undergraduate seminar on the American Sixties.

He stares at his last sentence – rock and roll was the wave on which all other movements surfed – and erases it, wondering if he can hurl himself off the balustrades of Widener Library and perish on the frozen November ground before the Crimson’s photography staff shows up. Probably not. Those kids are everywhere.

Widener is the centerpiece of Harvard’s sprawling library system, with over three million books protected by a security system that has put the Library of Congress to shame on several occasions. Ambitious undergraduates hang out between the Roman columns outside the entrance, hoping to catch their professors on their way out. Graduates and staff members prefer to sit on the steps, smoking cigarettes and tripping over each others’ feet. Campus tours stop at the bottom of the tremendous granite stairway and listen to the legend of Harry Elkins Widener, the book-collecting Harvard alum who drowned on the Titanic and whose mother built the library in his name, and their parents snap photographs before crossing over to Memorial Church.

There’s a mint-condition Gutenberg Bible on the first floor, and Nobel Prizes are locked away in display cases. Widener can give even the haughtiest college student a reality check – and when you’re a prodigal perfectionist floundering for the very first time, it’s downright intimidating.

Nick sneaks a sip of apple juice and flicks a glance at the time. Three o’ clock – the sun is probably disappearing behind the Sheraton Commander, and his TA’s office hours are beginning. He throws his sunglasses into his bag, closes his MacBook, and prepares for the brief, brisk walk over to the History department offices in Robinson Hall, a neoclassical ode to unnecessary relief carvings that crouches in the shadows of Memorial.

His phone flashes silently with a message from Joe.

be there tonite – flight arrives 11p ur time

“Thank God,” he mutters under his breath, leaving the reading room before the noise monitor can shoot him a dirty look. He shoves his phone in his pocket and pushes his way through the enormous plexiglass doors, and as he steps out into thirty-degree weather, he wonders why he thought this was a good idea in the first place.

*

Nick’s never bothered to do anything unless he could be the best at it – there’s no point, otherwise, because you don’t get trophies for being number two and it’s not really an honor just to be nominated. So when Danielle gets pregnant with twins and Joe lands a role on Aziz Ansari’s new single-camera comedy, Nick buys a Kaplan prep book and gets a 2370 on his SATs.

He takes them again and breathes a sigh of relief when he gets a 2400.

Northwestern is out, because Selena’s a sophomore there and he’s not eager to spend the next four years of his life dodging Mandy Gomez’s dirty looks. So are USC and UCLA, because his father swears he needs to leave home if he plans on doing this college thing right. Miley’s making noise about attending Berkeley, so that obliterates the Bay Area and the entire Pacific Northwest, and going to school in Texas would be too strange now that the family’s living in LA full-time.

He drags Joe on a college tour of the Northeast; Joe tells him he looks good in scarves, so he applies to Columbia, Yale, Amherst, Brown, Williams, Penn, Georgetown, and Harvard. He gets into seven out of eight (seriously, Williams? Whatever, Nick Jonas doesn’t want your pot and bad art anyway) and picks Harvard simply because everyone expects him to go to Columbia and spend most of his time on Broadway.

His parents are proud, Kevin thinks he’s nuts, Frankie doesn’t understand why anyone would put up with more school, and JT’s worried that he’s going to give up on music entirely. Joe wants to know if there is a marching band and if they’ll let Nick play tuba.

Joe doesn’t show any qualms until he’s sitting on the couch in Nick’s single room in Massachusetts Hall, watching their mother unpack sweaters and artfully distressed jeans. Nick is perched on the armrest, plucking at his guitar and ignoring Mom’s pointed hints about how good children would be helping her seeing as she’s not unpacking her clothes, for goodness sake, Joseph stop staring at Nicholas and help your father with the television.

“When do you pick your classes?” Joe asks, fishing around a box until he comes up with a surge protector.

“Tomorrow afternoon,” Nick replies, not looking up from his guitar. “It’s going to be the basics, mostly. Math, English lit, Econ, something in History, and I get a music elective.”

“Music’s not really an elective for you,” Joe says. “You’re flying back in a few weeks, right?”

“Right.”

“Could you sound any less excited about this?”

At that, Nick looks up. “It’s a lot to digest.”

Joe throws up his hands and promptly tries to shove the plug into the outlet upside-down.

Later, Nick puts his parents and his brother into a taxicab outside of Grendel’s, and Joe presses their foreheads together.

“You don’t have to do this,” he says quietly, but Nick shakes his head. “I mean it. No one’s going to think any less of you if you come home.”

“I will,” Nick says stubbornly, pushing Joe into the cab and waving goodbye.

He trudges back to Massachusetts, keeping his hood pulled up despite the early September heat. He’s doing this without security, because he really does want to be like any other college kid; he might be in a single, but he’s still in a campus dormitory, and he’s fully planning on eating in the dining hall tomorrow morning instead of caving into fear and eating a bagel in his room while working out a bassline. He’s going to take classes in subjects other than music, because he needs to broaden his horizons, and he’s going to learn to be normal.

He passes The Garage and thinks about getting a weird piercing to commemorate this rite of passage, but thinks better of it.

It will be three days before Nick can bring himself to eat a meal in Annenberg rather than in his room, and he sleeps through his first Microeconomics class because he was fooling around with the piano in the basement the night before. He drops the course and picks up Sociology, which doesn’t start until noon, and he monopolizes the piano every other night. His housemates think he’s nice but quiet, and he doesn’t go to parties because – even though his parents sat him down and told him they won’t judge him as long as he’s responsible – there will always be too many cameras.

Joe calls every night that he’s not on set, and even though he always tells Nick he can do anything he puts his mind to, Nick can’t forget the look on his face as he got into the taxi that night in early September.

He floats around campus with no idea what he’s really doing there, and the gossip blogs go quiet. Nick Jonas is exactly as boring as everyone always expected him to be, and some nights, he plays nothing but scales on the piano.

*

Nick’s American Sixties TA is a short, loud woman named Bianca Sanderson with thick black glasses and brown hair shoved into a haphazard bun. When she took attendance on the first day, she read his name – “Jonas, Nicholas J.” – and paused when he said “Here,” peering over her glasses and clucking her tongue.

“Team Miley,” she’d said, moving along and ignoring the snickers aimed in Nick’s direction.

She gives him points for attendance, but he’s still apprehensive as he approaches her office in Robinson – her initial reaction to the first draft of his essay had been eight pages’ worth of question marks and a subpar grade. She’s listening to The Smiths when he walks in, and she lowers the volume incrementally to speak.

“I bet you’re here to find out why you got a C on something you thought was A-quality,” she says, lighting a cigarette and waving the smoke out the window. “Listen, I’ll bump you up to a B if you don’t say anything about the smokes.”

“I want to do it right,” Nick says stubbornly, dropping into the visitor’s chair and shoving his updated paper across her desk. “So tell me what I’m doing wrong.”

No one has ever bothered to tell Nick Jonas what it is that he’s doing wrong. His teachers here, however, have no such qualms, and he’s both shell-shocked and bizarrely grateful.

“You’re writing a paper about nothing,” Bianca says, scrawling nothing across the title page. “Rock and roll was an important part of the American counterculture, fine. But that’s not what you need to prove, because hundreds of other people proved that decades ago. You need to narrow your focus and come up with one original idea. And then you need to show me why that’s worth ten pages of my time, because right now, I mostly just want to staple things to your head.”

Nick’s not entirely sure how that would work, but Bianca agrees to review his latest draft – “a reward for actually showing up to office hours,” she says, offering him a tumbler of Scotch that he declines – and send him her thoughts later in the evening.

He texts Joe a few minutes later, sitting in the undergrad lounge in the basement of Robinson. TA just tried to give me booze.

His MacBook is open and he’s partway through his Statistics homework before he receives a reply. shouldve taken it. on way to lax

It’s 4 p.m. by now, and November in the Northeast is black as midnight. He promises himself a fruit smoothie from JP Licks if he finishes this problem set by 6 and tries to shove the American Sixties and Widener and Joe out of his mind, focusing on nothing more than mean, median, and mode.

*

He’s supposed to have gone back to LA twice by now, but he can’t bring himself to do it – he’s bailed both times, pleading homework and studying and Absorbing The College Experience. His parents have offered to fly out, but he says he’s too busy, and limits himself to videochats and calls to Mom when he knows she’s cooking something good.

He does have more homework than he knows what to do with, but that’s not why he’s canceled. It’s because he knows that if he gets on a plane to LA even a second before Thanksgiving break, he won’t come back.

Nick is a superstar by trade, and it’s what he’s good at – accepting praise from critics and peers, devoting himself to his work, and looking damn good in a tuxedo. It wasn’t that hard to stand out at Disney – writing and performing all your own material was enough to earn the distinction of Hardest Working Kid In Show Business. He knows he’s a great musician, but that’s not why he’s here.

He’s here to stop being Nick Jonas-of-the-Jonas-Brothers for a few years, but he’s beginning to wonder if he even knows who that Nick is anymore.

Everyone at Harvard is a superstar in one way or another, even if the only thing they’ve excelled at thus far is being a descendant. The other kids in his history study group already have their law schools picked out, and the guy who sits next to him in Stats developed an iPhone app that got him onto Jobs’s radar at seventeen. The majority of his Advanced Contemporary Musical Theory class studied at Juilliard already, and they’re working on orchestral suites, not pop albums. On his dormitory floor alone, Nick can count a runway model, a Vanderbilt, a chess Grand Master, and three published authors.

They all nod in polite recognition when Nick says hello, and he wonders if his most productive years are already behind him.

*

He finishes the problem set at 6:15 and figures that he’s within a certain margin of error, so he crosses Mass Ave and orders a raspberry chocolate-chip smoothie. He lets himself check his messages now, and Joe boarded his flight an hour ago. He also has a text from Kevin, asking him to confirm that he didn’t actually drop out and/or kill himself, so he calls his oldest brother from the lobby of the Holyoke Center.

“Oh, thank God,” Kevin says when he answers. “I needed to talk to someone who actually speaks English.”

“Because the kids speak Swahili or something?” Nick replies. “I am still enrolled and alive, for your information.”

“That’s refreshing. Danielle says that if you drop out, you can come be our live-in nanny. It’s less prestigious, but you can have all the strained peaches you want.”

Nick smiles. Kevin and Danielle have a gorgeous house in Pacific Palisades, set back from the road and covered in ivy. They’re both stay-at-home parents for now; Kevin’s working a few days per week out of his home office and Danielle’s taking management courses through UCLA’s extension program, but they spend most of their time with Tommy and Katie. They were born to be parents, and these days, Nick envies them that certainty.

“I just have this paper that’s going nowhere,” Nick says by way of explanation. Kevin hums noncommittally. “It’s like, every idea that I think is original has already been done before, and it’s not like I can just bust out with a cover song.”

“I guess that’s college for you,” Kevin says. “When are you coming home?”

“Two days before Thanksgiving.”

“You’re not going to say that you just can’t make it this time, are you?”

Nick snorts. “No. They actually do kick us out of the dorms for this one. I will be back in Toluca Lake with bells on for the sake of pumpkin pie.”

“Good,” Kevin replies. “Okay, we’ve got some Olympic-level wailing going on here. Tell Joe I said hi.”

Nick crosses against the light and narrowly avoids getting hit by three different Priuses. He cuts between Wadsworth and Straus, trampling frozen blades of dead grass beneath his Timberlands, and slips into Massachusetts behind a group of overenthusiastic Physics majors. It’s just past 7 when he unlocks the door to his room and flops down on his extra-long twin bed, fumbling for the remote to his stereo system and pressing the power button. He’d been listening to Jeff Buckley the night before in an effort to fall asleep, and he sighs contentedly when he hears the haunting opening notes of “Mojo Pin” come through his speakers.

He pulls his phone from his pocket and checks his messages again – a heart from Mom, a happy face from Dad, still nothing on his paper from his TA. Joe’s somewhere over the Rockies, and he knows the band’s been working on Ocean Grove material in the studio all day.

He sets his alarm for 8:30 p.m. and clicks off the light, hoping his dreams aren’t too awful this time.

*

As a child, Nick dreamed that slave drivers would come and take him away. As an adult, not much has changed.

He’s standing atop the Kennedy School with his guitar in hand, but when he looks down, he doesn’t see the park and the river; he sees the smeary lights of downtown LA, the Hollywood Bowl and the Roosevelt giving way to the welcoming darkness of Runyon Canyon. He turns and looks across the 101, past the twisting streets of the rich and famous, and sees Griffith Park, the HOLLYWOOD sign lit up white and stark against the mountains.

He blinks once, and the sign now reads JUMP.

When he moves to the back of the roof, he sees the square shape of Kirkland House, beautiful brick across the quieter end of JFK Street. The roof of Kirkland is crowded with metal bleachers, photographers snapping and flashes popping, and Joe is sitting in the front row eating SoyJoy.

“Don’t do it, dude,” he calls, chewing thoughtfully. “You don’t know what’s down there.”

Nick frowns and plucks the E string. Instead of a note, his guitar blares the quadratic equation at him in a dull, computerized voice.

“I don’t know what’s up here, either,” he yells to Joe. He jumps towards Runyon, air both cold and hot rushing around him, and he wakes up just as he hits the soft earth.

*

Asscrack of Dawn has the plum timeslot between Community and 30 Rock, so Nick’s guaranteed to hear his brother’s practiced deadpan coming from the common room every Thursday night. He’s thought about stopping in, but it would be too weird; he generally DVRs it and watches it at 2 a.m. instead, sipping on Diet Coke as he plows through problem sets for Introduction to Statistics.

Like most successful sitcoms, it’s a workplace show; Aziz is the hapless producer of a morning talk show where nothing goes right and the ratings never creep out of the toilet. Mary Lynn Rajskub and Will Arnett are the tipsy, pill-popping anchors, and Joe plays Luke Davenport, the prematurely middle-aged weatherman. When reporters ask what sources he draws from, he always points to Nick.

His homework is done, so when Nick wakes up from his less-disturbing-than-usual nap, he turns the TV in the corner to NBC.

Joe is sitting in his dressing room with a coffee mug full of wine (the official beverage of Good Day, Dallas, the show-within-a-show) as Rachel Dratch, the head writer, goes through her latest argument with the production staff.

“It’s like they don’t even want the show to be successful,” Rachel’s character, Janet, is saying. “I asked for new segment ideas, and do you know what they did, Luke? They farted at me. They got up, they turned around, and they farted the 1812 Overture. Is this what I gave up New York for? Listen, I was at CNBC there, Luke. Give me ten, twelve, fifteen years, and I could have been that guy with the screaming and the RISKYs. I could have had RISKYs.”

“If you think that’s bad, try doing weather in Dallas,” Joe retorts. “I get a dead possum on my doorstep every time a tornado knocks down someone’s poolhouse. There are only so many possum recipes to try before you just make stew, over and over. Just… possum stew. Every night. I haven’t had chicken in years.”

Rachel crosses her arms in the absence of a laugh track. No one does laugh tracks anymore. “You cook the possums.”

“Well, yeah,” Joe says. “The city Sanitation Department says I can’t just throw them in the trash can, so what else am I supposed to do? Bury them? Hope a desperate hobo swings by my house every few days? I cook them, Janet. I cook those possums, and I tell myself it’s just like veal. On the bright side, I’m saving big on groceries. Suck on THAT, Whole Foods.”

Nick smiles, both at the dialogue and at the cackles drifting from down the hall. He smiles bigger when he thinks about how his goofy, unfocused older brother managed the taming and training required to be a halfway decent comedic actor, and he downright grins when he realizes that he’ll see Joe before the night is over.

*

It was easily the twenty-fifth audition Joe’s agent had sent him on in the space of three months, and Nick remembers slowing to a walk on his parents’ indoor treadmill when Joe burst through the basement door.

“Good? Bad? Neutral?” he says breathlessly, wiping his face with the hem of his t-shirt.

Joe rolls his eyes and sits down at the weight bench. “Pretty awful, but I don’t even think it’s going to get picked up. I’m supposed to hear back today about that CW thing and the Access Hollywood stuff, so I guess that’s not bad.”

Nick pokes a few buttons on the treadmill and lets the track roll to a stop. “Please tell me you’re not seriously considering hosting Access Hollywood.”

Joe shrugs, stripping off his t-shirt and laying down on the bench. “What else am I going to do? At least it’s a steady thing. Paycheck, reason to get up in the morning, all that.”

“Like you really need either,” Nick mutters, glancing at the door to make sure it’s locked. “If you end up doing that, I may seriously murder you.”

“And what are you doing?” Joe asks, deadpan. He’s tucked his hands behind his head, the muscular triangle of his arms staying perfectly still. “You’re just recording stuff for other people. Booo-ring.”

Nick pulls off his tank top and crosses the room, throwing one leg over the weight bench. Joe smirks up at him, throat glistening with sweat. “At least it’s real work.”

“Yeah, I’ll show you real work,” Joe replies, pulling Nick down against him. Nick goes willingly, bracketing Joe’s head with his hands as their mouths meet.

It’s just this thing they do when they’re bored or they’re stressed or something’s up, and it took Nick a few months to realize that they’re always bored or stressed these days. They’d been somewhere in Europe when Joe had rolled Nick over in bed, tour winding down and no plans for the future, and Nick -- as always -- just went with it.

He initiates it more, now, and that scares him a little.

It’s hard and fast, both of them sweaty and worked-up, Joe’s hair bristly and too-short beneath his fingers. He pulls Joe up and wraps his legs around his waist, bare feet sticky on the bench padding, and presses Joe’s thighs down with his own. Nick tries not to cry out when Joe sinks his teeth into his shoulder, but he can’t help snickering when Joe reaches up and covers Nick’s mouth with his palm.

“You are ridiculous,” Joe mutters, and under any other circumstances, Nick would contest that. Right now, though, Joe is pulling his dick out of his sweatpants, and Nick’s content to let Joe call him whatever he wants.

He licks Joe’s palm in anticipation, and Joe gets the hint -- he reaches down with that hand and starts jacking Nick hard, knocking surprised little grunts out of him. Nick is happily thrown, finding his way back to Joe’s mouth, breathing heavy and fast as Joe speeds up.

It doesn’t hurt that they’re both pretty good at this.

He steadies himself with one hand on Joe’s shoulder and unzips Joe’s jeans with the other, pulling his hard cock through the opening in his boxers. He tries to follow Joe’s rhythm, but it’s difficult; he’s half-gone and seeing fireworks when he closes his eyes, and he manages a few fumbles before Joe brings their dicks together.

“Like this,” he says, low and rough, and it’s hot and wet and tight and Nick’s fingers are laced with Joe’s now, breathing each other’s air and biting at whatever flesh they can reach. Joe sucks Nick’s tongue into his mouth and Nick explodes, covering their hands and their dicks with come. Joe follows right after, rubbing Nick’s sticky come all over his own cock as he arches his back and moans.

Nick gets up after a few minutes and heads for the shower. Joe follows, just like Nick knew he would.

Of course, Joe ended up getting the part.

*

Nick absolutely hates getting to the airport early, so he makes himself sit through another hour and a half of television before he hails a taxi in front of Out-of-Town-News and jumps in the backseat, directing the cabbie to the airport.

The driver takes the long way, down Western Avenue to the Mass Turnpike eastbound, and Nick thinks about how you don’t actually get any further east than that. Past the airport, it’s a matter of inches until hitting the ocean, tiny harbor islands forming a cursory barrier between you and the sea. He doesn’t want to go any further east; he wants nothing more than to go west, than to grab Joe and turn right around at the ticket counter, booking a flight back to LAX and bidding sayonara to this cold city and its too-small roads.

He takes a deep breath and reminds himself that this is not how adults think.

Nick can do this. He can finish this paper, then the one after that, then the one after that. He can complete the semester with a respectable grade point average, and he will come back in January no matter how much he wants to plant himself in LA and refuse to move. It might not be fun, but no one ever said college was supposed to be fun.

Okay, wait.

It’s going to build character, and that’s never fun. But maybe he’ll actually leave his room next semester, he thinks as the cab pulls up at Arrivals. Maybe he really will join the marching band. Maybe he really will learn to play the tuba.

He passes the Massport cop a $20 to hold the taxi’s spot for five minutes, and when he finds Joe at baggage claim, he can’t help it -- he throws himself at his older brother, wrapping his arms around Joe’s neck and burying his face in Joe’s shoulder.

“I missed you,” he says quietly, in the tone of voice that means and don’t tell anyone I ever said that.

Joe laughs, turning Nick towards the exit. “I missed you too, man. Are you going to feed me?”

He’s letting his hair grow out, and he’s wrapped in a scarf and a heavy wool peacoat; Nick wants to tell him that he’s probably overdressed, but he’ll do that later. Right now, he’s too pleased and grateful to do much more than let himself be steered out the door and back into the waiting cab.

“No paparazzi here,” Joe says approvingly, sliding the glass divider closed before slipping his gloved hand into Nick’s. “I can see how this place has its merits.”

Nick knows he’s grinning like a fool, but he’s already thinking about picking up a pizza at Pinocchio’s and eating it in bed with Joe, kicking their socked feet together under the covers. He’s truly happy for the first time in weeks, and Joe’s stupid diet can take a holiday.

His phone beeps in his pocket, and he opens the new email that just arrived.

I’d give it a B+, if you bothered to write a conclusion.

Nick smiles and twines his fingers with Joe’s. Suddenly, his weekend is really looking up.