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all our friends who lost the war

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Joe/Nick, R, present-day. Title from Rilo Kiley's "The Good That Won't Come Out."

The night after everything falls apart, Ashley takes a sleeping pill and tells Joe that she’s not planning on waking up for a good ten hours.

Joe understands, because she’s getting a truckload of trouble despite being totally innocent of any wrongdoing, and he lies awake next to her until the sound of his own breathing gets too loud. He slips out of bed and pads down the hallway, knocking on Nick’s door until he hears, “It’s open.”

It’s weird that they’re not sharing a room this time, but Joe was planning on having a lot of sex with his girlfriend on the South American leg of the tour and really didn’t feel like having Nick and his faithful guitar provide the soundtrack. He’s still having sex, but not as much as he’d hoped for; Ashley feels nervous and out-of-place, tired at the end of the day from trying to ingratiate herself with people who give her sideways glances, and Joe can’t blame her for collapsing into bed and snoring softly against his chest half of the time. He’s performing full shows for screaming fans, but that’s second nature to him. Ashley’s different – she’s drained, emotionally exhausted.

(On the other hand… one black eye and a lot of tears later, he’s pretty sure he’s got a whole new barometer for what it means to be emotionally exhausted.)

Nick’s propped up against the pillows on his bed, and Joe automatically looks for his guitar. It’s still packed in its case, and Nick’s notebooks are nowhere in sight. His phone is charging in the corner, and when Joe sees the toothpick dangling from the corner of Nick’s mouth, he realizes what Nick’s doing.

He’s brooding.

“What’s up,” Joe says, almost rhetorically; he knows what’s up, and he knows Nick won’t answer anyway. He sits on the corner of the bed, thinking about how empty Nick’s room looks without all of his own crap to crowd it out.

Nick looks up, brown eyes tired and puffy, and exhales deeply. He’d been silent for most of the day, toying with his phone while the dancers cried and the whole group got a lecture on personal responsibility and confidentiality agreements. He’s been stewing quietly, and Joe knows that whatever he’s going to say isn’t going to be good.

“This isn’t what I wanted,” Nick says hollowly. He’s working the toothpick between his front teeth like he’s James Dean with an insulin pump, and Joe has to stifle the urge to rip it out of Nick’s mouth and throw it across the room. “This was never, ever, ever supposed to happen.”

Joe shrugs, and he feels the muscles in his back complain; he’d spent the whole “tour production” meeting hunched over between Jack and Garbo, trying to avoid the stares, and he’d curled into his bunk on the way back from the show. “I don’t think anyone had this on their tour agenda.”

Nick shakes his head almost violently, pushing himself off the bed. “That’s not what I mean,” he says; he begins to pace, bare toes curling imperceptibly into the thick-pile carpet. “I mean that this isn’t what I wanted for us. You notice how absolutely nothing has gone right for us? In, like, months? A year, maybe? First, the album doesn’t sell. Then, we have to do a TV show that no one even watches – we’re musicians, Joe. We recorded fifteen tracks that we didn’t even write, and they’re about cars and parties and nothing that’s actually worth writing a song about anyway. We go on a tour that none of us wanted to do in the first place, and half the people we expected to show up didn’t even buy tickets.”

He stops at the dresser and leans back, fine-carved wood digging into his back and throwing faint shadows across his hips. Joe thinks about this boy in front of him, all corded muscles and bulky shoulders, and how scared and sickly he’d been five years ago. Five years ago, the shadows across his hips weren’t optical illusions; they were the gaping concavities of disease rendered visible on his little brother’s skin, and Joe just loves him so much.

“And now,” Nick continues, “Demi’s at some hospital in Texas, where they’re going to make her sit in a circle and talk about her feelings and medicate her until she stops feeling sad. Stops feeling altogether. You know that she wouldn’t be in this mess if it weren’t for us.”

“I didn’t – “ Joe says, tired, but Nick stops him.

“I don’t mean the breakup, or taking your girlfriend on this godforsaken tour. I mean this entire mess. We’ve been dragging her along for the last two years, and we’re why she’s famous. Demi should not be famous, Joe. Okay, she’s talented, but her parents suck and she’s doing it all on her own and seriously, look at what it’s done to her.” It’s all tumbling out of Nick, now, his hands balled into fists and his voice gone tight. “If it weren’t for us and these stupid movies and these stupid soundtracks and these stupid themed tours, Demi would be a nice, normal music major at UT who tells people stories about the time she almost wound up on the Disney Channel. Dude, we did this to her. I did this to her. This isn’t what I wanted, and if I knew we were going to end up ruining someone’s life, I would have stopped with the singing and told everyone I wanted to be a professional baseball player instead.”

Nick slumps back, defeated, and Joe has no idea what to say.

He eventually settles on, “You’re an idiot,” which at least manages to get Nick’s attention.

“Why am I an idiot, Joe?” he says, exasperated, exhausted sigh underlining his words.

“First of all, stop acting like this is the worst year of our lives, because it’s not,” Joe starts. “You had a great solo tour, Kevin got married to a nice lady who makes lasagna, and you were in Les Mis. Twice. Kevin was on a game show, Mom and Dad had their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, we had a good time filming the stupid TV show, you raised about a bajillion dollars for diabetes research, and we were at the White House. Again, twice. Mom got Twitter and embarrassed the crap out of Frankie by talking about his huge baby head, which was hilarious. You got a Lamborghini for your birthday, and someone even gave your dog a crown. Granted, the Yankees didn’t win the World Series, but you can’t have everything.” Joe crosses his arms. “The only person who can really claim to be having an off-year is me, and I’m not going to bitch about my diamond shoes being too tight.”

“I just rented it,” Nick mutters.

Joe rolls his eyes. He feels the shame and regret from earlier seeping out of his bones, dissipating with every half-formed thought that takes on a logical shape and makes its way into words; he’d felt awful, yeah, but Nick is taking the guilt and self-loathing to a whole new level of hyperbolic martyrdom.

“Moving on, Demi is most certainly not normal. Awesome, yes. Talented, yes. But normal, she is not. Her parents do suck, and she’s depressed, and she’s exhausted, and she was going to end up in therapy sooner or later. At least being famous means she has the money to get the best treatment she can, and she’s exhausted because she works eighty hours a week doing what she loves and that’s still not enough to make up for the fact that she has demons that were there long before we even met her. And not only will she be better off when she gets out, she’ll have a much easier time getting people to take her seriously as an adult, because she’ll get to sing about psychiatric rehab while the rest of us have to get a Presidential pardon for saying damn.”

Nick blinks. “I don’t think she’s going there for the street cred.”

“You’re really good at missing the point,” Joe replies, making a face. “Was I worried about Demi yesterday? Yes. Am I worried about her today? No, because she’s doing the right thing and she’s in a safe place now. It’s gonna work out, I swear.”

“Yeah,” Nick says dubiously, sitting back down on the bed. “Sure. I hope so.”

“Demi’s a trooper.” Joe stretches backwards, feeling the knot in his shoulder move along with him. “And finally, no one would have taken you seriously as a professional baseball player. You’re a midget who can’t throw. Stick to ping-pong.”

He collapses against the bed pillows, exhausted from being the rational brother. Nick follows suit; Joe imagines that the tiny robots who dictate Nick’s every move have short-circuited with this sudden role-reversal.

“I’m an inch taller than you,” Nick points out petulantly.

“You’re a musician. And you’re famous. And your family doesn’t suck. So deal with it.” Joe turns over to face Nick, who’s staring at the ceiling; the lines and curves of his profile stand out against the dark curtains in the middle distance. “We have two weeks left, then the show in Abu Dhabi, and then it’s the holidays. We tell Dad and Phil that we want a break so that we can actually write our own stuff for the first time in months. And then we do it. We’re done with Camp Rock, dude. We’re done with the TV show. We have some time to do what we’re actually good at. What you’re actually good at.”

“You have your own album,” Nick points out.

“We’re not doing anything with it until the beginning of next year.” Joe rolls closer, poking Nick in the stomach and smiling quickly when he feels Nick flex beneath him. “December’s ours. We can do what we want.”

“What we want,” Nick echoes, and that’s what it’s really about – being able to do what they want to do, not what some anonymous corporate overlord is demanding. It’s what Demi wants, it’s what Nick wants, and it’s definitely what Joe wants.

They’re silent for a while, trying to process everything that’s happened, and when Nick turns his head, Joe looks up.

“Stay,” Nick says. Even though his voice is quiet, it’s still more of an order than a request. Joe bites back a number of remarks – most of which involve falsetto shirt-ripping – and nods, flicking off the bedside lamp as Nick pulls the covers over them both.

It’s a king-sized bed and neither of them is very big, but they both gravitate towards the center, and Joe suppresses a shudder when Nick’s breath ghosts over his skin. They don’t do this, not like they used to – they’re supposed to be adults, and they’re both supposed to be sharing beds with someone else – but Joe finds himself missing it. It looks like Nick does, too.

Nick pushes closer, knocking his feet against Joe’s and pressing their foreheads together. As Joe’s eyes adjust to the dark, he can see the freckles dotting Nick’s nose, the indentations that his sunglasses have left just across the bridge, the pronounced arch of his eyebrows. It’s familiar and comforting on a day that’s been anything but, and Joe tries not to think about the girl in his empty bed as he leans forward and presses his lips to Nick’s.

Nick doesn’t hesitate, just opens his mouth and wraps his hands around Joe’s hips, and this is something else they’re not supposed to do anymore. They’re far past the point where they can claim that they didn’t know better, that they’re too insulated from the rest of the world to know that this is wrong, that they can’t trust anyone else but each other. They have friends and girlfriends and they try to lead separate lives now, living apart and developing worlds outside of the one they created years ago, back when Nick was fourteen and vulnerable and Joe was seventeen and stupid. They keep saying they’ve got to stop this, and Nick tries to lock his bedroom door half the time, but they’re inevitably drawn back together by stress and blood and love.

And no one will ever kiss like Nick does, slow and controlled and informed by years of physical and emotional intimacy, nipping softly at Joe’s lower lip until he whines deep in his throat. He twists his fingers in Nick’s hair, tacky with sweat and gel, and carefully slots their hips together.

This all started because of Nick’s uncontrollable teenage hard-ons, pressing insistently against Joe’s back as he tried to hide what was happening; Joe got curious one day and brushed his hand across Nick’s erection, and Nick had gasped and come all over the inside of his jeans. Nick had no control back then, ashamed and uncomfortable, and Joe’d taken care of him – worked him through it for years, until they didn’t have Nick’s unpredictable hormones to blame anymore. Now, Joe feels the line of Nick’s cock as he starts to get hard in his sweatpants, gradually thickening until it’s a long, hot point of contact between them. He rubs his own erection against Nick’s and listens for the sharp intake of air he knows will come.

Joe has his girlfriends, but Nick still won’t do this with anyone else; he stops his dates when they start trying to work his zipper down and turns the tables, sliding his fingers up their skirts and using his mouth to keep them from asking too many questions. It’s weird – more than weird, Joe knows – but he always feels an odd flush of pride and possessiveness when he thinks about it, selfishly glad that Nick is still only his and ashamed that he can’t give Nick the same thing. He pushes Nick onto his back and straddles him, never breaking the kiss, and rolls his hips downward.

He can’t give Nick monogamy, but he can at least make it good.

“Jesus,” Nick breathes, beads of sweat beginning to form along his hairline as he fucks up against Joe. His eyes are wide open now, pupils blown and black, and he tugs his lower lip between his teeth as Joe presses him into the sheets. They always had to do this with Nick on top, because he was so tiny, but years have evened the score – and Joe knows that Nick likes to be held down, likes to feel that there’s one thing in the world for which he doesn’t have to be wholly and solely responsible. Joe will take care of him, get him off good, and for that interval of time, he doesn’t have to think.

Joe pulls down the collar of Nick’s white t-shirt and sucks a bruise into his collarbone, low enough that no one will see, and as he presses his blunt nails into Nick’s biceps, he feels Nick blow apart beneath him. Nick goes still as his orgasm rolls over him, pulsing out into his pants, sticky and wet as Joe steadily works him through it. When he collapses back down, spent and fucked-out, Joe rubs against his hip to finish himself off. He groans into Nick’s shoulder as he comes, rolling off of him and dropping his head to the pillow.

It’s not perfect, but they’ve had a hell of a day and it did the trick.

“Thank you,” Nick says after a few minutes, reaching over and tucking Joe against his side.

Joe doesn’t ask for what; he just waits for Nick’s breathing to go slow and even, then lets himself fade into sleep.