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a pop song to clear your name
Joe/Nick, rated R. babyfic babyfic babyfic.

Notes at the end.



When Joe asks him if he'll do it, Nick says yes immediately.

Joe has been working himself up to a full panic, arms flailing, long stream-of-consciousness babbling, and when Nick nods and simply says "yes", he rocks back and forth and looks completely lost.

"I'll do it," Nick clarifies. "I'll tell Mom and Dad for you."

"But - why?"

Nick pulls him down onto the hotel bed so he can't pace anymore and wraps an arm around Joe's waist. "When was the last time you asked me for anything?"

Joe gives him a blank look. Nick interprets that as meaning Joe can't remember.

"You don't really need to do this for me," Joe says after a minute. "I wasn't serious about you telling them. It's my responsibility. I'm the idiot who fucked up birth control, I'm the jackass that's going to have to tell our parents that some girl I barely know is having my kid."

"No," Nick replies in the calmest voice he can muster. "You made a mistake. You're doing your best. I will tell Mom and Dad, and they can work out all their anger in a way that's not completely directed at you because you're standing there, and you're going to Ohio to be with..."

"Jane," Joe supplies.

"Be with Jane until the baby comes."

"Ohio," Joe repeats. He frowns. "And then what?"

"You need to decide what you're going to do. Whatever you decide, I'm here for you. And if she really doesn't want to keep the baby like she's saying and you do, then Joe - I'm there for that, too, okay?" Nick can't imagine Joe being all alone with a newborn. He can't imagine Joe with a baby at all. Joe will need help, and Nick will help, because the baby's his flesh and blood too. A new life to cradle and soothe and wake up with in the middle of the night when he or she wails.

There's a brief second where every cell in his body longs for that, then a sharp prick of confusion at his selfish motivations. He shakes it off and knows that for once in his life, he doesn't care what his parents will think, or what anyone else will think. If Joe's going to do this on his own, Nick is going to be right there next to him.

Joe sags against him, all his fight and freak-outs dissolving. Then he puts both arms around Nick and Nick finds himself being hugged so tight he can barely breathe. Joe whispers, "Thank you," and "I love you," and "Thank you," again and again.

Nick lets him cling for a few minutes before disentangling him gently. Already, his mind is mapping out how to do this. "Come on," he murmurs, and helps Joe pack a bag, then puts him in a cab to the airport, saying, "Text me when you're on a plane, and not before."

Then, without even consulting their father first, he calls their lead tour manager and cancels the next night's show, and the one after that, and the one after that. "Joe is sick," he explains, "some sort of flu thing; I had it last year and it knocked me out for a whole week. Give them their money back, say we'll try to reschedule at the back end of the tour. No promises."

It's money lost but Nick doesn't care. He knows no one but their parents will question him on what he just did, and he's going to tell them the truth about where Joe is as soon as he makes sure that Joe has made it to the airport and has boarded a plane.

Two hours later, his phone has three missed messages from Kevin before it finally buzzes with a text from Joe. On plane. tell me i can do this. tell me youre coming too.

you can do this, Nick texts back, i'll leave here as soon as i tell mom&dad.

For a brief second, he thinks about just leaving without telling anyone anything at all. He's eighteen; he can get a plane ticket without a parent. It's tempting, and if Nick is being honest with himself, he thinks about it a lot longer than just a moment. Then he glances at the nightstand and sees Joe's ring there, lonely in the circle of light cast by the lamp, and knows he can't leave without some sort of explanation to the rest of his family. So he unfolds himself from the bed, pockets Joe's ring, packs his bag so that it's ready to go - with his own things, and all the things that Joe had forgotten - and leaves it just inside the door.

His parents were obviously asleep, from the slow way that Dad answers the door. "Nicholas? It's late, what is it? Are you sick?"

"No, Dad, I'm fine," Nick says, and brushes past his father into the room. Mom is sitting up in the bed, reaching to turn on the light. Nick tries not to think about how they're the only band of adults who still travel with their parents most places. He takes a deep breath. "Joe's gone to Ohio. There's a girl there, she's - she's pregnant, and Joe's the father."

There's no way he can miss the way the color drains from his mom's face, the way Dad's immediately goes ruddy. "I'm going to Ohio, too," he says before they can speak. "I canceled the next few shows. You'll probably have to cancel the rest of the tour."

"Nicholas," Mom says, like she's trying not to cry. Dad sinks down onto the bed next to her.

Nick holds up his hand. "I'll be in touch," he says. Then he leaves, pulling the door closed behind him and then running full-out down the hallway to his own room. His hands shake as he slides the keycard into the door. "Hurry up, hurry up," he breathes, until the light turns green.

He grabs his bag and bolts, not looking back at the commotion that he's sure has just begun behind him. No one is expecting him to show up at the airport, much less solo, and by ducking out a back door at the hotel, he makes it there and through ticketing with hardly a hiccup. All he can think about is getting to Joe.

It's not until he's waiting - alone - in the VIP lounge that he realizes he doesn't know exactly where in Columbus he's going. Joe's plane has surely taken off by now, so he can't text. He's a little afraid to look at his phone right now anyway, so he doesn't. He'd bet all the money he made last year that there are people on the other side of the security checkpoint looking for him. But he's an adult; there's no way he's leaving this airport except on the next flight to Ohio.

There's a pre-paid cell phone kiosk not far from the lounge he's camped out in, so with a quick glance in all directions for anyone he might know, he slips down to it. He catches the lone employee just before the guy closes up. He buys the best phone the place has and a couple thousand minutes. It's easily the biggest purchase anyone's made in weeks, judging from the guy's face. Nick gives him an extra fifty for his trouble and his silence, and goes back to the lounge. There, he activates the phone and transfers all the numbers he cares to keep. Then he texts Joe his new number, and after a moment, sends Kevin a message from his old phone saying he'll be in touch, to give him a few days to get things sorted out.

He calls first his lawyer, then Joe's. He explains what Joe needs, and they assure him the files will be in his email the next morning. Then he calls his doctor. Finally, he turns the old phone off and stashes it in his bag.

He's not freaking out.

He's calm.

He checks his levels before the last of the restaurants close, just to be safe. He's okay, but he buys some snacks for the flight just in case.

Nick sits in the lounge, not moving, not doing anything but breathing (okay, sometimes he drums his fingers on his thigh for a few seconds) until his flight is called and he joins the line of people waiting to board. He doesn't think about all the things he's wrecking by doing this. He knows what his father would say: that he's choosing Joe over everything else, even over the rest of his career.

Nick knows this and he does it anyway. He boards the plane, and leaves his old life behind.

*


There's a text from Joe when Nick can turn his cell on again, saying what hotel he's checked into and that Jane can't see him until tomorrow. Nick hails a car just outside the airport, and when he gets to the hotel, Joe is waiting in the lobby with dark circles under his eyes.

Nick waits until they're locked in the room to hug Joe, pulling him in as close as he can and willing Joe to melt into him. Joe does, pressing his face to Nick's neck, and Nick can feel his half-sobbing breaths, hot and damp against his skin. "Ssh, it's okay," he whispers.

"I'm sorry I made you do this," Joe says shakily, when he finally steps back.

"You didn't make me do anything," Nick replies firmly, shaking his head. He reaches out to touch the shadows underneath Joe's eyes. "Besides, what did I really leave back there? Nothing."

Joe snorts. "Only everything we've ever known."

Nick shrugs.

Joe's jaw drops in shock. "Nick-"

"Did you decide what you're going to do?" He sits down on the bed and pulls Joe with him, scooting back to lean against the headboard and wrap his arms around Joe.

Joe turns on his side so that his cheek is resting on Nick's shoulder, tangling their legs together. "Either I take the baby, or Jane gives it up for adoption," he murmurs.

Nick holds his breath, stroking Joe's arm, trying to be gentle.

"I can't... I could never let Jane just give my baby away."

"No one is expecting you to," Nick replies.

"You mean, everyone is expecting me to."

Nick wraps his fingers around Joe's wrist and squeezes. He can feel Joe's pulse, thrumming against his fingertips. "I expect you to do what your heart tells you. And it sounds like you've made up your mind, Joe."

"What about Mom and Dad? What about the band?" Joe's voice cracks a little as he asks and Nick hugs him tighter. "The press? Our fans?"

"We'll figure it out," Nick murmurs, making promises he doesn't know for sure he can keep, "but it will be up to you what you want to tell people."

Joe looks up at him. "I can't lie about this. I'm already the asshole, having sex with a girl I'd just met. Besides, where else am I going to say the baby came from? Thin air? The stork? Even if I lied, people would know it's a lie and assume the worst anyway. Which would be - oh, hey - the truth."

There's not much Nick can say to that, so he tells Joe to try and get some sleep, that he'll be right here the whole time.

*


Three days of avoiding their parents, their brothers, their managers, their band, and pretty much everyone else they've ever known, and Nick is standing outside of a hospital on his cell phone, on hold. Waiting. Jane is in labor and she's agreed to let Joe be in the room. Nick is not pacing in the lobby because the hospital staff won't let him use his phone inside and he's got about twenty-four hours to buy and furnish a house. Someplace where no one would think to look for them.


So he’s tucked under the overhang, trying to stay out of the glare of the setting August sun, waiting for the real estate agent he’d tasked his lawyer with finding before he’d left California to finish faxing the offer. She’d told him about a house in Pennsylvania, in DuBois - a place with lots of windows and hardwood floors, in a gated community. “Tell them I’ll pay a hundred thousand above asking and all their moving costs if they can be out of there by the weekend,” he’d told her, “and I’ll buy all their furniture, too. And appliances. Whatever. Whatever housewares they want to leave.”


Apparently this had been acceptable, and all he needed to do now was sign.


“All right, it should be there shortly,” the agent says. “Fax it back to me once you’ve signed, and I’ll set up the closing. Congratulations.”


“Thanks.” He hangs up and wonders where he could buy a car around here. That might have to wait until the morning.


Inside, the nurse at the desk waves him over. “Your fax is printing now.”


“Thank you.” The hospital staff seem confused by him and Joe and the whole situation, but they’ve been agreeable. The stack of confidentiality agreements that Nick’s lawyer had faxed over had probably helped.


She hands him the pages. He glances through them briefly, then starts to sign them. A door bangs open at the end of the hall and he looks up to see Joe skidding down the hall, a look Nick's never seen before on his face. Nick drops the pen as Joe catches him around the waist, the force of his hug sending them both stumbling into the curved edge of the nurses’ station.


“I have a daughter,” Joe says in his ear. He can feel Joe’s heart hammering.


Nick hugs him back as tightly as he can. His own pulse is pounding in his ears, so hard it almost hurts. It takes a few seconds before he can speak. "Congratulations."


"Give me a few more minutes and then come see her," Joe murmurs, and then he lets go of Nick and hurries back down the hallway. Nick watches him go, half-afraid that Joe will trip over his own feet. Then he turns back to the nurse, who has been watching them with barely concealed interest, and asks her to fax back the signed papers.


After his agent calls and confirms that all the pages have arrived, Nick goes down the hall to where Joe is. The door is open a little, and he can hear a person he assumes is Jane talking inside. "Are you sure you want to do this, Joe? It's not too late."


Nick knows what she means is that it's not too late for Joe to sign adoption papers. But he's also just as certain that it was too late for Joe the moment he found out about the baby. "I'm sure," he hears Joe say. "She's coming with me."


He knocks on the door, nudging it open as he does. "Hi?"


"Nick!" Joe says. He's holding the baby, wrapped up in a blanket. Nick blinks; for a second it's like he doesn't recognize this person in front of him. Joe's holding the baby like he's known how to do it his entire life, while Nick is remembering that new fathers in movies never know what they're doing.


He can barely see the dark fuzzy hair on her head and her squished red face. He steps into the room.


The girl in the bed is a wisp of a thing, obviously exhausted, a cloud of wavy brown hair around her head, dark circles under her dark eyes. It strikes Nick that she looks a lot like Joe. "Hi," he says to her, suddenly feeling awkward.

"Jane, this is my Nicholas," Joe says. "Nick, this is Jane."

She gives him a half-wave. Nick feels incredibly out of place. He looks from Jane to the baby again. "Um, what's her name?" he asks, because the silence is weird and tense and... weird, and Jane's still looking at him strangely.

"We haven't decided," Joe says.

Jane shakes her head. "You haven't decided."

"I could name her after you," Joe offers, but she keeps shaking her head. Nick is staying out of this conversation. "Well, what's your middle name?"

"Ellen, and it's awful."

Joe looks down at the baby. "How about Ella?"

Jane nods slowly, looking to Nick like she'd rather be any place else but here. "That - that would be fine."

*


"That's hardly going incognito," Joe says when Nick pulls up in front of the hospital in the BMW. He's holding Ella's car seat by the handle and she's asleep, snuggled up in a pink and yellow blanket that Nick knows Jane's mom had made. That she had insisted Joe take.

"It scored really high on government crash test ratings," Nick informs him, opening the back door of the SUV. "Do you know how to buckle that in here?"

"It can't be that hard."

"Here," says the nurse who'd been standing with Joe, "let me. With this car seat, you put the belt through here - here - and buckle it - here." She demonstrates several times. "Got it?"

Nick nods, sees Joe nod too. "Thanks."

"You boys take care of this little one," she says, reaching out to stroke Ella's cheek before Joe closes the door.

"We will," Nick says stiffly, a hand on Joe's lower back to guide him into the passenger seat. When he's satisfied that everyone who needs to be in the car is buckled up inside of it, he gets back into the driver's seat and hits the button for the GPS.

Joe twists around to look at Ella. "Did you get all the stuff out of the hotel room?"

"Yeah, and I checked us out and everything. Did you get a referral for a pediatrician in DuBois?"

"Yeah."

"Awesome." He shifts into drive. "Then we can hit the road."

"Okay."

Nick slows to a stop at the end of the parking lot, waiting to turn right. "Do you want to sit back there with her?"

There's a long enough pause that he knows Joe is thinking about it. "No," Joe murmurs, "not now. Maybe when she wakes up. We'll have to stop a couple times so I can feed her and stuff. How long is the drive?"

"Four and a half hours."

"Nick."

"Yeah?"

"I'm sort of terrified."

Nick glances back at the baby again. "Me too."

Joe makes it twenty minutes before he climbs into the back seat, curls up next to the baby, and falls asleep with her tiny foot cupped in his hand. Nick has to consciously keep stopping himself from staring at them in the rearview mirror, limiting himself to the occasional glance that warms him inside every time he looks up and sees them.

*


Somehow, they get settled in. Joe doesn't say much of anything the first few days. "Good thing there's furniture," he remarks when they first go into the house, but the rest of the time he seems lost in thought. Nick watches as Joe teaches himself how to take care of the baby, sometimes looking things up online for Joe but mostly trying to stay out of the way. Letting Joe bond with Ella.

Joe refuses to let him come with to the pediatrician, so Nick tries to handle all the house things that need doing. He makes long shopping lists and checks items off one by one; all the things they left behind, and all the things Ella still needs.

He builds entire wardrobes for himself and Joe from the ground up, moving through the mall on a mission until they have everything they'll need for at least a few months. He can't stop himself from buying one of nearly every baby outfit that Old Navy stocks for girls, and tiny booties and hats, and a blanket that's covered in giraffes.

He spends hours at the grocery store reading the nutrition labels on all the staples he wants to stock the pantry with. Buys organic formula and baby food for Ella even though she can't eat it yet, buys a rainbow-colored assortment of fruits and vegetables for himself and Joe, fully intending to cook meals from scratch.

He doesn't look at the glossy magazine covers in the checkout aisles, the headlines in bold font on more than a few of them wondering where he and Joe have disappeared to.

He goes home loaded with bags one afternoon to find Joe and Ella sacked out on the couch, the baby asleep and drooling on Joe's chest, the television flickering a Nickelodeon show Joe likes, with the volume way down. Nick sets down all the stuff as quietly as he can and gently lifts Ella off of Joe. She stirs but doesn't wake as he snuggles her close and sits down in the chair. She smells like baby powder and baby lotion and what he thinks of as that weird diaper smell. He watches her open and close her mouth a bunch of times.

She's so tiny, and Nick is maybe sort of terrified of dropping her, but it's okay. They've made it this far already.

Just as he's starting to doze off, Joe wakes up with a start. "Baby, where's the baby?"

"Right here, bro," Nick murmurs.

"Oh." Joe slumps back against the couch cushions, but Nick sees him watching them.

“I’ll make dinner, if you’re hungry,” Nick offers.


“Yeah, okay.”


“You just want the baby back, don’t you?” Joe makes grabby hands in their direction and Nick smirks. “Dude, just c’mere and sit with us for a while. We’ll watch… whatever this is.”


The chair is more than big enough for both of them. Joe is cautious of Ella as he curls himself around Nick. “I feel – it feels wrong when she’s not right next to me.”


The bassinet is in Joe’s room, but Nick knows that Joe usually lays Ella on the huge bed and dozes on and off in between periods of her fussing. She doesn’t seem too interested in sleeping more than a few hours at a time during the night, and he also knows that Joe naps during the day while she does.


Nick brushes his hand over her back and settles more comfortably against Joe. “If you need to get out of the house, I’ll take care of her,” he says. “You know that, right? I can work the formula and stuff. I’m decent at the burping part.”


Joe laughs tiredly, warm puffs of air against Nick’s neck. “You’re amazing, you know that? I never could have done all this by myself, dude. Getting the house and the car and stuff. And hauling the baby around while I tried to buy everything? No way. I'm lucky I get her to the doctor.”


“You would have done it,” Nick insists.


“Nick,” Joe says softly, “if you weren’t in this with me, I wouldn’t be doing it.”


Nick looks down at Ella, in her purple onesie and soft hat printed with yellow moons and stars. She’s only been here two weeks and already he can’t imagine his world without her in it. He drops his head back against Joe’s shoulder. Then he remembers what he'd realized on the way home. "Oh, hey, happy birthday."


"It's my birthday?" Joe asks, sounding genuinely confused.


Nick chuckles. "Yesterday. I totally forgot."


"Wow." Joe turns his head and kisses Nick's temple. "Thanks."


There's a few minutes of silence, then Nick asks, "Don't you miss everyone?"


“Yeah.” Joe reaches around to skim his fingertips over Ella’s cheek. It wakes her up, and they watch her blink and yawn. “It wasn’t fair to them, what I did.”


Ella lets out a cry before Nick can answer, and Joe wiggles out from behind Nick and scoops her up. “I guess that makes two of us who are hungry, huh, baby?” he says to her, kissing her face. “Let’s get you a bottle, while Uncle Nicky makes Daddy some dinner.”


Nick grins at them despite himself. His own stomach rumbles, which makes Joe laugh. “Daddy would be eating macaroni and cheese if he didn’t have me,” he says to Ella. She ignores him and howls again. Nick wraps an arm around Joe’s waist and moves all three of them into the kitchen.

*


Ella's a month old when Joe decides he can't stand it any longer and uses Nick's old cell phone to call their mom. He won't let Nick be in the room while he does it, so Nick is left to cuddle a whimpering baby in the living room. She's been fussy and distressed all day, not outright screaming, but obviously upset with something. Nick figures Joe's mood is rubbing off on her. She hiccups sad little noises against his chest as he walks back and forth. "Ssh, baby," he whispers, straining to hear anything at all from Joe's room. But he can't make out any of what's being said.

He's feeling as upset as the baby is by the time Joe opens the door and comes down the stairs. Nick's hovering at the bottom; he hadn't been able to stop himself. Joe reaches for Ella and he passes her over. Joe snuggles her close in one arm and pulls Nick to him with the other.

Nick wants desperately to ask how things had gone but he waits, wrapping both arms around Joe’s waist. Together, they rock Ella in a slow-dance sway. She settles a little more. Joe turns his head so his mouth is brushing Nick’s ear. "I thought they would still be mad but they’re not," he whispers, his breath hitching almost imperceptibly. "Mom just – she kept saying that they're disappointed."


Nick looks at the baby, awake but calm now in Joe's arms, and says, "They won't be, once they meet her."


"It was kind of awkward getting to it, but Mom wants to come out here."


"Just Mom?"


"And Kev, I think. For now."


Nick understands that if their mom is on board, their dad will come around eventually, but he also figures that Joe's feeling like someone punched him in the gut right now. "Are they coming?"


"Sometime. Not right away."


Nick waits.


"I’m not ready to let go of this yet," Joe says. "Does that make sense?"


"Yeah," Nick breathes. He gets it. It's only been a month but this is their own tiny world here, they've built it themselves. He doesn't know if he's ready to pop the bubble yet, either. As much as he misses the members of his family who aren't in his arms right now, the ones he's holding are the ones he loves the most. He's already dropped everything for Joe and Ella, and he'd do it again. He would do it every time.



*


It's a Saturday and Nick is sitting at the dining room table, writing a grocery list. Joe is bouncing Ella in the bouncy-seat-thing, singing her songs from The Little Mermaid. He hasn't left the house for anything beyond the doctor visits, and he's trying really hard to hide how stir-crazy he's going. Nick can see it, though.

"Man, this kid is gonna know all the words to every Disney musical ever before she can read," Joe stops singing long enough to say.

"Before she can read?" Nick asks. "Try before she can walk. You want celery in potato salad?"

"Potato salad?"

"I'm going to make potato salad." He looks at Joe lying on the floor, nudging Ella's seat with his toe. "Dude, why don't you go to the store instead of me?"

"I don't know where it is."

"The car's got a GPS."

"The baby-"

"Will be fine with me." Nick adds celery to the list. "I can do all the baby things, Joe."

Joe eyes him skeptically. He refuses to let Nick get up at night with Ella, even though Nick must have offered to do it a thousand times. "She's my responsibility, Nick," he says every time. It makes Nick's heart ache with how much he wants to tell Joe that she's a responsibility they can share, that he isn't planning on going anywhere, but he also understands that Joe is probably afraid to ask him for any more than he already has.

Nick sets down his pen, finished. "Really. I can. You should get out of the house."

"I go outside."

"To run or to take Ella for a walk. Do you even remember how to drive a car?"

"Shut it," Joe grumbles, sitting up. "I drove to the doctor two weeks ago!"

Nick grins. "Here's the list. You might recognize such words as 'milk' and 'carrots'."

"I can still read, jerkface." Joe climbs to his feet and snatches the piece of paper from Nick's hand. He stalks into the kitchen while Nick makes goofy faces at Ella, who doesn't care at all. Then he comes back. "Um, where did you put the keys?"

Nick can't hold back his laugh. "On the hook next to the door. And you might want shoes."

"I hate you," Joe replies. He walks over and leans down to kiss Ella's forehead. "Bye, baby." Then he brushes his mouth over Nick's, brief and light. "Bye, Nicky."

"Bye," Nick mumbles, frozen in the chair.

He hears the door shut as Joe leaves. Ella makes a mewling noise and Nick snaps back to himself. He's already falling down on the job. "Sorry, sweetie," he tells her, and starts bouncing the chair with his foot. "Do you think he even realized he did that?" he asks, and she slowly opens her mouth and blows a spit bubble. "No, I don't think so either."

In addition to the pens and paper on the dining room table, there is a guitar. Nick tries not to think about what his mother would say as he lifts it up and into his lap, and then picks up "Under the Sea" where Joe had left off.

Joe is gone a little more than an hour. He drops half the grocery bags as he tries to carry them all inside at once. "At least I didn't need eggs this week," Nick says, stooping down and picking up a can of corn where it's rolled across the kitchen.

"Hi," Joe says. His eyes are a little wild.

"Here's your daughter," Nick says in reply, and dumps her into Joe's arms. "She had a bottle. And I was gonna save the gross diaper change for you, but I thought that might be a little mean."

Joe lifts Ella up and blows a raspberry against her stomach. "That was nice of Uncle Nick, wasn't it?" he asks her. "And now you smell nice and clean."

Nick rolls his eyes. "Get out of the kitchen before you trip over something."

"Thanks," Joe says, leaning over and kissing his cheek. "Maybe next time I can make it there without the GPS."

Nick gets all the groceries put away and sorts out what he wants to make for dinner. The previous homeowners left a few cookbooks behind, and he's been browsing through them. As the chicken breasts sear, he chops up vegetables. He can hear the television on in the other room, mixed with music from one of the baby toys, and Joe's voice no doubt explaining something to Ella. Nick smiles to himself as he takes the chicken out of the pan and puts the vegetables in.

Joe wanders in alone a little while later, as Nick is finishing up the sauce. "That smells good."

"Thanks. Ella asleep?"

"Yeah. She totally zonked out on the floor, so I figured she's okay for a few minutes."

Being in a different room than the baby twice in a single day is a huge step for Joe. Nick flashes him a smile over his shoulder.

Joe grins back and says, "I got you something."

"Huh?"

"Since I missed your birthday." Joe holds out a CD and Nick takes it. It's Elvis Costello's Imperial Bedroom. Nick turns it over to look at the track listing as Joe says, "I know you left all your albums and stuff at home, so I thought you might like this."

"I guess this is the year for forgetting about birthdays," Nick murmurs. "Thank you. C'mere." He sets the CD down and reaches out for Joe, tugs him close and hugs him tight. "Thanks," he whispers again into Joe's ear.

"You bet." Joe squeezes him hard for a second, then the timer on the spaghetti goes off and he steps back.

Nick turns to take the pot off the stove. "You want to just eat in front of the TV?" he asks, dumping it into the strainer and shaking the whole thing a few times to get all the water out.

"Sure." Joe gets plates and forks while Nick dishes up the pasta and sauce. "Is this like that chicken and veggies thing we got at that restaurant with Chelsea once?" Joe asks, sticking his finger into the sauce and then licking it. "Tastes like it."

"That feels like so long ago," Nick says. He passes Joe a stack of paper napkins. They carry the food into the living room. Ella's still asleep on the blanket spread out over the floor, and they tiptoe around her.

Joe switches the channel to the evening news and adjusts the volume. "I guess it really wasn't all that long. But everything sure feels like it."

"Three months ago, we were on tour."

Joe pauses in winding spaghetti around his fork. "Do you miss it?" he asks, his voice carefully neutral.

Nick is honest. "Yes. Sometimes. Do you?"

"Yeah."

This time, Nick is the one trying to keep his voice neutral. "Just because there's Ella doesn't mean it's over forever."

"I know," Joe answers. He jabs his fork into a piece of chicken. "But I've thought about it, Nick, I have. It's not fair to her if I take her on the road, at least not until she's older, and by then, we'll just be a footnote somewhere anyway. Besides, you know it's only a matter of time before Danielle gets pregnant. I just made the inevitable come a little sooner."

Nick knows he's right. Joe reaches out, lays a hand on his knee, and Nick glances at him. He knows that look. "No, Joseph, I know what you're going to say next," he says, wanting to stop Joe before the words can come out of his mouth. "I promised you I'd be here. Don't you dare suggest I might want to go do something else."

Joe nods, and goes back to his pasta until Ella starts to squirm. Then he puts down his plate. "I'm going to take her upstairs," he murmurs.

"Okay."

"I'll clean up later, if you leave it."

"No, I got it."

It hadn't been that earth-shattering a conversation but Nick feels weird and floaty inside just the same. Joe scoops Ella up, then leans over Nick. "Thanks," he breathes, then kisses Nick like before. Then he slips out of the room, leaving Nick with a half-finished plate on his lap, silent news still flickering across the television.


*



The day before Mom and Kevin are set to fly in, Ella won't stop crying and the dark shadows under Joe's eyes are painful to look at.


"Give her to me," Nick orders, lifting the baby from Joe's arms. "Go lay down. Take a nap. You look like you're gonna pass out."


It's a testament to how tired Joe is that he doesn't argue, just turns around and goes back up the stairs. Nick looks at Ella's scrunched-up face, red from screaming, tears running down her cheeks. He knows that sometimes babies just cry, and she's just old enough that it could be time to start teething, but the fact that she's upset is making him feel awful. "What's the matter, sweetie?" he croons, kissing her angry face. She keeps on crying. "Should I sing you some songs?"


Nick sings every song for kids that he can remember, and he's halfway through the musical numbers from Beauty and the Beast when he stops dead in the middle of the living room and looks around. "You know," he says to Ella, "in all the fuss, I never thought about it, but you know what we need? We need a piano."


She cries louder.


"I think you would like a piano, baby," he tells her, bouncing her up and down a little. "Let's order a piano. A black baby grand. There's got to be a place somewhere in Pennsylvania - how come I decided we should live in Pennsylvania anyway? - who will haul one out here for us."


Ella cries the whole time Nick is on the phone, wailing her heart out against Nick's chest, her little fists pushing at him. "Sorry," he tells the guy, "my baby's kind of in a mood right now."


It's not until much later that he realizes he'd referred to Ella as his.


*



Nick expects it to be stilted and awkward when he opens the front door for his mother and brother, but Kevin's grinning like a fool and Mom is wrapping him up in a hug before he can even think. "Don't apologize," she says in his ear, "I understand why you did it," and then Nick feels a lump rise in his throat and he has to take several deep breaths to fight it back down.

She squeezes him one more time and steps back. Kevin reaches out and hugs him, quickly and tightly, then pushes past him into the house. "So, where's my niece? Hand her over, Nicky."

"She's in the living room with Joe. He was kind of afraid to come to the door." Nick points. "That way."

Mom slides her arm around his waist and hugs him again as they walk behind Kevin. "Pennsylvania, Nicholas? Really?" she asks quietly, and Nick can't help but laugh. He's glad she's here. He hadn't realized how much he'd missed her until right this second.


"I wasn't thinking all that straight at the time," he confesses.

"It looks like a nice house. You'll have to give me the whole tour later."

Kevin is holding Ella at arm's length and squinting at her face. She's staring back at him serenely with huge hazel eyes. Joe is hovering, because apparently his worry about people dropping the baby applies to everyone who isn't Nick. Then he looks up. "Mom," he says, and his face crumples, and Nick moves out of the way so that Mom can hug Joe to her while he sniffles that he's so sorry.

"She won't bite," Nick tells Kevin. "You can hold her for real."

Kevin keeps staring at her as he brings her closer. "She totally looks like Joe."

"Hand over my grandchild," Mom says. "Right now, Junior." Kevin lays Ella in Mom's arms, and Ella yawns hugely.

Nick puts a hand on Joe's arm and pulls him back a little. "Quit hovering," he whispers. "Mom's not gonna drop her, dude." He glances up at Joe's face. Joe looks like he doesn't know how to feel right now, and Nick gets it. He gets it completely. Ella's no longer their secret.

He keeps his hand wrapped around Joe's forearm as their mom sits down with the baby on the couch. "Let's let Mom have some time with Ella, okay?" he says softly to Joe. "Hey, Kev, come help us make some coffee."

In the kitchen, Kevin's eyes narrow at them. "How could you?"

Joe bristles immediately, tension flaring through him. Nick wants to soothe, to wrap him up in a hug but he can't, so he settles for squeezing Joe's arm once. "Would you rather I let her mother give her up for adoption?" Joe hisses at Kevin.

Kevin blinks, like he hadn't thought of that. "No, of course not. But to just leave? Both of you?" He shakes his head. "Joe, you really thought Mom and Dad would be so mad that they'd - they'd disown you or whatever? That's crazy."

"It's not crazy when you're already freaking out because you just found out a girl you only had sex with once is having a baby in a week and she says it's yours," Nick answers for Joe.

"Oh." Kevin sits down on one of the stools around the island. "Yeah, I guess."

Nick finally lets go of Joe's arm, and starts making a pot of coffee. Then he stops and looks at Joe. "Do we even have enough cups?"

"Um."

Nick rolls his eyes and goes through the cupboards. Kevin laughs, sort of nervously. "I guess you guys don't drink much coffee?"

"I drink a lot of it," Joe says, "but I think we only bought two mugs."

"I was distracted buying other things, okay, dudes," Nick answers, reaching out to tug lightly at Joe's hair. "Like diapers."

"Like fuzzy blankets with giraffes on them," Joe tells Kevin.

"Shut up, that blanket is the best, Ella loves it."

Kevin just keeps looking back and forth between the two of them. "This is so totally bizarre."


*



Two days later, Mom and Kevin leave with a camera full of pictures and promising to come back soon, with everyone next time. "I'll work on your father. He'll come around. He's only - he's only being Dad," Mom says as she hugs them goodbye. Ella's asleep upstairs in her bassinet and Nick knows Joe is about five seconds from fleeing up there to be with her.

They watch the cab pull away from the curb. "I'm going to go up," Joe says, gesturing towards the stairs.

"No, you're not," Nick replies, catching his hand. "The baby monitor is on. You're going to come sit down with me on the couch and de-stress for at least ten minutes, or until Ella wakes up."

Joe gives him the sad you're keeping me from my baby look, which Nick ignores, pulling Joe into the living room and onto the couch. Something is tugging at him inside. What had started as vague longing is now a full-blown need to wrap himself around Joe and make him forget at least some of this for a few minutes. Joe relents easily enough, relaxing back into him. Nick presses his face against the back of Joe's neck and hears Joe sigh. "Nicky."

"Mm?"

"I like it better when it's just us." It's the barest of whispers. He pulls Nick's arm around his waist, and the next second he's asleep. Joe always could fall asleep anytime, anyplace. A skill learned during years of never being a hundred percent sure when or where you could catch a nap. Nick can't stop himself from laughing when he realizes that part of touring is sort of like having a baby, and Joe wakes up long enough to tell him to hold still before passing out again.

He'd tried to have a conversation with Kevin about the future of the band. What they should do, so that everyone was on the same page, so that they could get things settled. But Kevin had been holding Ella, and he'd said to Nick that he and Danielle were trying and that he couldn't wait until she got pregnant, and Nick knew that there was absolutely no way they were going to be doing anything at all but announcing it was over. At least they don't owe anyone anything.

"You're waking me up with your thinking," Joe mumbles, squeezing his hand.

Nick hugs him tightly. "Sorry."

"You okay?"

"Me?"

"No, the other person who is snuggling with us," Joe deadpans.

"Shouldn't I be asking you that question?"

Joe turns his head enough that Nick sees he's glaring. "Seriously. Are you okay? You're always so busy taking care of me and Ella that I forget to ask." He says it so bluntly and so Joe that Nick's heart thunders.

"I'm cool, honestly," he replies.

Joe hums, his fingers stroking Nick's wrist. Then he says, "Every single day, I give thanks that you're here with me."

Suddenly, he turns over, pinning Nick against the back of the couch, his gaze dropping to Nick's mouth. Nick feels hot all over. "Joe?"

"I want to kiss you for real," Joe says. "Tell me if that's not okay."

Nick curls a hand over Joe's shoulder, holding him still. "You - what?" he manages to ask.

A flush creeps into Joe's cheeks, but he repeats again clearly, "I want to kiss you. An actual kiss. Not like I did before."

Apparently he hadn't been as oblivious to what he'd been doing as Nick had thought. Joe's flush deepens as Nick stares at him, and his gaze falters. He starts to move back, like he's going to get off the couch, but Nick presses forward and stops him. Stops him by sliding his hand from Joe's shoulder up around the back of his neck, and pulling Joe's mouth to his own.

Nick's first thought is that as kisses go, this one isn't so good. Joe's nose is mashed against his cheek, and Nick knows his lips are dry and so they're catching roughly on Joe's. But then Joe clutches the front of his shirt and tilts his head a little more, and what's awkward starts aiming for sublime when Nick quick wets his lips and cautiously teases Joe's apart with little flicks of his tongue, catching the sensitive corner of Joe's mouth as he goes, hyper-aware of the shiver it earns him.

Time seems to slow down, almost stop, as he licks over Joe's teeth, the roof of his mouth, the slick insides of his cheeks. Joe groans outright at that, so Nick keeps doing it, until Joe shoves him away, all ragged breath and dazed expression.

"Why didn't we do that years ago?" Joe wonders, his voice a strained whimper.

Nick doesn't move, even though he wants to trail his fingers over Joe's mouth, to dip underneath the stretched collar of his Sears t-shirt. "Because I used to be a terrible kisser," he suggests, half-joking.

Joe chuckles. "Please. I bet your 'awful kisser' phase lasted about three and a half seconds."

"I'll never tell."

"You won't, but Miley might." Joe smiles for real, a full-blown one, like the idea is both hilarious and intriguing to him. Then it drops off his face in a second. "We've been douchebags about this."

Nick knows he's not talking about kissing anymore. "Yeah. But if Mom and Kevin can forgive us for dropping off the face of the earth, I think our friends can, too."

"We can't keep this secret much longer."

"No," Nick agrees. "But I think we can keep it a secret for a few more hours."

Joe hums in agreement, his gaze dropping to Nick's mouth again. "Maybe we could work on your kissing technique until then."

Nick laughs, already leaning in to bite at Joe's bottom lip. Joe sighs and shifts against him, pressing Nick against the couch cushions again. Nick lets him control it this time, lets Joe explore his mouth with slow strokes of his tongue, lets Joe trace cautiously over his teeth. Lets Joe suck on his tongue until he shudders hard enough to nearly push Joe off the couch, gasping at how turned on he is.

Joe looms over him, grinning. "Think I found something you like," he murmurs and swipes at Nick's bottom lip with his thumb.

Nick heaves in a deep breath, drawing away from Joe a tiny bit. He's swamped by confusion, a sudden knot tying tight in his chest. "Joe - what are we doing?"

Joe blinks. Nick knows he was caught up in it, that he wasn't thinking, simply doing, like he always does. "Oh," he whispers, and his face falls. "Do you - do you not want to be with me?"

Nick doesn't have the chance to even think about how he wants to answer that because Ella's loud cry comes over the baby monitor and Joe is flying out of the room. Nick sucks in another deep breath, laying a hand over his eyes. He feels dizzy and hot and maybe a little bit like puking. Through the monitor, he can hear Joe's soft shushing noises, hear him start to sing the little nonsense song he always uses to soothe Ella when she first wakes up.

He's not entirely stupid. Whatever it is they're doing, it's only a consequence of being here like this, of not seeing anyone but each other and the baby for days at a time. Even their mom and brother coming hadn't ruined the bizarre fantasy they seem to be living as much as Nick had thought it would. And now this - Nick presses his hand even harder against his eyes. He needs to tell Joe they can't do this. But for the first time in his life, he feels like that task is one that's too monumental.

And suddenly, I can't do it becomes the easiest thing in the world for Nick to tell himself.

*


As the weeks go by, Nick lets himself keep the fantasy going because he wants to. He doesn't insist to Joe that what is happening between them is wrong, because he wants it. He wants Joe wrapped around him on the couch, he wants Joe's heated yet thoughtful kisses, he wants this pretense that Ella is his, too, and that they're all in this together.

For a while, it's ridiculously easy. And Nick knows that it's easy because it's a sin, but for once in his life, he lets himself enjoy it without apologizing to God every ten minutes - something that probably makes it an even bigger sin. It feels too good. He locks up the little voice in his head for the first time ever. He's going to do this while he can.

Joe seems delighted that Nick accepts all his kisses, all his touches, and not once does Nick see any doubt in his eyes. Joe's got to be kidding himself about this just like Nick is, but he never sees any evidence. So Nick kisses Joe just as much as Joe kisses him, touches Joe just as often as Joe touches him, and Joe just keeps telling him he can't believe that this is the Nick that hid under the surface all those years.

Joe also starts telling their friends about Ella, which Nick pretends doesn't freak him out. "I can't keep her a secret forever," Joe says. "The world doesn't work that way."

"I know that," Nick growls. "But-"

"Nick."

"I know." He sighs. "Demi better love her face."

Joe looks at Ella, who is in a purple jumper and drooling on her stuffed giraffe, and he laughs. "Who wouldn't love that face? Ready, set, go!" He snaps a picture with his phone and with the push of a button, sends it to Demi.

The reply beeps seconds later, and Nick leans over Joe's shoulder to read it. is that a baby? where did u get a baby? omg calling u!

Then his phone rings with Demi's ringtone, and Joe answers it with, "I would let you talk to my daughter, but she doesn't actually talk yet."

Nick can't hear what Demi says, but he watches Joe's face. Joe grins, then frowns, then he sighs. His hand grasps Nick's. "Dem, I'm sorry. It's not - I do trust you. But this was too big a thing." Nick rubs his thumb slowly over the back of Joe's hand, trying to be soothing. "Yeah, Nick's with me," Joe says to Demi. "Sure."

He holds out the phone. Nick clears his throat and takes it. "Hey, Demetria."

"Hey, babe. So, what's all this disappearing and surprise baby stuff?"

"Joe needed me," Nick replies, fully honest. Joe squeezes his hand.

Demi's quiet a moment. Then she asks, "Well, if you're gonna hide out, can I come see you? I'm done with tour in a few weeks, I've got some time then."

He glances at Joe. "I think that would be great. We could use a girl around here for a few days anyway, introduce Ella to butterflies and ribbons and stuff."

Demi laughs in his ear. "Butterflies and ribbons, Jonas? That's the best you can do?"

"She's a little young for makeup." Nick winks at Joe.

"Well, I'm sure we'll bond in a womanly fashion." Demi's still laughing. "God, I've missed you guys."

Joe climbs into his lap and Nick wraps an arm around his waist. "Missed you too, Dem," he says, and means it.

They talk about small things then; what Demi's tour is like, how big the shows are, the new songs she's writing. Nick suggests she bring her guitar when she comes to visit, that he'd be glad to work on new music with her. Hearing her explain how she's struggling with a song that popped into her head at two in the morning one night makes him ache with how much he misses performing, makes it harder to ignore all the music in his head that he's been pushing aside for weeks now.

Joe touches him gently like he knows, and Nick lets his fingers tighten on Joe's hip.

*


"I think we need a housekeeper," Nick says one day, dragging a finger through the dust on top of the television. "We both keep forgetting to do actual cleaning. This can't be great for the baby."

Joe looks up from his book on child rearing and pushes his hair back from his face. "How are you gonna find a cleaning lady who won't blab all over the internet?"

"Uh, we live in a gated community full of rich people," Nick points out, "surely they only hire people they can trust. Don't we get a homeowner's association newsletter? Maybe there's a recommendation or something in there." Joe frowns at him. Nick shakes his head. "And I will only have them come when you're taking Ella to the doctor or out for a walk or something, I promise."

"Speaking of, she's got an appointment on Friday. You want to come with this time?"

Nick flops down next to him on the couch. "Sure, I guess."

He hires an efficient-sounding woman named Margaret. She looks to be in her mid-forties when she arrives in jeans and a sweatshirt, dark hair pulled back into a severe bun, just before they leave for the pediatrician's office. Joe and Ella wait in the car while she signs the confidentiality agreement, and Nick hands her a set of keys and a check. "Thank you," he says tightly.

"I'll be gone by one-thirty, Mr. Jonas," she replies, starting to unpack her bucket of supplies.

Nick goes out to the car. Joe's drumming his fingers on the steering wheel, and Ella's mouthing at yet another plush toy in the back seat. "Ready," he says.

"Then let's get this show on the road," Joe replies.

There are a few tired-looking mothers and their small children in the waiting room, stacks of parenting magazines and a teetering tower of plastic blocks. It smells like every other doctor's office Nick has ever been in. He sits down with Ella in one of the uncomfortable chairs while Joe goes to check in, and she squirms on his lap, fingers in her mouth. "What?" he murmurs to her. "Don't like the doctor?"

She sighs like he's boring her, and he can't help but chuckle.

"Ella?" the nurse calls a few minutes later.

Joe scoops Ella from Nick's arms. "Shouldn't be too long," he says.

Nick's paging through a copy of Parenting when the receptionist approaches. She's holding a fuzzy yellow blanket with ducks on it that Nick recognizes as Ella's. "Excuse me?" she says. "I think this was left the last time Ella was here, I'd almost forgotten we had it back there."

"Yeah, that's hers. Thanks."

"You haven't been here before, have you?" she asks. Nick is confused as to why she's asking. "You must be Nicholas - Mr. Jonas keeps saying how great you are with Ella."

"Um, thank you?"

"She's lucky to have two loving parents," the receptionist continues. She hands him the blanket. "A lot of kids barely even have one."

Nick coughs, unsure how to get out of the conversation but not wanting to tell her the truth. "Uh, that's true, I guess."

She smiles. "I'll let you get back to your reading. Just wanted to bring the blanket before I forgot about it."

She goes back behind the partition. Nick raises the magazine so it's covering his face and he can freak out behind the glossy pages, resolving to stay at home the next time. He hadn't even thought that Joe would mention him to the staff here, figuring Joe would say he was a single father and leave it at that. He suddenly remembers how Joe had introduced him to Jane - "my Nicholas" - and is both pleased and sort of confused.

He doesn't know if he should bring it up. Joe will probably look at him like he's stupid or crazy if he does, and most likely point out that they've always done things together, that Nick had offered to do this, and that they spend a lot of time kissing lately.

Maybe he'd been too hasty in choosing to do this with Joe; maybe he hadn't thought it through all the way. Locked up in the house, it was easy to pretend he was Ella's other dad, that he was Joe's boyfriend, that they were raising a kid together.

Joe wants him, needs him even, and Nick's realizing that he doesn't have a problem with that. But outside those walls, they'll be forever pretending that Nick is just Ella's uncle. His stomach churns at the idea of all that lying. All the stress of keeping it a secret. And what about when Ella gets older? They'd never discussed any of this. Nick had assumed in the beginning that he'd stay until Joe didn't need the constant help. He'd never thought that Joe would want him like this.

Maybe it's only because it's just them most of the time, and there's no one else around to remind them what's normal. Nick sinks down a little lower in the chair, heart aching in his chest, knowing that's why it had been so easy to give in and pretend he could have it all.

*


"I don't think she really likes... whatever this is," Joe says doubtfully. "And it's a very strange shade of green."

Nick looks over his shoulder. "She's not going to eat a bunch of it at once. I think right now you're lucky if she swallows any of it at all." He sees Joe's grimace and laughs. "It does look pretty gross."

"Ugh. I'm giving up for now." Joe sets the spoon down on the tray of the high chair and Ella reaches for it. "Oh, you want it now? You're such a weird kid." He holds it out to her and waits while she wraps chubby fingers around it. Then she smacks her hand, spoon and all, against the tray and shrieks.

Nick grins as he continues slicing bell peppers. Joe gets up from the table and washes off his face and hands, and then Nick feels Joe's arms slide around his waist. Ella babbles some things that aren't words yet and beats on the tray with the spoon some more. "I think something is wrong with my child," Joe intones. "That is so not a beat that makes any sense."

Nick laughs again and sets down the knife. He turns in Joe's embrace. "Maybe she'll be a poet instead."

Joe grins at him, leaning in to rest his forehead against Nick's. "Demi tomorrow," he says happily.

"Yeah." His fingers are wet with juice from the peppers, but there's already baby food spattered on Joe's shirt, so Nick touches him anyway. "Think we can get the baby to sleep more than two hours straight tonight?" he murmurs, resting his thumb at the waistband of Joe's jeans. He has to do this once; he needs to have Joe just one time before he cuts this thread and goes.

He's made up his mind. He's taken advantage of Joe's needs and wants for too long already, but he's going to take advantage a little bit longer.

Joe moves against him, pressing closer. "Maybe. Could try."

Nick smiles at him and presses a soft kiss to his mouth. Joe's knee slides between his knees and his hips rock into Nick's. Nick drops his head and bites the curve of Joe's neck. "After we eat," he growls, and pushes Joe away, promising, "Later."

Joe gives Ella a bath and a bottle while Nick finishes dinner, then puts her down for the night. They watch Leno while eating Nick's chicken fajitas - "Make these again, okay?" Joe says - and then flip between Conan and Sports Center for a while.

Then Nick slides his hand into Joe's hair. "What do you want to do?" he asks, trying to keep his voice even, like he's not a little bit freaked out about how he's going to have sex with his brother in, like, five minutes.

Joe doesn't seem to be having the same problem. He turns his face toward Nick, breath warm on Nick's cheek, and says, "I want to fuck you, Nicky."

The idea jolts through Nick like lightning, zapping all his nerve endings and scorching his lungs. He imagines being spread under Joe like that, wonders if he'll really be able to tell Joe they should stop after they do this.

He barely recognizes his own voice when he says, "Yes. I want that."

Joe is tugging him close in an instant, his kiss feverish with want, one hand sliding over the zipper of Nick's jeans, turning his arousal up another hundred degrees.

*


Nick goes to pick Demi up from the airport because he wants to, and, unlike his mother, she doesn't insist on taking a cab. "I hope you're gonna pay me what you'd pay a driver," he says to her through the open window after he's guided the car to the curb.

"Shut up," she laughs. Nick puts it in park and gets out to put her bag in the back for her. When she launches herself at him and hugs him tight, he hugs back just as hard. "I missed you," she whispers.

"Missed you too. A lot." He lets go, then opens the car door for her to get in.

"So," she says, once Nick has navigated out of the airport traffic and is back on 28, "am I allowed to ask who Joe got pregnant? I mean, I'm guessing it wasn't someone we, um, know."

Nick drums his fingers on the steering wheel. "I don't even know where he met Jane," he admits. "There's... wow, there's a lot I guess I never asked."

"And he didn't, you know, insist on marrying her?" Demi tucks her hair, currently dyed a dark red for a movie, behind her ear.

He shrugs. "He could have tried. I missed most of that, I think."

"Huh."

Nick runs through it in his head. He really doesn't know anything of what happened before Joe had hung up on his conversation with Jane in the hotel room, a complete mess about what she'd just told him. He'd never asked if Joe had brought up marriage, and he'd completely assumed that Joe's relationship with Jane had been only a one-night stand.

"So, what are you doing besides trying to win World's Best Uncle awards?" Demi asks, derailing his train of thought.

"Just that," he replies.

"Really? You're not writing songs or anything?"

"There's no band to perform them," he says softly.

"Nicky-"

"Later, Dem, okay? Later."

*


Even with the distraction of Demi being there, Nick's stomach is still churning angrily, nervousness over what he's going to do rising in his throat with every breath. Joe doesn't seem to notice, but Demi does. With a guarded look in Nick's direction, she says she's taking Ella for a walk. She bundles her up into a coat with such determination that even Joe sighs and doesn't argue. Nick watches them go out the door. Then Joe ducks in to kiss him, obviously determined to make the most of, at best, the half an hour they have. But Nick lays a hand on his chest. "Joe. No. We can't."

"Of course we can," Joe says, looking confused. "It's at least a fifteen minute walk to the lake, and another fifteen back."

Nick takes a step away, unable to bear the feeling of Joe's heart beating underneath his palm, and looks Joe straight in the face. He has to stop this; it's not right for them to keep pretending. They can't keep going like this, inhabiting this make-believe world. Somehow he finds his voice. "I love you," he says, as if that will make it hurt less, "but this can't happen anymore."

"You don't want me like this?"

He looks Joe up and down, taking in his messy hair, his jeans with baby food smeared on the knee, his crappy Eagles t-shirt. Nick does want him, so much. But it's not right. "I shouldn't want you like this," he forces himself to say, to clarify as much for himself as for Joe. The words are strange and heavy in his mouth. "And you shouldn't want me like this, either."

Joe shakes his head, willfully, wildly ignorant of what Nick is saying. "Nick, you're - so you're telling me this life we've built here - it's a lie?"

It's starting to hurt just to breathe. It's not a lie but he's going to tell Joe that it is. Nick presses the palms of his hands against his eyes. He was the one to start this. He laid the first brick, and now he's going to tear it all down. "Yes."

"Bullshit. Fuck you," Joe breathes, unfamiliar words in an unfamiliar tone. "That's so unfair, Nicholas."

"I know."

"You can't just make this choice -"

"I can. I have." Nick drops his hands. "I'll leave."

"It's your house," Joe whispers.

"And I bought it for you." He swallows hard. He's not going to cry in front of Joe, not like this. "You'll be fine without me, Joe, and you can always call Mom -"

"If you're going to leave us, I'd appreciate it if you'd get out of my sight before you finish that sentence," Joe snaps, each word cool and distinct.

Nick walks out of the room. He gets his bag from the closet, takes the keys to the car and goes.

He knows he shouldn't be surprised at how easy it is to disappear when it's just him. After all, he'd made it work with a brother and a baby in tow. And it's not like anyone is tracking his credit cards. He almost wishes they were. It would give him something to concentrate on besides how much this hurts. Then he would feel like he's at least sort of earned this fugitive state.

He hadn't really expected the physical ache. It sits in his chest, like a constant blow to the solar plexus, like he can't quite draw a full breath without doubling over. It's there as he rents a motel room outside DuBois, it's there as he checks his levels and eats a sandwich even though he's not hungry, it's there as he tries to sleep and fails.

It's there when his phone beeps with the first text from Joe in nearly twenty-four hours. i'm not gonna ask u to come back.

*


Nick waits out the second sunrise away from Joe and Ella slumped over a table in a dingy family restaurant just off the interstate, fluorescent lights flickering overhead. There's a bottomless cup of coffee on the table along with a slice of apple pie he's not going to eat but the waitress thought he looked pathetic enough to bring out to him. "On the house, honey," she'd said. "You look like you could do with some sweetness."

Joe hasn't texted or called. Nick's phone has been silent all night. He's had a new message to Joe open for the last three hours, waiting for words. Like, I thought it would be easy to leave, but it's not, or maybe, this hurts more than I thought it was gonna.

Because it does. He's kicking himself now for thinking leaving was a good idea. For thinking it was what they all needed. There's no way he needs this black cloud above him. He can't remember the last time he was away from Joe by choice, and the baby... Nick is sure this is the stupidest move he's ever made.

For the first time in his life, he actually feels alone.

So he settles on please can I come home?

The phone rings almost immediately. "I hate you so much right now," Joe says, his voice hoarse like he's been shouting, or worse, crying, "Nicholas, you don't know what this has been like. I might punch you a whole lot when you get here but if you don't start driving right now I might go crazy and I think Demi might be ready to kill me and the baby won't stop crying because somehow she knows you're gone-"

"I'm coming," Nick whispers, dropping his forehead to the sticky tabletop and just breathing for a few seconds. "I'm sorry."

"Don't apologize, jerkface, just come home."

Nick leaves twenty dollars for the coffee and the uneaten pie and the fact that he sat in the booth without moving all night, and nearly runs to the SUV. His hand shakes as he turns the key in the ignition. He hadn't gotten very far; he's less than an hour from the house.

He breaks the speed limit the entire way there.

Joe is standing in the doorway waiting, Ella on his hip. She squirms when she sees Nick get out of the car, reaching for him, and Nick's positive that this feeling is his heart breaking into a million pieces. He holds her close for a moment while she bats at his face. "The baby is allowed to hit you because I'd leave bruises if I did," Joe says darkly. "And I saved you the super-gross diaper change."

The relief that's rushing through Nick is so intense that he doesn't care. He wants to reach out for Joe too, but Joe's already walking back into the house, his shoulders stiff.

"C'mon, sweetie," Nick whispers to Ella. "Let's get you cleaned up, and then I can start trying to make this up to your daddy." She babbles something in reply, and then her little fist connects sharply with his cheekbone. "Ow. Guess I deserved that, huh?" he asks, and her shriek is definitely a yes.

Joe's nowhere to be seen as Nick changes Ella's diaper and works her chubby legs back into the fleecy yellow pants. She chatters steadily the whole time, but quiets when he picks her up and snuggles her close again. "She really did know you weren't here, I'm sure of it," Joe says from behind him, and Nick spins around. "I made Demi take off for a while so she wouldn't have to listen to Ella screaming. She'll be back in a few hours."

Nick rubs his hand in circles over Ella's back, not knowing what to say besides a constant stream of apologies. "I broke my promise to you," he says finally. "To be here."

Joe shakes his head and Nick can see the shadows under his eyes. "I took advantage of you."

That's in no way true. "Joe-"

"No, shut up, Nicky. I did. I took advantage of your weakness for family. Then I took advantage of you."

"Joe," Nick tries again, taking a few steps toward him. "You didn't-"

"Christ, I even took advantage of how much you love me by fucking you."

This isn't at all how Nick had been expecting their reunion to be. He'd expected Joe to be mad that he'd left, to maybe get punched hard in the arm a few times until the palpable part of Joe's anger had dissipated. He'd expected to have to work to make things like they were. He hadn't expected Joe to blame himself like this. "No," he says, "you didn't. I wanted it, Joe. I still do."

Joe stares at him, waiting.

"But the fact remains that I shouldn't want it," Nick says, gesturing with the arm not holding Ella, as if he can make a vague wave of his hand mean what he needs to get out in the open here. His heart is pounding. "Because it's wrong. I'm your brother; I'm not your - your boyfriend, your lover, whatever. And we've been living here like we're a - a married couple or whatever, and that's not right."

Ella babbles something and clutches at his shirt. Nick looks down at her and smiles, because he can't not, and she laughs. He makes a silly face and she laughs some more. "Oh, baby, I'm sorry," he whispers to her. Something he can't define crumbles in his chest and he sits down heavily in the rocking chair that's in the corner. Joe walks over and stands in front of him, and Nick blows a raspberry against Ella's cheek while she giggles, then looks up at Joe.

"You might be right about all of that," Joe says, "except for how you're missing that I totally don’t care about any of it."


Nick blinks at him. Then the doorbell rings and he hears the door open, then Demi's voice calling, "Hello? Guys? Can I come back now?"


"Yeah," Joe calls, moving backwards out the door. "I'll make lunch," he says to Nick as he goes.


Nick looks at Ella, sighing. Her response is to reach for his hair and pull, then look delighted when he winces. "Guess I deserved that, huh?" he asks, smoothing her soft brown hair back from her forehead. "Want some lunch? I bet yours comes in a jar, baby."


He carries her downstairs. Demi and Joe are in the kitchen, staring into the refrigerator. Nick buckles Ella into her highchair and sets a few toys on the tray for her to play with.


"Sandwiches?" Joe suggests. "It's sandwiches or we share… whatever this orange stuff is with Ella."


Ella pushes all the toys into the floor and smacks her palms on the tray. "Someone's excited about orange stuff," Demi says with a laugh, reaching out to tickle Ella's foot. "Can I feed her?"


Joe punches her lightly in the arm. "You can try."


Nick feels suddenly out of place, a little queasy, a little too warm. "I'll be right back," he tells them, gesturing towards the doorway. "One sec."


Upstairs, he shuts the door to his room and leans against it for a minute. Then he checks his levels to be sure this is emotions and not actual body chemistry. He's all right for now, but food would be a good thing.


There's a knock. "Nick, you okay?" It's Joe. "Are you sick?"


"No, I'm just being stupid," Nick calls back. It's no time for anything less than honesty. "Sorry."

The door opens and Joe slips through. His eyes flick to the testing kit that Nick is packing up. "Okay?" he asks hesitantly.


Nick shrugs. "I should eat."


Joe sits down on the bed, looking at his hands. Nick sees him rub at the place where his ring used to be. It's a tense, awkward silence, and finally Nick can't take it any longer and kicks his foot against Joe's. "So there's something I need to know."


"Yeah?"

"Did you ask Jane to marry you? Like, when she told you she was pregnant?"

He hears Joe's indrawn breath, like it wasn't at all the question Joe was expecting to hear. "No," Joe murmurs, "I didn't."

"You didn't think it was the right thing to do?" Nick nudges his foot against Joe's again.

Joe is quiet another few seconds before he says, "I knew it wasn't the right thing for me."

Nick tries to picture it: Joe and Jane, together, living in a house that would probably be a lot like this one; secluded from the world in a gated community, neither one of them really wanting to be there with the other, but being there anyway for Ella's sake. Would her name still be Ella, if Jane had wanted to be a part of her life? Would Nick even know her like he does?

The idea is almost too much for him to bear after what he's put himself through already today. Joe reaches over and squeezes Nick's knee with his naked hand. "Come down when you're ready," he says softly, "but come down, okay?"

"Okay."

Joe gets up and heads for the door. Then he stops, half-curled around the edge of the door. He looks at Nick, his eyes dark. "It's all yours, if you want it," he murmurs.

Nick shouldn't want it. But he's going to take it anyway. Not yet, because they need some time to be okay with each other again, but he will. He looks down at his hand for a minute, then takes off his ring and goes back downstairs.

*


It's a little stilted, a little awkward, for what feels like weeks. Demi comes to visit again, staying the weekend, and they all go to the mall and make a lot of useless purchases. "This mall sucks," Demi announces more than once, "you guys should move."

Ella shrieks once, loudly, and Demi laughs. "See, she agrees with me. You're tired of clothes from Sears, aren't you, baby?"

"Hey, I ordered this Beatles t-shirt off the internet," Joe says, crouching next to the stroller and sticking his finger into Ella's mouth. "The teething continues," he announces, but Nick just rolls his eyes. Ella's been teething for weeks now. He's got the bite marks to prove it.

Their parents and Frankie come to visit over Christmas; Dad stony-faced for all of ten minutes while Nick's stomach rolls with nervousness, until he's handed Ella and Nick sees all his resolve about being disappointed in Joe crumble into dust. "She's beautiful, Joseph," Nick hears him say, "and I'm sorry I didn't come sooner."

Nick quietly excuses himself to the kitchen, but he still hears Frankie ask, "Is Nick going to make dinner because he's the mom?" and then he hears Joe's loud, uncontrolled laughter. Later, Joe slides his arm around Nick's waist as they sit on the couch watching an old Frank Sinatra movie that's their mom's favorite, and Nick glances over at him and realizes that the comparison is in no way wrong. He isn't going to say so, but he doesn't mind.

It feels almost like old times, except they're in a house that's his and Joe's, and the rest of their family behaves like company. On Christmas Eve, instead of going to church, Joe and Dad go to buy a tree. Nick wants desperately to text him at least a dozen times while they're gone, but he leaves his phone in the den and helps his mom peel sweet potatoes in the kitchen with Ella in her highchair while Frankie plays video games in the living room.

"It was okay," Joe mumbles later that night, around a mouthful of toothpaste foam. He spits into the sink and rinses out his mouth while Nick leans against the counter, waiting. The bathroom is currently the only place where they can have a private conversation. "It was basically the same speech I got from Mom before. God is disappointed that this path presented itself to me, but I seem to be doing the best I can with it, blah blah. Like they're surprised I'm not a terrible parent or something."

Nick hums but doesn't say anything.

"He does wish we'd take her to church, though."

"She's not really old enough that it would make any sense to her," Nick points out, and Joe nods.

"I said that. He said that even so, even if we pray at home, she should be visiting the Lord's house on a regular basis." He rinses off his toothbrush again and says, quieter, "For her soul."

Nick bites his lip and tries not to squirm, he feels so uncomfortable. He knows he gave up his soul the first time he even looked at Joe with any sort of intent beyond brotherhood. He tilts his head back, staring up at the ceiling. Finally he manages to say, "If you wanted to take her, I wouldn't stop you, but I wouldn't go."

Joe splashes water on his face, then wipes it off. "Dunno," he says with a shrug. "I think I might wait to cross that bridge." He leans in to kiss Nick softly with minty-fresh breath. "Also, they wish we lived closer."

Nick can't help his wince. "Are you ready for that?" he asks Joe, and then admits, "Because I"m not."

"Me neither."

"I think Mom noticed that I'm not wearing my ring any more," Nick says as Joe hops up on the counter, legs swinging. "She hasn't asked, though."

Joe reaches out and grabs a handful of Nick's t-shirt, tugging him in so that he's standing between Joe's knees. "You could always say you took it off in solidarity with me and Kevin," he suggests.

Nick lays his hands on Joe's warm thighs. "Maybe. If they ask."

In the morning, Mom puts the turkey in to roast, and Nick makes Joe's favorite fruit salad without even thinking about it. All the presents are for Ella.

After New Year's, when everyone's left, Nick will help Joe haul the tree to the end of the driveway and up on top of the drift of snow left by the plow. "I'd throw some snowballs at you, but I'm too tired," Joe will moan. Inside, Nick will pull Joe down onto the couch, and be glad that they're alone again.

Mostly, though, they lounge around the house, just them, playing lots of baby games with Ella and making up stupid songs for her. Nick writes a few that are a little more serious, finally letting out some of what's trapped in his head, and Joe hounds him until he sends rough versions to Demi and Selena over email, with the lyrics typed out and notes saying they can do with them what they want.

Demi writes back yes please and makes a YouTube video, her and a piano, and she gets Selena to sit beside her and sing on the chorus. Nick and Joe lay on the floor with the laptop and Ella crawling back and forth between them, and scroll through the comments as they flood in. Joe grins and keeps jabbing him in the side. "You've still got it, Nicky," he says gleefully.

Nick tries to be serious and shakes his head, reminding Joe that they could probably make a video of Joe singing the ABC's and it would end up the most-watched video on YouTube within hours. Then he regrets saying it, because Joe's eyes light up. "We should do it!"

"No, Joseph."

"Come on! For the baby." Joe scoops Ella up into his arms and she flails for a second at the blocks she'd been trying to stack, but he rolls onto his back and holds her in the air like an airplane, and she starts to giggle. Joe starts singing the alphabet song. Nick drops his head into his hands. "For the baaaaby," Joe sing-songs, and zooms Ella around in the air.

Nick thunks his head on the floor several times. "No."

"But Nicky," Joe whines, "if we make a video, Ella can watch it over and over and over."

He groans. "Fine. For Ella."

Joe sets her down and runs off to find the video camera. Nick turns his head to watch her bounce herself up and down for a few seconds. "Come here, sweetie," he croons, holding out a hand as she crawls over and bumps into him. "Good job!"

He lifts her up and lays her on his stomach, and she yawns, putting her head down. "Tired, huh?" he asks, as Joe returns. "I think Ella might need a nap more than she needs a video," Nick tells him.

"You're not getting out of this so easily, no way," Joe replies. He leans over them and smiles.

Nick smiles back despite himself, then asks quietly, "Are you still mad at me?"

Joe shakes his head, dropping to his knees next to Nick. He sets the camera aside. "I stopped being actual mad about twenty minutes after you came home, dude."

"Oh."

Joe smiles again, softer this time, and bends closer. Nick tilts his chin up, dropping his gaze to Joe's mouth. Joe hovers for a second and Nick lifts a hand, threads his fingers into Joe's hair, and pulls him down.

*


Nick is on the cusp of falling asleep when his phone rings, the number only a few people have. He fumbles for it, sees Kevin's name on the display. "Kev? Something wrong?"

"Yeah, I think this falls under that heading," Kevin sighs. "TMZ's got Ella's birth certificate."

"Fuck!" He struggles out of the tangle of blankets on his bed and goes downstairs to where he'd left his laptop in the living room. He's not a hundred percent sure what to do first. "Is any of it blacked out?"

"Just addresses."

"They're going to leave it up until the last minute, too." Anger is pounding through him, making his head throb, and bile is rising in his throat. He's at least glad that Kevin knows better than to tell him to calm down. "Can I kill someone, Kevin?"

"I'll help," Kevin replies darkly. "Do you want to hang up so you can call your lawyer?"

"Yes," Nick says in response, and hangs up the phone. He watches the website load as he thumbs through his contact list for the right number. He knows the gossip blogs have been speculating for months but Pennsylvania was a good choice for avoiding the paparazzi at least.

It's a weird feeling, seeing Ella's birth certificate load before his eyes. He knows that Joe has the real thing locked in a safe deposit box, but Nick's never seen it. In all the fuss and hurry of those first few days, he hadn't cared, and somehow in the last six months, he's never even thought to ask Joe what the baby's middle name was.

It's Nicole.

He can hear his other phone start ringing upstairs, and then he hears Joe's start to blast his latest Kanye ringtone where it's plugged in in the kitchen, and it snaps him back to what's going on right now. "Nick?" Joe calls down the steps. "Is someone dead?"

"No, but Ella's birth certificate is on the internet," Nick calls back, and hits the dial button for his lawyer.

An hour later, Ella is miraculously still asleep, even through Joe yelling about privacy and Nick shouting at more than one lawyer to get the certificate off the damned internet. Joe's nearly worn a path in the carpet with his pacing when Nick refreshes the page again and it's gone, replaced with a snarky note about Disney lawyers who can't handle the truth.

"Fuck that," Joe starts up again, but Nick grabs him and pulls him close, squeezing the back of Joe's neck, running his fingers through Joe's hair, anything to get Joe to calm down a little. And maybe to calm himself down a little, too. "Why?" Joe breathes eventually, his face pressed to Nick's neck.

"Because people like knowing that celebrities are just as messed up as they are," Nick replies, rubbing his thumb behind Joe's ear.

"Did I mess up? Make a mistake?"

"No," Nick says firmly, even as he cringes inside at having said the wrong thing to Joe in this moment. "No. You have not made a mistake."

"Do you think I need to - release a statement, or something?"

"No."

Nick holds him as tight as he can, and Joe curves into him even more, his breath shuddering. "Let's pretend that didn't just happen," he sighs. "I want to go back to bed now. Will you come sleep with me?"

"Of course."

They go back upstairs, to Joe's room. Nick peers into the bassinet at Ella, but she's still asleep, clutching a tiny handful of her giraffe blanket in one fist. Joe blows her a kiss before Nick pulls him down onto the bed, wraps his body around Joe's. "Are you going to be able to sleep?" he whispers, dropping first one kiss, then another, behind Joe's ear.

"Don't know," Joe groans, pressing back into him.

"Try, for me," Nick insists, running his hand gently up and down Joe's side. "I'll make waffles in the morning, and coffee, and then we'll deal with this like grown-ups with expensive lawyers do. But not now. In the morning. Try to sleep a little."

Joe sighs. "Hold me tighter."

Nick does, and stays awake until he's sure Joe has fallen asleep, working out all the angles in his head. It comes down to if the story's out, it's out, and there's no taking it back. He knew it would happen sooner or later. As much as they had wanted Ella to stay a secret forever, she wasn't a secret to be kept, but that doesn't mean Joe has to explain himself to the world. Or to anyone.

*


"We should go out," Joe says, sitting at the kitchen island wearing boxers and an undershirt, his chin propped in his hands. "Do something. Like actual adults."

It's been three weeks since the debacle with the birth certificate, but Nick maneuvered enough people into a buffer zone between them and the press that their phones have barely rung at all. Tell them no comment was what he'd instructed their lawyers and publicists, and he was a little amazed at how well it had worked. If no one talked about it, there was nothing to write about, outside of the ridiculous fluff pieces Perez Hilton had tried to post.

"With the baby or without?" he asks Joe. He leans back on his stool so his back is pressed against the edge of the counter and strums randomly at the guitar across his lap.

"Without. Like grown-ups, Nicky."

"Wow, Joe, that's a big step for you," he teases. "Margaret offered to babysit if we ever wanted. I would trust her with Ella."

"I like her," Joe says firmly. "She got that one weird spot off the counter."

Nick uses his foot to nudge Ella's scooter chair away from the edge of the island so she can keep rolling across the floor unobstructed, except for the toys she's flung around. "What do you think, Els?" he asks her, and she looks up at him wide-eyed and babbles.

"I think those sounds are getting closer to words," Joe says.

"Ah," Ella chants, "ah, ah, ah!"

Nick laughs, picking out the first few notes of the melody running through his head. "Definitely not there yet."

"All the baby books say she's got another couple months before she can say daddy." He says it with a sigh. "Say 'daddy,' Ella."

She ignores him, and Nick laughs some more. He leans over and brushes his lips over Joe's pouting ones, breathing in his scent. "Okay, so we'll see if Margaret can watch her. What do you want to do? Go out to dinner? See a movie?" He sings it, trying to make Joe smile, and it works.

"All of the above sound good." Joe steers the walker away from the island again. "Italian food. And a movie with explosions. Lots of explosions. Is there a movie with explosions out right now? Or aliens."

"You could get the computer and check," Nick suggests, and Joe runs to get it.

Carefully, he picks out the Close Encounters theme, his eyes on Ella, who is rolling back and forth in starts and stops. This is the kind of day he loves: hanging out with Joe and the baby, playing music just because he wants to, figuring out how to play a whole bunch of random things for no reason other than to entertain himself and Joe, talking about ordinary stuff like Italian food. Things feel comfortable again, and Nick has found inside himself the willingness to do what it takes to stay with Joe like this, no matter what.

He knows that Joe knows that Nick loves him, but Nick has only recently figured out that he's in love with Joe. He thinks it should probably feel stranger than it does, the knowledge that he belongs to Joe like that, but instead, he's feeling like he's always thought he should feel when he's with someone he loves.

"Yes!" Joe exclaims, coming back with the open laptop. "A movie with aliens and explosions, dude!"

"Sweet. Call Margaret?"

"I'm on it."

"You're overdressed," Nick says later, standing outside Joe's walk-in closet.

Joe looks down at the suit jacket he's just put on over his emoticon t-shirt. "But. I always wear a jacket on a date."

Nick raises an eyebrow and tries to hold back a grin as something inside him turns in delight. "We're going on a date?"

"What part of 'going out like grown-ups' did you miss before?" Joe asks, staring at him with wide eyes. It's the same look Ella gives when they play with her toys and it makes Nick laugh. "I'm expecting you to put out at the conclusion of the night, Nicholas," Joe adds.

"Well, that was a given." He steps into the closet and pulls Joe close by his lapels. "I guess you can keep the jacket," he murmurs before pressing a quick kiss to Joe's mouth, "but hurry up with your shoe choices, we've got reservations."

"Awesome!"

Downstairs, Joe gives Margaret some instructions while Nick waits by the door, keys in hand. "I think she and Ella will be okay for a couple hours, Joe," he calls, as Joe starts in on which color food Ella likes best.

"Our numbers are on the fridge," he hears Joe say, then, "Bye, Ella baby, be good."

They stare at each other for a moment in the car. "This is strange, going somewhere without the kid in tow," Joe says finally.

"Yeah." Because it is. The empty back seat is weirding him out a little.

"You should start driving before I change my mind."

Nick feels the same way, but he starts the car. "Okay."

At the restaurant, he catches Joe's wrist. "You good? You sure you don't want to go home?"

"Only a little. Don't let me," Joe answers. Nick steers him inside, keeping his hand firmly on Joe's lower back until they've been seated. Joe picks up the wine list. "Y'know, I think I want a drink. I haven't since -"

He stops. Nick looks at him across the table. "Since when?"

"Since Jane."

"Oh," he whispers.

Joe pretends he doesn't notice and orders a glass of red. Nick gets a Diet Coke, and they look over the menu. Under the table, Joe slides his feet between Nick's and Nick can't help but flash him a smile. Joe says conversationally, "I'm thinking maybe the lasagna."

"Lasagna sounds good," Nick replies, and suddenly keeping a straight face is the hardest thing in the world. Joe winks, and then they're both laughing for no reason, so hard that the table is shaking. Nick has to put his head down on his arm to regain control.

"You know," Joe hiccups, when he can breathe again, "we spend all day together with the baby, mostly talking about the baby, that I don't know what to talk about now."

Nick shrugs. "What do you want to be when you grow up?"

"Uh, exactly what I am right now," Joe says like it's completely evident. He rubs his ankle against Nick's. "I think I'm doing okay."

Nick traps Joe's foot between his own. "Me too."

The waiter returns with their drinks and takes their dinner order. When he's gone, Joe leans back in his chair and looks at Nick, his gaze sharp but fond, a smile trying to shape his mouth. "What?" Nick asks.

"Did you send Miley that song you were going to?"

"Yeah."

"And?"

Nick turns his soda glass between his hands. "I think she's going to put it on her next record," he says.

"Why didn't you tell me?" Joe leans forward again, stopping him from playing with the glass. "Nick, that's awesome!"

"It's not for sure yet," Nick protests. "I wanted to be sure."

"She'd be stupid not to, after Demi went to number one with the single."

Nick lifts his hands in mock surrender. "I still maintain that was a fluke in the universe," he says, but secretly he's still pleased that the song had done so well. Joe scoffs. "What about you, huh? I know Dem's been on your case to record with her."

"Maybe in a few months." Joe sips his wine. "Are you still going to kiss me with alcohol on my breath?"

"Don't change the subject. Besides, by the time I kiss you, it'll be popcorn and Sour Patch Kids."

"I thought maybe nachos and licorice tonight."

"That's way too much junk food. And you're still changing the subject, dude," Nick says, pointing a finger at him. He can't believe that Joe is content to do nothing but raise Ella for the next seventeen and a half years, and he says as much.

"I said months, not years!" Joe exclaims, but he's smiling.

"Really," Nick says, serious.

Joe takes another drink of his wine and says softly, "Write me a song."

My whole life is a love song to you, Nick wants to say, but instead he says, "Of course."

*


They've just said goodnight to Margaret and checked on a sleeping Ella when Nick's cell vibrates against his thigh. It's Kevin. "I have amazing news," he says, before Nick can even bother with a greeting. "Is Joe there? Put me on speakerphone."

Nick does, setting the phone down on the coffee table. "Okay, go."

Kevin's voice is high and excited as he says, "I'm going to be a dad!" and Nick can't help but laugh in delight as he and Joe both fling their arms up in joy and shout their congratulations.

"When, when?" Joe demands, doing a ridiculous dance around the living room before wrapping his arm around Nick's shoulders.

"The doctor says November." Kevin sounds like he can't stop smiling, and Nick pictures the way his face is probably beaming, and suddenly misses him a whole lot. "You guys will be back, right? I mean, you're not going to stay in Pennsylvania forever, right?"

Nick looks at Joe, raising both his eyebrows as Joe shrugs. "Maybe? We haven't talked about it."

"You should," Kevin says, softer. "I want our kids to grow up together."

He knows Kevin doesn't really mean it how it sounds, that Kevin thinks he's still just helping Joe out until Ella's a little older, but the words still tug hard at something inside of Nick. His breath hitches a tiny bit, but it doesn't seem like Joe notices.

"I'll think about it, for real," Joe says.

"I gotta hang up, Dani and I are going to this church thing. Call me tomorrow?" Kevin asks.

Joe scoops up the phone. "Of course. Love you."

"Love you guys. Bye."

"Bye," Nick echoes. He takes the phone away from Joe and puts it on silent, then tosses it onto the chair away from them. Then he kisses Joe hard, coaxing Joe's mouth open with his own, stumbling them towards the couch. The leather is smooth underneath his hands as he trips Joe down onto it, landing between Joe's knees and kissing him again.

"Nicky, what," Joe gasps, but arches up against him.

He nips at Joe's bottom lip. "Can't do this back in Jersey."

Joe tugs on his hair in response, and Nick slides his hand up underneath Joe's shirt as they kiss again, trailing his fingertips over Joe's skin so light he's barely touching. "I can't do this on the couch," Joe whispers in his ear, all warm breath, "so let's go to bed."

Nick keeps pressing him down onto the cushions. "Are you willing to be a liar forever?" He punctuates the words with claiming kisses, taking Joe's mouth every time like it belongs to him, hoping Joe will know what he means.

"For you, yes." Joe pulls back a fraction of an inch and drags his fingertips over Nick's cheek. "Yes."

They stumble upstairs to Nick's room. He's just gotten Joe's pants undone when a wail comes over the baby monitor, and they both groan. Then Joe laughs against his neck, his breath coming in warm puffs. "Isn't getting interrupted by your kid, like, a tradition?" he asks.

"I guess." Nick takes a step back, and Joe goes to check on Ella. He can hear them over the monitor, and he takes off his shirt and jeans and curls up on the bed, yawning, suddenly exhausted. He glances at the clock. It's later than he'd expected.

He gets under the covers after a few minutes and by the time Joe comes back, he's nearly asleep. "I'm gonna guess you're not in the mood anymore," Joe says dryly, starting to undress.

"Not really," Nick admits, more drowsy than turned on. "Sorry."

"It's okay. I'm gonna take a shower. You'll get the baby if she wakes up again?"

"Yeah."

Joe leans over him for a kiss on his way to the shower, his touch gentle, and then Nick burrows under the covers some more to wait for him. He dozes off a little, but wakes up when Joe comes back out, toweling off his hair. "Maybe we should move closer to them," Joe says. He digs a pair of Nick's pajamas from a drawer. "For real."

"As opposed to... not for real?"

Joe makes what Nick knows are intentionally vague hand gestures. "Instead of just sort of thinking about it." He climbs onto the bed and snuggles against Nick, tucking his head underneath Nick's chin.

Nick drags his fingers through Joe's hair. "Are you ready for what leaving here would mean?" he asks.

Joe turns his head a little, frowning. "Huh? It's not like people don't know I have a kid."

"But no one knows we live here," Nick presses, "and once we're living down the street from Kev and Dani, it'll be 'that town where the Jonas Brothers live'."

He can see Joe roll his eyes. "Right, because Dallas was only ever known as the city where the Jonas Brothers lived."

"I'm serious, Joe."

"It'll be fine," Joe says softly, "okay, so don't get all frustrated, Nicholas."

Nick doesn't answer, just rearranges them by turning onto his side and curling around Joe. He presses his face to the soft fabric of Joe's sleep shirt, taking a breath. He can feel the warmth of Joe's skin beneath this cheek. Even before they did this, they'd done this, and Nick had long ago lost track of how many times he'd fallen asleep tucked up against Joe in this same way.

"I'm not - frustrated," he says finally. "I'm trying to be a realist."

Joe reaches back, and curves his hand around the back of Nick's knee. He digs his fingertips into the sensitive skin there and Nick laughs against his better judgment and squirms, trying to get away. "Quit it, you jerk."

"You love it," Joe says, warmly, and Nick knows there's a smug grin on his face.

He says, "I love you."

"I know." Joe stops tickling and strokes his palm over Nick's thigh.

Nick kisses the back of his neck and nuzzles against the damp hair curling there. "I'm also in love with you." He walks his fingers up and down Joe's side, hip to shoulder, and back down. "You love me, right?"

"Nick," Joe says, his voice low. "Don't - don't you know I've been in love with you for years?"

"Years?" Nick repeats, hating that his voice comes out faint.

Joe turns over and looks into his eyes, his whole face serious. "I got drunk and fucked a girl who looks just like you. You didn't know it? How did you manage to miss that? Jeez, Nick, I thought you saw it when I introduced you in the hospital. Jane sure did."

He feels incredibly stupid all of a sudden. Joe keeps talking. "And when you said you'd do this with me, I thought - I thought maybe you loved me like I love you, but it still took me forever to get up the nerve to ask if I could kiss you."

"And I didn't say no," Nick whispers.

"When you left I thought I'd misjudged all of it, but you came back."

"Because I couldn't be away."

Joe cups his cheek, and Nick turns his face so his lips are pressed against Joe's palm. "I know you're all freaked out about keeping us a secret," Joe says, his voice cautious, "but Nicky, isn't it worth it?"

Nick pulls Joe on top of him, fitting their mouths together, and hopes that it's answer enough.

*


This time, Nick can take more than forty-eight hours to look for a house, and Joe says he doesn't care what they buy, but he still curls up next to Nick on the couch at night while he browses real estate websites. "I like that backyard," he says drowsily in Nick's ear one night after he's put Ella down, dropping his head onto Nick's shoulder. "It's big. Room for a swing set. And a sandbox. Elvis could come live with us finally, and we could get Ella a puppy."

"A kid, two dogs, a fence - it's practically the American dream, give or take a couple fractions. I'm sold." Nick presses a kiss to the top of Joe's head.

"Wait, really?"

"We should go see it before we put in an offer, though," Nick says.

They go the following week to look at the property, and the week after that, Joe is signing his name to a stack of papers at the closing. Nick is still debating whether or not to sell the DuBois house. "It's got sentimental value," he tells Kevin over the phone, but he knows Kevin doesn't really understand, and he's thankful for that.

"I'll help you guys move," Kevin offers. "Man, this is going to be awesome, your new place is like two minutes from ours."

"I'm getting movers for the piano for sure," Nick says with a chuckle.

He decides to keep the DuBois house, at least for a while. "It can be our vacation home," he tells Joe, and Joe laughs. They pack enough to last them a few days until the movers bring the rest of it, and drive from Pennsylvania to New Jersey.

"Look, baby, it's our new house," Nick says to Ella as Joe turns into the driveway. Kevin's already there, sitting on the front stoop with a travel mug of coffee between his knees. Joe parks the SUV and Nick unbuckles Ella from her car seat, then passes her to Kevin for a hug.

"Here, you hold the kid, and me and Kev will get these boxes," Joe says. Kevin hands Ella back to him, and they watch Joe and Kevin unload the boxes from the car. Ella waves at them as they go back and forth, giggling every time Kevin makes a face at her and waves back.

"Uncle Kevin is goofy, huh?" Nick says to her. She pushes at him, demanding to be put down, chanting "ah, ah," until he sets her on her wobbly feet, between his own so he can hold onto her. "Okay, but you have to hold my hands real right," he instructs, knowing she'd topple over immediately without them.

She clutches his fingers and shouts for Joe when he walks over, and shrieks in delight as he tosses her up and over his shoulder. "Have you seen the baby?" he asks Nick. "I don't know where the baby went," and Ella laughs; it's her current favorite game.

"No little girls around here," Nick answers, reaching out to tickle the backs of Ella's knees. He can feel Joe watching him. "What, dude?"

"This so isn't anything you were expecting from life," Joe says, but he's grinning, and Nick can't help but smile back as he moves closer to them, brushing his hand over Joe's where Kevin can't see.

"Nope," he says, leaning in to press a kiss to Ella's cheek, "but it's better than anything I could have asked for."


-end-



This story owes a huge thank-you to every single person who told me they were excited about reading it. You all know who you are. Also to my LaS girls, who suffered through what probably seemed like a never-ending email thread where I asked their opinions on the smallest details. And last, but definitely not least, this story owes almost all of its heart to Ruth Alderson, who was my cheerleader, test-reader, and editor from the start. Without her, this never would have come to be.

Title is from Jenny Lewis' "It Wasn't Me". If you haven't listened to
Rabbit Furcoat, you should.
There are 17 comments on this entry. (Reply.)
 
posted by (anonymous) at 05:56am on 21/12/2009
OMG! I'm so excited to read this! EEEE! Back later with more interesting/very positive feedback.
 
posted by [personal profile] pressdbtwnpages at 07:15am on 21/12/2009
I laughed, I cried (twice!), this is so lovely and delightful that I'm especially glad this idea made it to fruition!
 
posted by [personal profile] apicturewithbooks at 07:27am on 21/12/2009
Oh sweet jesus, this is one of the most amazing things I have ever read. Ever. Their relationship is so intricate and lovely and the emotions come across so clearly. Oh. The scene where Nick is so confused by his want to be socially acceptable. Nick thinks its wrong to love Joe like this, at least in the eyes of God and everyone else. Break my heart, why don't you.

So he settles on please can I come home?

But his need for Joe and Ella and this new life they've cultivated wins out. (How it should be.)

I think this fic has just become my comfort food.

My whole life is a love song to you Nail meet head. THIS.

I think one of (if not the one) my favorite scenes is when Nick tells Joe he's in love with him. The intimacy with them being in bed together, Nick stroking Joe's side. Just, UH! That scene gets to me, it literally makes my heart clench. Ang then Joe telling Nick that he's BEEN in love with him! I love that you wrote it that the readers could already tell this but that Nick couldn't. It made him hearing it all the more sweeter. I wish I knew how to leave more awesome feedback. But I'll just say this, I wish my words could do yours justice. Its something I feel a lot of about this fandom and your writing in particular.

P.s. this is inthenameofjuc on lj, btw. Just letting you know how far my stalkery extends, apparently.
jazlyn: (Default)
posted by [personal profile] jazlyn at 08:04am on 21/12/2009
OMG, FORREAL PERFECT. I laughed, I'm pretty sure my eyes were doing similar things to CRYING ON MY FACE and I didn't want it to end. Please write ten thousand billion sequels, THE END.
rsadelle: (Default)
posted by [personal profile] rsadelle at 03:04pm on 21/12/2009
♥ ♥ ♥
liketheroad: (climb every mountain)
posted by [personal profile] liketheroad at 04:19pm on 21/12/2009
MY HEART. This was so warm and lovely and every progression felt natural and right. I loved it a lot, and will totally be reading it many times over when I need good comfort fic in the future.

I loved so many lines, but this exchange really stood out:

Joe takes another drink of his wine and says softly, "Write me a song."

My whole life is a love song to you, Nick wants to say, but instead he says, "Of course."


SO PERFECT.
 
posted by (anonymous) at 02:19am on 22/12/2009
this was all sorts of wonderful, and it left me all warm and fuzzy inside. ♥
 
posted by (anonymous) at 04:22am on 22/12/2009
god this was gorgeous. and i cried lots.
 
posted by (anonymous) at 03:05pm on 22/12/2009
(this is Asha)

Oh, honey! I'm so PROUD of you! You've been talking about this story for so long, and it came out so PERFECTLY. I love how Joe's SUCH a dad, not wanting to be away from Ella unless Nick makes him, hovering when their mom is there. I love the history of it, how Joe has been in love with Nick for so long and it takes something like Ella for Nick to realise he feels the same way. It's just beautiful :D
th_esaurus: (Default)
posted by [personal profile] th_esaurus at 06:07pm on 22/12/2009
SIGH. SIIIIIIIGH. So lovely. I love lengthy, domestic fic. I love how easily they fall into this sort of scenario, and how strangely right it seems. Your writing is always so delightful to read.
 
posted by (anonymous) at 07:18pm on 22/12/2009
This is amazing i swear i didn't want it to end
mediaville: (no kids)
posted by [personal profile] mediaville at 08:24pm on 22/12/2009
Oh MAN. Okay. First, let me start by saying that I generally do not like kidfic. I think this is because I have a two-year-old and I'm always eyerolling at the little domesticities that seem so romantic in fic but in reality are mostly gross, inconvenient and definitely unsexy. That said, this fic is definitely an exception to all of that. I really loved how you focused on the feelings more than the details of parenting - things like Joe not wanting to be separated fro
his daughter even for a minute, or the way the boys are sheepish about not being able to have a non-baby-related conversation when they go out for their date, or how complete they feel as a sequestered little unit, convention and rest of world be damned. That was all both really realistic and also romantic and lovely, a hard balance to strike.

Also both Nick's freakout and agony of being separated from his family was so believable - the scene when he puts his head on the table in the diner was perfect.

And then there were parts that were SO hot: Joe sucking on Nick's tongue, Joe admitting that he fucked Jane because she looked like Nick, Joe telling Nick, "I want to kiss you," and, "I want to fuck you.".
eleanor_lavish: (Default)
posted by [personal profile] eleanor_lavish at 12:12am on 24/12/2009
Just re-read it, and STILL THE CUTEST EVER. I love the realism in here, and the happy-yet-open-ended-ness of it. So many hearts, seriously.
 
posted by (anonymous) at 09:58pm on 19/01/2010
omg so beautiful love it great job
 
posted by [identity profile] rebecca-star.livejournal.com at 09:38pm on 24/09/2010
Oh I love this. It's so sweet and adorable. Joe&Nick&baby=totally my weakness.
 
posted by [personal profile] mouse42069 at 09:23pm on 02/08/2012
I just re-read this story and loved it again. I kind of remember there being a another part to this story with Ella growing up. Would you be able to give me the like to that story please?
lakeeffectgirl: (Default)
posted by [personal profile] lakeeffectgirl at 10:06pm on 02/08/2012
It's here! :-)

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