A/N: You know, I had planned on waiting to write another Mel/Joe fic until after the deliciously promising Joe/Elena/marriage arc had aired, because I really want to see how that is handled. Yes, the anvils being dropped are still annoying, but I can't stop watching this shop. Like I said, I had planned to wait, but there were several little things in episode 2x12 I thought needed to be addressed. This is my attempt at addressing them and filling in the holes of the show's continuity. And just having some fun.
Disclaimer: Nothing you recognize belongs to me. I just like to amuse myself with them.
Summary: In which Mel defends Joe, Joe provides Mel with some welcome relief, and then there's a sexually-charged food fight in the kitchen. Also known as just another day in the Burke household.
The last thing Mel Burke needed after a busy day at the office was to come home and find her living room in shambles, courtesy of her mother. Wide eyed with dismay, she found carpet squares on the stairs, fabric swatches on the back of her couch, and new drapes at every window.
"Mom," she moaned, dropping her briefcase on the floor in order to flop onto the couch, "I already decorated!"
Monica Burke did not bat an eye as she finished tugging the newest curtain into place. Her daughter's squawk of dismay did not bother her—it was familiar sound, after all. Throughout the years, she had been subject to it many times. Unfortunately for her, Mel had used it frequently, and wine was never very good at affecting her sense of hearing.
"I know, darling," she said coolly, raising an eyebrow at the prone form of her daughter draped melodramatically on the couch—honestly, where did she get that sense of drama?—"But your decorations needed redoing, and I figured I could at least help out, as I will be staying here for awhile."
Mel's response was another moan of horror, and she sat up to glare at her mother, fabric swatches fluttering around her, dislodged by the movement. Blue eyes narrowed, she picked up one of the new red pillows that sat on the couch and inspected it.
Seeing that Mel's attention was diverted for the moment, Monica proudly added, "See? I picked out those pillows. So much better than those brown ones you had there before, don't you think?"
With her back turned, Monica didn't notice the poisonous glare her daughter was now redirecting at her back. "You really should say something to Joe, dear," she told Mel over her shoulder. "I know you let him have a lot of freedom, but you really should make sure the staff is around when you need them. He wasn't here to take me earlier, and I was forced to call a car to drive me to the store to pick out all these things by myself!"
Monica frowned, adjusting the creases of the drapes once more. It was a terrible inconvenience, having to call her own car like that. She'd even had to call in order to have one there on time to pick her up, and had to pay the man extra to carry all her bags to the house! It was much easier to find a car in DC than Toledo, but she supposed she would have to adjust to the annoyance if she was to live here.
Behind her mother's back, Mel squirmed on the couch, suddenly uncomfortable. Hearing her mother refer to Joe as "the staff" brought back the awkward memory of when she had snapped at him just weeks prior, offended that he would take Lennox driving. She had nearly compared him to Charles, but even that wasn't fair, because Joe was more than that.
"Joe's not staff, Mom," she blurted out, sharper than she intended, her right hand stealing towards her left arm in order to scratch at the burning, itching hives that had spread there. They had subsided at work, but now that she was home, with her mother here, they had gotten worse.
Monica turned at her statement, a slightly amused smile on her face. "He's not? What is he then?"
Flummoxed, Mel scrambled for a proper adjective. Nanny? No, to her mother that was nearly synonymous with "staff." Co-parent? Oh, no. No. No. That would only usher in uncomfortable questions, questions she didn't want to contemplate or even attempt to answer. Finally, she found a term that might be acceptable.
"He's my friend," she said slowly, tasting the weight of it on her tongue. Yes, that would do. "He's my friend, and he takes care of the kids," she repeated, more confident in her terminology.
"Of course," Monica said. Just as Mel was about to grin in triumph, her mother added, "Stop scratching, dear," and the moment turned sour. The conversation was clearly finished as Monica turned to the next window, reaching for the next drape that lay across the chair beside her, ready to be hung. Mel stood, still scratching her arm, puzzled. Why did it feel like her mother wasn't convinced, and why did she feel like she still had something to prove?
Giving up, and deciding that a hangover was preferable to gaining a headache from trying to understand her mother, Mel headed for the kitchen, hoping that there was at least one unopened bottle of wine there. If her mother was going to stay, she might just have to pay Joe to dig and build them a wine cellar. Or put a vineyard in the backyard. As she disappeared into the kitchen, she couldn't help but get the last word.
"Mom, for the last time: this is my house! Leave it alone!"
Coming home from his evening grocery run, Joe returned to find the kitchen light on. This was not uncommon, nor was the sight of Mel sitting at the kitchen table, staring down at a pile of official-looking documents before her. The wine glass at her elbow—mostly empty—was just as commonplace, but Joe sensed something was wrong.
Mel had her head propped up on her palm, and she was staring blearily down at the papers in front of her. She probably hadn't read a word in the past twenty minutes, and she just couldn't focus. Between all the wine she had drunk, the infernal itching of her arms, and the migraine she could feel pounding away at her temples, the last thing she wanted to do was work.
"Burke?" Joe tested the silence between them, trying to figure out if she was still conscious. "Burke, are you all right?"
Slowly, the blonde head rolled towards him, and Mel peered up at him through eyes that were ringed with dark circles. "I need to stop getting up before the sun does."
"Uh, I don't think getting up early is your problem, Burke," Joe replied, edging the wine glass away from her and the important papers, feeling a flash of concern when she didn't immediately protest.
"It is!" Mel insisted, her words heavy with fatigue. "I get my beauty sleep before the sun gets up, and, more importantly, after its up!" One hand rotated in front of her face, and she frowned up at him, needing to make him understand. "It's how I keep this looking so pretty!"
"Okay, Burke," Joe chuckled, deciding that it was safer to humor her than to argue at that moment. He moved back to the bulging grocery bags, pausing before he unloaded them, his dark eyes narrowed with fear, having suddenly remembered something. Without a word, he dashed around the kitchen island to squat before a lower cabinet. The rattling of pans ensued, and then Joe straightened and returned to the groceries, sighing with relief. Monica hadn't decided to use any more of his pans, so they were all still in their pristine condition, full of that after-washing glow and carrying the faint scent of dish-washing soap.
His hands slowed in the sorting and stashing of groceries as he snuck longer glances at Mel. She nearly seemed asleep, and the sight of her arms made him recall his impulsive purchase at the store. The hives on her arms were nearly raised now, red and streaked against the paler skin of her arms where she had been rubbing and scratching all day.
Mel stirred as he sat beside her and pushed the papers further away from them both. She really needed more sleep. Or her mother needed to leave. Or she needed to convince the kids to have less drama in their lives. Or something. She focused on Joe, her eyes clearing as she noticed that he was waiting for something. Lifting her head away from her hand, she frowned at him. "What is it, Longo?"
He had apparently been waiting for that movement and her question. Uncapping the tube that he held, Joe smeared some of the tube's contents on his hand and reached for her arm, the one that had been holding up her head seconds ago. "Hold still."
Mel's yelp became a sigh of relieved bliss. Whatever Joe was spreading on her hives was wonderful, because as his fingers moved, the itching that had plagued her all day receded, until some of her headache was gone. Huh. She had never considered that the two could be related.
"What is that?" she breathed, eyes closed in pleasure, nearly humming with happiness. Joe's fingers massaged the skin of her forearm, rubbing the lotion into the hives but also the underside of her arm, his fingertips leaving warm imprints on the sensitive skin.
As he reached for her right arm, Mel eagerly thrust it into his hold. The hives weren't as bad on this arm, but they still bothered her. Looking up, she found Joe wearing the crooked grin that he occasionally bestowed on her when he was pleased with himself because something he had done made her happy.
"It's calamine lotion," he told her, using both thumbs in a circular pattern against her skin. His voice was low, a comforting rumble, and Mel closed her eyes, enjoying the attention. "I picked it up at the store because I saw how badly you were scratching. You're torturing yourself, Mel."
"Yes, and I shouldn't, because you're torture enough," Mel retorted, blue eyes flashing open as she grinned at him—an invitation.
For once, he didn't rise to the bait, but chose a different path. "I figured, with your mother staying here, it wouldn't be a bad investment." He tilted his head, and his dark eyes considered her carefully. "Although, if she's going to be staying for awhile, maybe I, uh, should have seen if they sold it in a bigger size. Like a barrel."
"We could keep them in the wine cellar," Mel murmured, having retreated to the peaceful world where her stress didn't plague her and manifest itself in such irritating forms. Getting up, Joe headed for the sink, shaking his head as he washed his hands, not even bothering with trying to understand what Mel was saying.
"I don't even want to know, Burke. Come on," he coaxed, crossing the kitchen again and leaning down to wrap one hand around each of her upper arms. "You clearly need to get some sleep." At his gentle tugging, Mel complied, some of the lines smoothed from her face and the stress not as evident after the impromptu massage. She stood, wavered for a moment, and then leaned heavily against him. Joe stopped as the full length of her side was pressed against him, and he wrapped one arm fully around her shoulders for more support as he took on most of her weight.
"Come on, Mel," he whispered firmly, swallowing hard as she turned her face up to his, all contented smile and half-lidded blue eyes, her hair tumbling around her face, curling against her cheeks and doing nothing to help his composure. He stood as straight as he dared and mustered all his self control. "Come on, Burke," he repeated, substituting her last name in a last-ditch effort for some distance, even if it was emotional instead of physical. (Like that ever worked!) He nudged her with his shoulder, jolting her a little bit, attempting to inject some amusement into his tone. "The stairs are that way."
Mel didn't seem to be as affected as he was, or maybe her exhausted state didn't allow for it. Obediently, she turned and moved away from him. As she wandered sleepily up the stairs, still muttering about grapes and wine and barrels, Joe took a deep breath, swallowed hard, and uncurled his free hand, surprised to see the marks where his nails had bit into his palms. It was so hard not to touch her sometimes, especially when she looked at him like that. Taking another deep breath, Joe squared his shoulders and turned to the task of cleaning up the kitchen. Hopefully the task of straightening the kitchen before he went to bed would distract him.
"They came!" Mel nearly shrieked at the sight of the brightly colored box on the kitchen counter, bearing colorful stamps and elegantly scripted words in French, proof of its origin. Delighted, she tore the decorative ribbon off the top, barely glancing at the card that was loosened by her scrabbling fingers and fell to the counter.
You should at least share with Joe and Lennox and—several letters and names were scratched out here—that young man.
Love, Mom and Daddy
"Oh, well," Mel shrugged, blue eyes gleaming, grinning at her good fortune, "I can't share if they're not here!"
The lid of the pink box was lifted with the reverence shown to sacred objects, and Mel could have sworn that a faint light emitted from within as she bared the box's contents to her worshipful gaze. For having traveled thousands of miles, the box's contents had held up surprisingly well. She could only assume that her parents had paid to have it shipped with the utmost care.
Not that she cared about any of that right now. Mel paused just long enough to grab a napkin before diving in. She extracted a chocolate éclair from the box, unable to resist the temptation. The dough practically glowed, and the chocolate icing spread over the top had a certain shine to it. Mel had no doubt that the cream inside was equally enticing. It would be delicious.
Grinning with delight, Mel began her journey into a sugary heaven. Three euphoric bites later, in which she was sure her mind had entered a kind of nirvana, she was interrupted.
"Oh, that's disgusting."
Mel glanced up, immediately frowning at the intrusion. Joe stood in the doorway to the driveway, clearly having just come from a run. He was staring at her in abject horror, as he had found her doing something far more heinous than enjoying an unexpected dessert after a rather long day. She frowned at him, gesturing pointedly with her free hand at her newly-found treasure. "Do you mind?"
"Do you?" Joe countered, dark eyes wide and lips pressed together in dismay. "Geeze, Burke, there are such things as plates, you know. You could use them. You're not an animal."
Mel flapped a hand, unconcerned by his fussing. "Too much effort."
Joe watched the icing and crumbs fall from her lips to litter the countertop. "Burke, I have to clean this kitchen this later. I don't want that all over it."
"Calm down, Longo," Mel retorted, biting into the éclair again and nearly moaning with happiness. "I'm almost done." She contemplated her rapidly disappearing éclair for a moment, pouting, saddened by the prospect that it might soon cease to exist, but then she remembered the still-full box next to her. She brightened. "Maybe."
Joe saw her eyeing the box and blanched. Mel clearly needed to be stopped, and since Ryder and his insatiable stomach weren't home yet to help him, he would have to do it on his own.
Stepping forward, he grinned, ignoring the mess he had pointed out moments ago. "Uh, Burke, you're leaking."
"What?" Mel glanced up in alarm, brow furrowed, but by then Joe was scooping up some of the cream that was emerging from the bottom of the éclair onto his extended finger. Licking it off, he glanced over to find Mel watching him. Slowly, he extracted the finger from his mouth and watched as she swallowed, the last third of her éclair forgotten in her hands, blue eyes wide. Her lips were parted slightly, and color was rising to her cheeks, her breathing slightly labored. He grinned at her, a slow, pleased grin, dark eyes warming with heat, like coals when they glowed with the flames they held tucked in their hearts.
"I don't know, Burke," he mused, helping himself to more éclair cream that was continuing to drop from the bottom, "I probably could have gotten the same from the store here."
"What!" Mel spluttered and yanked her mind out of the gutter, her irritation mounting. "Longo, these are Parisian éclairs!"
He blinked at her, nonplussed, still smiling that same infuriating grin. "So? Just because they're from Paris doesn't change anything. I can still do this." At that, he dabbed the cream from his finger onto her nose.
Mel went still, and Joe nearly laughed at the sight of her cross-eyed, trying to examine the sticky fluff at the end of her nose. Then she glared up at him, and it was his turn to freeze, aware of the heaviness in the air between them, the calm before the storm.
It didn't take long for that storm to break.
Ryder and Lennox came in through the front door, neither pausing at the sound of raised voices from the kitchen. Dropping his book bag next to the couch, Ryder settled onto the couch and glanced at Lennox before switching on the TV. "Ten bucks says Aunt Mel's mad at Joe."
"Don't be stupid," Lennox retorted, well aware that he was probably right, dropping her bag as well and heading for the kitchen. Stepping through the swinging door, she stopped so suddenly, shocked by the sight that met her eyes, that the door smacked against her back.
It looked like an explosion had gone off. Not one made of incendiaries, but one that reminded her of the time that she and Ryder had thought it was a good idea to make a milkshake without putting the lid on the blender. Joe had them scrubbing sticky ice cream and chocolate syrup off the counters and cabinets and even the ceiling for hours, and had nearly withheld dinner, he had been so mad. This time, it looked like he was the one who would be doing the scrubbing, since it seemed like this mess might be one that he had made. Well, had helped to make.
The husks of five éclairs sat on a plate in the middle of the kitchen island, and their cream was currently smeared over the two adults who were apparently having a food fight in the middle of the kitchen. Joe crouched on the far side of the island, nearest the sink, using one of his precious skillets as a shield. Éclair cream was smeared on his cheeks and his shoulders, and—Lennox did a double take. Was that a creamy handprint on his chest? It was pretty obvious it was, as he wasn't wearing a shirt, and Lennox shook her head. She did not want to think about how it got there.
Aunt Mel, for her part, was gleefully flinging éclair cream in Joe's direction while perched on the kitchen table, laughing as she taunted him.
"You throw like a girl, Longo!"
"That's not as much of an insult as you think, Burke," Joe shot back, cautiously peering above the island to make a face at her. "I taught Mel's Angels everything they knew!"
Emboldened by his seeming retreat, his attempts to hunker down behind the cabinetry and seek shelter and unfazed by his retort, Mel turned a triumphant grin in Lennox's direction. "Hey, Lennox! Come be on my team!"
Lennox raised a sardonic eyebrow and put all the teenage exasperation she could muster into one word. "Really?"
"It'll be fun!" Laughing, Mel hopped off the table and edged towards the island, faltering as Joe rose to his feet, a glob of cream in his hand. She had underestimated her opponent, his readiness to continue the fight. She hurriedly tried to retreat, to find safety behind the kitchen table, but as she backed up, she slid on a slick patch of icing and nearly fell.
Concern immediately supplanting competition and friendly rivalry, Joe lunged forward and caught her, bringing her into his arms. Hands splayed against his chest to catch her balance, Lennox noticed that a second cream handprint joined the first. (So, that's how that one got there!)
"You all right there, Burke?" Joe's voice had dropped to a lower register at their close proximity, and Lennox noticed that there was a lot more color in her aunt's cheeks than there had been seconds ago. Even she knew the difference between cheeks red from laughter and a true blush! Biting her lip to keep from smiling, Lennox wondered how long it would take them to notice that she was still there.
Awhile, apparently, as her aunt seemed unable to muster an answer to Joe's question. They stood quietly in their own little bubble, just watching each other, gazes locked.
That bubble was quickly popped by Ryder, who could always be counted on (in Lennox's opinion) to a) ruin the moment, and b) sense food no matter where he was in the house.
"Awesome!" he cried, oblivious to his aunt and nanny wrapped together in a tight embrace, all his attention on the rumpled red box that still held over a dozen éclairs. "Grandma and Grandpa sent us food!"
"Éclairs from Paris," Mel informed him, wiggling out of Joe's arms to grab hold of the back of Ryder's shirt, concerned he would find a way to decimate them all in the next several minutes. Casting around for a way to save them, she came up with a desperate statement. "Joe's going to make dinner soon, and you have homework to do, but you can have one."
Ryder sent her a quizzical glance, confused by this aunt who suddenly cared about what he ate and when; that was usually Joe's concern. He didn't notice her flushed cheeks, but he did notice the chocolate éclair cream that was smeared across her cheeks like war paint, and his eyes lit up.
"You and Joe were having a food fight! All right, I'll play!"
"No!" Mel yelped, grabbing his wrist and stopping him from creating another causality just as his hand disappeared into the box. "It was an accident, and I'm sure Joe doesn't want any more of a mess to clean up."
Ryder stared at his aunt for a moment, then shrugged, clearly not finding the point worth pursuing. "Whatever." Grabbing a napkin and an éclair decorated in a pale icing with sugared walnuts, he wandered back into the living room.
"Not on the couch!" Mel called after him, a slight edge of panic to her voice, brows drawn together in a frown.
Joe groaned in exasperation and finally took his eyes off Mel, scowling in the direction of the swinging door and the sound of TV blaring beyond. "Ryder, use a plate! Where did you animals come from?" He grumbled, but made no move to take a plate into the other room and continue his scolding.
Lennox propped her hands on her hips, unable to keep from smirking. "Can I trust you two of you to be the mature ones and not make any more of a mess, or do I have to explain to my teachers tomorrow that I couldn't do my homework because I had to babysit my aunt and my nanny?"
Both adults jumped at her words, and the two surprised stares she got in reply told her that they had completely forgotten she was still there.
Mel was the first to recover. "Lennox! Don't you have homework?"
Lennox grinned at her aunt, finding it hard to take her guardian seriously when she was covering in icing. "Yeah, I do."
Darting away from Mel's cream-covered hand nearly pushing her towards the stairs, Lennox couldn't help but giggle. Joe looked up sharply from where he was beginning the long process of erasing the evidence of the éclair war, but when Lennox said nothing else, he turned back to cleaning as Lennox disappeared through the kitchen door again, taking refuge in the living room.
Silence reigned now, and Joe concentrated on scrubbing at a particularly stubborn patch of icing, not looking at Mel. She stood on the other side of the island, all her fire gone, leaving them floundering in one the increasingly frequent awkward silences that came up between them.
"So, who wins?"
Mel's flippant question startled a chuckle out of Joe, and he paused in order to look up. Mel was watching him with a small smile, and he found himself responding in kind. He pretended to contemplate the question, moving to stand in front of her, his expression serious, his eyes catching hers and holding her in place.
Staring down at her, he lifted a hand as if to stroke her cheek, to brush away a loose curl. (He really wanted to, but that wasn't his objective right now.) Hearing her breath hitch, he continued to keep his gaze locked on hers. When the heat began to build, when they were approaching the same point they had twice before in the last hour, chained together by tension and rising hormones (twice before, Joe had held Mel in his arms and breathed in the scent of sugar and chocolate and Mel), when he was certain she wouldn't budge, Joe made his move.
Before Mel could realize what had happened, there was a warm brush of skin against her chest, and then Joe was gone. Blinking, she looked around. Cream still streaked almost every surface of her recently remodeled kitchen, and she was still covered in icing. Looking down, she found that she now wore a cream imprint of Joe's hand on her chest, spanning from her collarbone nearly to her breasts.
Mel gaped down at herself and then back up, fury and embarrassment given life from the remains of her blushes and foolish (ridiculous) hopes and growing to a rampant blaze under her skin. "Longo!" She snarled, glanced wildly around, glaring, only to find Joe grinning at her from the landing of the kitchen stairs.
Some of the heat was still in his eyes, so he may have been just as affected as she had been. However, the smug Longo grin dominated all else, and he looked far too pleased with himself.
Just before bounding up the stairs to the safety of his room, he answered her question, waving a cream-covered hand in gloating farewell. "I win, Burke."
A/N: Reviews of any kind are always appreciated!