A/N: This will probably be my last Mel/Joe fic posted before the Joe/Elena/marriage arc airs. I will no doubt be back with more after that, but I want to see if that story arc alters the direction and course of the show before I do anything else regarding Mel and Joe. Thus, I leave you with this doozy of a creation. Also, another note: it was pointed out to me that in one of my previous stories, I referred to Mel as Melissa, which is not her given name in the show. Her given name in the show is actually Melanie. I have made the corrections in this story, and hopefully I'll keep that continuity.

Disclaimer: Nothing recognizable belongs to me. Also, forgive my pimping of the Columbus Zoo in the last segment. It is one of my favorite places.

Summary: Mel and Joe were always meant to find each other, no matter what the reality might be. Here are five lives they never lived, and one they did. One-shot, complete. Rating is for language and adult situations.


Companions

Or, five lives Mel and Joe never experienced, and one they did.

Party Girl

Meredith Scanlon scans the crowded banquet hall for her husband and finally locates him, deep in conversation with one of his brokers. Now, where is her sister? "Mel?"

"What's up?" The cheerful voice at her elbow has her resisting the urge to roll her eyes. This is the last time she invites her sister to the office Christmas party. Mel has begged, has cited the numerous times she has babysat on short notice, has even gone back and invoked instances that occurred while they were still living in their parents' house, things that should never, ever, be mentioned again. Finally, chided, nagged, and blackmailed, Meredith has agreed.

She is now regretting it. She has forgotten how much of a flirt her younger sister is! Once Mel gets out on the dance floor, she has no lack of partners, and Meredith is sure that at least one man (knowing her luck, it will be one who works for Louis) will end up going home with Mel tonight.

"Ooh, good song!" Mel has gotten distracted by the music again, her blue eyes sparkling with good humor, her cheeks flushed from dancing and numerous cocktails. Meredith snags her by the wrist as she attempts to escape. Mel turns back, pouting, brows drawn, displeased at the interruption. "What do you want?"

"We're going to talk to Louis." Meredith knows she was using her "mom" voice, and knows that Mel will complain, but sometimes she has no choice. She has a headache from the music and the babble of voices and too much to drink, and really all she wants to do is go home, make sure Lennox and Ryder are asleep, and then fall asleep as well.

Sure enough, Mel wants nothing to do with it, and she can spot a trap a mile away. "Um, Mere, if you want to take Louis and go home, you can." They have come to the party in the same car, but Mel grins at her sister before Meredith can point that out. "I'm sure I could find another ride home."

There is a double entendre in that (no doubt intentional), but Meredith will not stoop to her younger sister's level by pointing it out or even finding amusement in it. Instead, she presses her lips together and tugs on the wrist she still holds in her grip, refusing to be distracted. "Let's go."

Towing her sister behind her by the wrist would just look strange, so Meredith quickly loops her arm through Mel's. Now she can propel Mel across the room without attracting too much attention. Mel glares, easily understanding the tactic for what it is, but she doesn't argue.

"Hi honey." Meredith interjects herself into the conversation easily, lowering her head to kiss her husband's cheek and flashing a quick smile at Louis's conversational partner. "Mel and I figured we should come say hi."

Louis returns the smile and the kiss, wrapping an arm around her waist and squeezing. He chuckles, his dark eyes warm. "Were we talking shop for too long?" He is no stranger to his wife's abilities at navigating a party: the moment he begins to talk too long to one employee, she is sure to find him and gently remind him that there are other people in the room that he can talk to.

The other man who has been talking with Louis looks relieved to have someone else join the conversation, and that relief turns to blatant interest as his gaze finds Mel. Dark eyes sharpen, and Meredith sees him clearly appreciate the blue dress her sister is wearing tonight.

Louis sees the exchanging of glances and is quick to introduce them. "Joe, you know my wife, Meredith. Meredith, this is Joe. Joe, this is my sister-in-law, Mel Burke. Mel, this is Joe Longo. He's one of my brokers."

Mel arches an eyebrow in surprise, the corner of her mouth quirking upwards, and she can't quite hold back a huff of incredulous, startled laughter. "Longo? What is that, your stage name?"

Before Meredith can do more than gape, astonished by Mel's words, Joe himself responds. The slow, smooth grin that curls his mouth is a natural one; clearly, this was a question he has heard before.

"No," he responds easily, his dark eyes never leaving her blue ones. "I'm from Jersey. My family's Italian."

"Italian?" Mel is entirely focused on him, swaying forward in a way that can only draw a man's eyes to her curves. Joe is not immune to the movement, and his eyes scan her form in open appreciation. Mel smirks, enjoying the reaction. "Care to join me for a drink, Mr. Joe 'I'm Italian' Longo?"

Joe doesn't move. Raising his eyebrows, he purses his lips in consideration. "Only if I get your number before we're done."

"Oh, you may get more than that," Mel purrs, and Meredith forces back the need to bury her head in her hands as Mel leads the way to the bar, Joe placing a solicitious hand against the small of her back that seems to drift lower with every second. Mel doesn't seem to mind.

Amazed, Louis turns to his wife. "What just happened?"

Meredith can only shake her head, closing her eyes in weary defeat. Hadn't she wondered if this would happy, felt it coming in the warning the had prickled the back of her neck earlier? Why did it have to be someone Louis worked with? Why not one of the caterers?

Giving a sigh of resignation and mentally washing her hands of the matter, Meredith turns to her husband with a tired smile. "Come on, let's say our good-byes and get home to the kids. Mel will find her own way home, I'm sure."


Intern

"Who is that?" Joe wonders, watching the petite woman in the blue blouse and straight black skirt stride past his desk for the fourth time in an hour, clearly on a mission. He has looked up every time she has passed, hoping to catch her eye, but she never looks right or left, only straight ahead.

"One of the new interns, I think," Brian replies from the next cubicle over, watching the woman retreat with just as much interest. Joe resists the urge to say something. He can't very well chastise Brian for checking out her ass while he's checking out the rest of her, now can he?

"She doesn't look like an intern," Joe responds, craning his head around the edge of his cubicle to watch until the woman disappears around a potted plant. "They don't usually hire them so…pretty."

"She's hot," Brian agrees enthusiastically, his green eyes glowing with lust, grinning smugly. "About time they got some hot ones in here." Joe fights back the urge to punch him. Getting fired for giving a coworker a black eye the day a woman gets hired would look suspect.

A few weeks go by, until Joe comes in one day to find the male staff buzzing about the new intern, Melanie, or Mel, as she apparently likes to be called. She is the one with the blue eyes and the blonde hair that looks impossibly soft, the one he can't help but watch every time she walks by.

Brian sticks his head into Joe's cubicle, looking far too pleased. "That hot intern has set up a love-shack in the fourth-floor supply closet! It's awesome!"

Joe has jerked his head up at the beginning of the sentence, but by the end he only snorts and shakes his head in disbelief. That's a little too far-fetched, even for Brian. "Dude, were you watching porn last night? Because I'm pretty I've, uh, seen that scenario before."

His co-worker, on the other hand, is looking as if his dearest wishes had been granted. (Perhaps they have. Joe hasn't seen him date a girl since Becky broke up with him four months ago.) "I'm planning on getting some," he smirks, and Joe has to grind his teeth to keep from retaliating. "You in?"

Joe turns to him, dark eyes murderous. "Get out." Puzzled, Brian withdraws, and Joe turns back to his computer, hoping that the numbers on the screen will distract him from his thoughts.

He lasts two weeks.

Two weeks of telling himself it's wrong, of telling himself there will be hell to pay if he gets caught by any of the managers. He tries to do the right thing, and avoids the fourth floor supply closet like the plague, but finally, curiosity wins out.

Well, curiosity and fantasies that he really shouldn't be entertaining at work, even though most of them take place in the office.

It is Friday afternoon, and Joe can't take it any more. Brian emerged from his "encounter" with Mel a week ago pleased and triumphant, and Joe hasn't been able to look him in the eye since that. He never really respected Brian in the first place—the guy is too much of scumbag for that—but he is afraid that if he looks up and sees the triumph in Brian's eyes, he really will hit him.

Finally, all self-control gone, Joe finds himself slipping into the fourth floor supply closet, pressing his back against the door and closing his eyes, breathing hard. What is he doing?

"Lock the door."

Mel's voice is low, amused, and not at all the tones of the sex kitten he thought he'd find in there. Fumbling with the knob and the lock, Joe manages to reach behind himself and properly latch it, nerves and adrenaline knotting together and making him jumpy.

"Are you going to look at me?"

Slowly, Joe opens his eyes, peering into the semidarkness. He doesn't have far to look—there is a lit plastic lantern on the ground between them, and the supply closet is only about four feet long. Mel stands at the other end of the closet, watching him, smirking.

For a moment, he just stands there watching her, taking in his fill of her features: the blue eyes that are large and soft, accentuated by dark lashes and eye-shadow, the blonde hair that she has styled and curled around her shoulders. However, she is still dressed in a respectable skirt and blouse, all the buttons and zippers done up and not a hair out of place. Not quite how he had expected her to look.

He raises an eyebrow in question at her ensemble and crosses his arms over his chest. "Uh, you don't look like you've been screwing half the office."

At the question in his tone, Mel grins, her teeth flashing in the cheap lantern light. She saunters towards him, heels making no sound on the carpet, and Joe finds that with the heels, he doesn't have to look down at her. Enjoying her closer proximity, he finds himself returning her grin with his own hesitant smile.

When she is only inches away, she tips her chin ever so slightly up to his and confesses. "I haven't been 'screwing half the office'," she tells him, still looking pleased. "I've been giving the guys here dates with some of my single girlfriends. They don't seem to mind, and I know my girlfriends don't! Especially Stephanie," she adds, giggling at what is clearly a private joke, since Joe doesn't know a Stephanie. The more she talks, the more Joe's eyes widen, and while most of his questions are unanswered, there is an irrational pleasure in the knowledge that she hasn't been servicing most of the office staff.

There is one question he needs answered, though. "So," he drawls, "why are you doing this?"

Her response is to kiss him, slow and sweet and hot, full of promises of more. Then she is pulling away, pressing a piece of paper into his hand, and then he is being tugged aside so she can slip out into the abandoned hallway beyond.

Still reeling and blinking from the unexpected light from the hallway, brighter than the tiny lantern at his feet, Joe stumbles out of the closet and is nearly to his car before he remembers the scrap of paper sticking to his sweaty palm.

The ink is slightly runny from the heat of their bodies, but her phone number is perfectly legible.


Model

"You're late, Longo!"

"Yeah, I know," Joe snarls back, slinging his bag over his shoulder with more force than necessary. Glaring, he stalks across the set, sending models and other assorted members of the photo-shoot crew scattering. No one wants to get in the way of Joe Longo, photographer, when he's angry. It's said that his glare can melt a lens.

A former model himself, Joe Longo is perhaps one of the best people in the world to understand what goes on during a photo-shoot. He keeps himself fit, taking pride in his workout routine, and he understands the anxiety and pressure of keeping yourself looking perfect and eternally youthful. When he couldn't take the pressure anymore, he stepped out of the spotlights and turned to work behind the camera.

Stalking over to the table that has been designated as his, Joe slams his portfolio down, venting his frustration, taking infinite more care with his camera bag. This'll be the last time he ever lends Tony anything! His brother travels all over the world and takes photos for National Geographic, so you would think he knows how to care for camera equipment!

"What's wrong with you this morning?"

The cool voice behind him makes Joe lean on the table, both hands spread as he squares his shoulders. Losing his cool in front of the boss is not a good idea.

Mustering a smile, he turns around and turns on the charm. "Belli! How are you?"

Belinda Carmichael sees right through his smoke and mirrors, as always. It's one of the downsides of working for someone who has become a good friend in the last five years. Her hazel eyes are sharp with curiosity, and not a strand of her copper hair is out of place this morning. "Cut the crap, Longo. Who did what?"

Seeing that she has no interest in his lies, Joe relaxes, running a hand over his face, tired already. It's not even six yet. "Tony is—"

"A douche? Irresponsible? Not worth your time?"

Closing his eyes, Joe winces. Really bad idea to mention his brother to his boss, who happens to be a good friend and his brother's ex-girlfriend. "The second one," he agrees, refusing to divulge more when Belinda looks like she would love to start another of her Tony rants. He really can't deal with one of those this morning. He's afraid he'll chime in. Instead, he changes the subject. "What do you have for me today?"

Belinda loses interest in her verbal abuse of Tony Longo, her smile morphing into a shark's grin. Her hazel eyes gleam, and Joe eyes her warily. That grin has never boded well for him in the past. "You get shoes today," she tells him, and Joe moans, closing his eyes in horror.

"Belli! What the hell?"

"I know, I know," Belinda says sympathetically, patting his cheek, all the while still wearing that shark grin. "I live to make your life a nightmare. I do love you; you should know that."

"You have a funny way of showing it," Joe retorts, turning away from her to set about retrieving his camera from its cushioned nest. "You know I hate shoes, Belli. They're torture devices for women, and they make men's lives more difficult, too!"

"How so?" Belinda's eyes are twinkling, her face a picture of innocence, but this dance has been done before. She's heard this rant already.

Joe fixes her with a withering stare and settles his camera around his neck. "What man have you met that enjoys watching a woman try on multiple pairs of shoes while she fusses about whether or not it will match any of her clothes? New shoes lead to new clothes, new clothes lead to new hair, new hair leads to a new face, and a new face leads to a new body, and then suddenly you don't know who your wife is, she's run off with some guy, and your wallet is empty too!"

"Somebody's bitter," Belinda sings softly, enjoying his explosion. She grins at him, amused by his rant, one she has heard as many times as he has heard her tirades about Tony. "You really shouldn't keep all that tension bottled up, Longo. You might hurt yourself."

Joe stares at her for a long moment, and then mutters a string of expletives and stomps off. Belinda can't resist having the last word.

"Oh, Joe!" She calls after him, giggling. "Have fun with the new model! She loves shoes!"

Joe's middle finger flicking up in the air is the only response she gets. Laughing, Belinda looks around for her assistant and her morning coffee. Teasing Joe first thing always makes her days a little bit better.

Joe is crouched on the floor, studious ignoring the woman who sits in front of him in a tank top and shorts, wholly focused on her legs and the purple pumps that she is wearing. It has taken him nearly half an hour to get this shoot set up, and now the lighting seems to be off. Or maybe it's the white backdrop. Something about the color of shoes isn't coming across right, and the half dozen shoots he's taken already aren't anything he can show Belli at the end of day.

"Don't move," he instructs the woman absently, but she huffs an exasperated breath and shifts anyway, moving her heel the slightest inch to the left, ruining the shot again. This time, Joe growls and looks up. "Will you stay still?"

The woman looks back at him, blue eyes wide. She's unsure of what to make of him, he knows. He has her resume and head-shot on the table behind him, and all he knows about her is what he managed to glean by skimming it: Melanie Burke, 27, political science major from the University of Baltimore, 5'2". Never been a model before, which means he has his hands full. He will say this for her, though: Even untried and untrained, she's got some fantastic legs.

"Sorry," she nearly whispers, and Joe lets his camera fall, raising his hands to run them over his face again.

"It's not your fault," he tells her, trying to muster a smile through the weariness he feels. "I'm not having the best day."

The smile she offers in the face of his confession is small and sweet and it warms his heart. She's nervous, but she's trying, and he really should be nicer. He clears his throat and gestures towards the shoot that is humming around them. "Your first time?"

She nods, and those blue eyes light up. "But not yours," she teases. "You know, if you keep glaring like you are and burn a hole in those shoes, I'm pretty sure Ms. Carmichael will make you replace them."

Joe gives her a closer look, a sharper one. He's not one to make the assumption that models are vapid airheads—he put himself through college modeling, and he considers himself pretty intelligent—but he doesn't usually try to get to know the models. They're usually absorbed in other things, and the runway models can be pretty catty. He's never known a model to tease him outright like this.

He indulges. "I don't know," he sends a crooked smile her way. "Ms. Carmichael likes me more. She might just charge you."

Melanie doesn't disappoint. Her chin lifts at the challenge, and those blue eyes are definitely glowing with the heat of welcome battle. "If that happens, you're buying me dinner."

Joe doesn't say anything, merely grins and goes back to work. Their teasing barbs pepper the rest of the session, and when he's finally finished, Joe can't remember what exactly he took pictures of all afternoon. He does walk away from that session with something new: a lingering sense of disappointment that she has to leave.

Mel wipes her feet with a damp rag, trying not to whimper with pain. She is in one of the locker rooms, and her first day as a foot model is officially over. She's had a lot of fun, and she got paid to stand and sit in gorgeous shoes all day! The only downsides are the blisters that inevitably form, and the way her feet ache. She'll have to start bandaging them in the morning if she wants any hope of driving home in the evening. At least until she gets used to it.

"What are the chances we get to keep the shoes?" She calls half-jokingly to the other girl who is a few lockers away, studiously braiding her hair.

Clarissa cranes her neck and frowns in contemplation of the question, watching the new girl with a speculative gaze. This Mel came in this morning and rightfully took her place at the bottom of the pecking order, and she doesn't seem to be a threat. She's a shoe model, after all, and being so tiny means that she is hardly going to be chosen for much else.

"Well, are you willing to hand back every paycheck you make to pay for them?" Clarissa's voice and chuckle are full of wry humor, and Mel can't help but join in.

"A girl can hope, right?"

Clarissa nods, biting her lip as she works a hair tie around the end of her braid. "I hate the way I have to keep braiding my hair every night. I wish I could cut it all off."

Mel frowns. "Wouldn't that-"

"End my career as a model for hair dye?" Clarissa finishes, laughing and standing to toss the rest of her clothes and various hair care products in her bag. "Yeah, pretty much, but I never intended to be here forever." On her way to the door, she pauses and looks back over her shoulder, green eyes bright. "Oh, every once in awhile, a pair of shoes has a slight flaw and can't be used, and Ms. Carmichael will give them to a model."

Mel glances up from rubbing ointment on her blisters, excited again. "Really?"

Clarissa grins. "Really. You might get lucky. By the way, who's your photog?"

Mel watches the other girl for some clue as to whether her answer will bring jealousy or sympathy. "Joe Longo."

Clarissa does not disappoint. "Well, don't you have all the luck," she breathes, her mouth gaping open.

Mel tilts her head. "Is that good?"

Clarissa grins broadly, two dimples appearing her cheeks as she nods emphatically. "Joe's really nice. He used to be a model, so he totally gets what we do, and he lets you takes lots of breaks, and he's really good friends with Ms. Carmichael." As Mel waits in silence, she continues. "Don't get any ideas," she warns. "He's hot, and you may get to have private shoots with him, but Joe doesn't get involved with the girls."

Mel's brow knits in confusion as she considers this development. "Why not?"

Clarissa shrugs and finishes her journey to the door, pushing it open with one hand while giving her reply. "No idea. He's had girlfriends, and I know he was married a few years ago, but he's just never shown an interest."

Mel watches her as she disappears, and finishes bandaging her feet in contemplative silence.

Belinda steeples her fingers and leans back in her leather office chair, surveying the man in front of her critically. It has been a long day, and she's not sure that she wants to deal with him right now. Her red hair is pulled back in a ponytail, and her hazel eyes are narrow. He has asked her a question, and she is still considering it. He shifts in front of her, wary and uncertain, knowing that he may have just revealed too much.

"Longo," she finally sighs, "when I hired you all those moons ago, I did it with your assurance that you were one of the few straight photographers that could be trusted to 'keep it in your pants' around the models." She leans forward, props her elbows on the desk, and gives him a hard stare. "In the five years you've been here, I haven't heard a whisper of you being involved with anyone who comes in these doors…but that all changed six month ago. What is going on?"

Joe winces, not even trying to hide the guilt from his face. The whole ankle incident did him in, he knows. Oh, he is so screwed.

Belinda doesn't even wait for him to answer her question. "Let's recap, shall we?" She asks rhetorically, ticking off the major points on her long, manicured fingers as she speaks. "Month one: you are assigned to this model. Nothing out of the ordinary, weeks of Longo-perfect shots are submitted, and then your sessions start getting longer. I'm not worried at first, since you told me that you won't touch my girls. Month two: You start using her for projects that are not shoe-related. I let it go, figuring you've found yourself a friend, because God knows you've needed one since Tiffany."

Joe winces at the mention of his ex-wife's name and the bitter memories that arise, but doesn't raise his voice to defend himself like he normally would. Belinda hasn't said anything that isn't true yet.

"Month three," Belinda continues, standing up and moving to stand beside her desk, still tapping her fingers against each other and watching him, "you gave her a pair of shoes that you bought from this company with your own money." One coppery brow rises. "I wouldn't have said anything, except they were a pair of shoes that cost sixteen hundred dollars. That was overkill, and a mark of favoritism. I told you to back off, and you did." Belinda now taps her finger against her chin. "Until yesterday."

Joe just watches her. Yesterday was a mistake, he knows that. Yesterday, he showed his hand too clearly, and he knew it the moment it happened.

He had been keeping away from Mel, because Belinda had told him there were rumors, and he didn't want them circulating and possibly ruining Mel's chances. So he distanced himself, and while it hurt to see Mel's dismay and confusion when he didn't engage her in their playful conversations, he could at least know that she wouldn't be troubled by vicious rumors.

Yesterday had been a normal day, and Joe had been absorbed in his usual morning duties. He had watched as several of the models took their places against the green background—a green-screen so that a more exotic locale could be Photoshopped in later—and his gaze had naturally been drawn to Mel. Her part in the shoot was minimal, but she looked nervous, possibly because the heels that she was wearing added a good four inches to her height. They were impossibly tall, like stilts, and Joe felt his breath catch in his chest as she wobbled and started to fall, her feet sliding.

She probably could have caught herself, but Joe didn't care. All he could see was her falling, a possibly twisted ankle, and then she wouldn't have a career, wouldn't be able to pay for that apartment she wanted, wouldn't be able to get that baby shower gift for her older sister who was expecting her first child, a girl. He saw all this in the instant he shoved his camera into hands of his aide, Julius, and strode across the set to catch her.

He pulled her into his arms, and they stood frozen together for a moment that was only punctuated by their heavy breathing. Joe could feel Mel press her forehead against his chest in silent thanks before she pulled away and gave him one of her tight, professional smiles, the one he hated. He much preferred the one that made her eyes glow. The tittering of the other women behind them reminded him that they weren't alone, and he reluctantly released her, belatedly realizing that the girl next to Mel still had her hand outstretched to take Mel's elbow and steady her.

He knew in that instant-as he nodded to Mel, turned around, and reclaimed his camera from Julius-that he was in trouble. The tittering grew to whispers behind him, and even though he moved and spoke with the utmost professionalism for the rest of the day, he knew that those whispers would find their way back to his boss.

Belinda watches him now, and he has nothing to say for himself. He knows what he has to do, knows his answer. He has known it for three months now, since the moment he caught himself sliding his credit card across the smooth counter to purchase a pair of shoes for a woman he barely knew, but wanted to know better. He still relishes the delight and awe on her face as she unwrapped the box, the squeals of her joy, the warmth of her small body against his. That was the day that he knew that he would have to leave this job eventually. So he planned for this.

"Well, Joe?"

Belinda watches him expectantly, and Joe gives her a loving smile tinged with sadness. "I'm sorry, Belli," he whispers, moving forward to kiss her cheek and wrap her in a tight hug. He pulls away and tries not to notice her dismay. "I've emailed my resignation. Dinner next week?"

His attempts at nonchalance falls flat, and Belinda cups his face in her hands, gently kissing him on the forehead. "You always were too good to be true, Joe Longo," she whispers, her eyes suspiciously shiny.

"I know," Joe tells her gently, some of his characteristic arrogance returning. "I hear that a lot."

Choking on a laugh, Belinda waves him away and swipes at her eyes. "Go tell that little pixie I set you free," she calls as he turns away, slinging his bag over his shoulder.

Propping her hands on her hips, Belinda watches him leave. An unexpected and irritating thought chases away some of the tears that are clouding her vision, and she's grateful. She needs some thought to distract her. The one that does isn't necessarily welcome, but needs to be considered.

Great. Now I'll have to deal with seeing Tony every time I want to hang out with Joe.


Nanny

"What? Only 'vaginal Americans' need apply?" ~Joe Longo, "Melissa and Joey," Episode 1x1, "Pilot"

As the doorbell rings for the fifth time in an hour, Joseph Longo isn't sure he can do this again. However, what choice does he have? He's at his wit's end, and right now, he needs a miracle.

The woman who strides inside his home as he opens the door is not what he would consider a miracle. She is petite, with blonde hair and blue eyes, and she barely comes up to his chest. She steps boldly past his foyer and into the smaller dining room when he ushers her in, unfazed by such a dominating house. She may be small, but Joe can sense the spirit, the passion that means they will either be a force to be reckoned with, standing united on every issue, or they will butt heads over everything. He's betting, with a pounding headache starting in his temples, that it will be the latter. "Mr. Longo?" She barely waits for his affirmative nod before reaching out and shaking his hand. "I'm Melanie Burke. You need a nanny?"

No, Joe wants to say. I need a miracle-worker. Instead, he summons a tight smile. "Of sorts. My children are almost grown," he informs her as he pulls out a chair for her. She seems surprised by the courtesy, but she accepts the seat after a slight hesitation. "I need someone to help care for them, cook, clean, see that the house is kept up."

Not for the first time, he wishes Tiffany kept the house in the divorce, instead of driving off with her new boyfriend in his Porsche. The mansion is too cavernous for the just the three of them, and he had never wanted it—he would be happy with a three bedroom split-level in the suburbs.

Melanie seems undaunted by this list of duties, and he takes that as a good sign. She mulls it over and nods. She looks at him and offers a slight smile. "Your kids?"

"Lennox and Ryder." Joe smiles and reaches for his wallet to show her pictures, but the slamming of the kitchen door alerts him to their homecoming. The smile slips a little bit. "That'd be them now."

Ryder is sullenly making his way towards the main stairs when Melanie and Joe step out of the dining room, and his only acknowledgement of their presence is a grunt and the jerk of his chin. Joe winces at the sight of the mud that his son is tracking on the polished floors, but the sight of the earbuds give him pause. Ryder won't hear him, and even if he does, its doubtful he'll listen.

Melanie gives him a sideways glance. Ryder? She mouths the name, and Joe nods in affirmation. Tiffany picked the names, and he would have agreed to anything in those moments, the moments when he held his children in his arms for the first time.

Now, he watches with curious hope as Melanie strides over to Ryder and plants herself in his path. Ryder glances down at the touch of her small hand on his chest, effectively stopping him from bowling her over. The young man blinks down at the tiny woman who has materialized before him, and glances over to his father, his confusion writ plain: What gives?

Melanie smartly draws Ryder's attention back to her by reaching up with her other hand and swiftly yanking the ear buds out of his ears. Ryder yelps in shock, and Joe blanches at loud music blaring audibly from them. How can he hear anything with those thing in?

"You'll go deaf," Melanie informs Ryder calmly, not batting an eye as he gawps down at her. Joe is staring as well, but with an impressed and rueful smile. She might just do. Ryder doesn't even make an attempt to reclaim his earbuds, and Melanie draws his attention to the next problem. "You're tracking mud."

Ryder twists around long enough to see that she is right, he is trailing mud through the house. He turns back to look at her and reverts to his sullen teenage mode, one Joe knows all too well. "Yeah? So?"

He wants to bypass her and escape up the stairs, but Joe has managed to instill enough polite manners in his children that they will not leave until a conversation is finished. And Melanie is not finished.

"If you don't take off your shoes," Melanie continues in that same calm, unflappable manner, her face a solemn mask, "I'll make you clean every one of your tracks off the floor with a toothbrush."

Ryder clearly has no idea what to make of this. His head swivels towards his father, and he is confused. "Dad?"

Joe is grinning now, delighted by this turn of events. He shrugs. "Take off your shoes, buddy, or I'll let her do it."

Grumbling, Ryder does as Melanie bids him. He doesn't protest as she instructs him to put them on the mat by the front door. He's still confused, but he knows the voice of authority when he hears it. Finally, when he's done her bidding, Melanie allows him to escape, and he can't scramble up the stairs fast enough.

"Impressive," Joe concedes, his headache gone, now thoroughly entertained. He would hire her, except Ryder is only one half of a set. There's still…

Lennox. His teenage daughter saunters through the living room on her way towards the stairs, just like her brother, ignoring her father in favor of her cell phone.

"No! He did not do that! Ugh, makes me wonder why I even dated him!"

His teenage daughter has always been enigma to him, and so Joe is relieved when Melanie turns to him again. "May I?"

He can't hold back the anticipation in his grin, spreading his hands in welcome. "Be my guest."

This time, Melanie approaches Lennox from behind, deftly plucking her cell phone out of her hand. Lennox's high-pitched "Hey!" doesn't faze her, and she keeps her eyes trained on Lennox as she speaks directly into the phone.

"Lennox needs to do her homework right now, and then she'll call you back. If she doesn't, there will be several embarrassing photos of her plastered all over the walls of the school for all her classmates to enjoy."

Melanie hangs up the phone with a beep and tosses the phone back to a flummoxed Lennox, who whips towards her father.

"Dad!" she whines, and Joe can't help but chuckle. This does not endear his daughter to him. "Dad!" she cries again. "She can't do that, can she?"

Joe is nearly laughing at this point, and he knows he shouldn't, but he can't help it. It's been so long since he saw anyone deny Lennox anything that he is just laughing from the joy of it. "Well, honey," he tells her, smiling in the face of her horror, "I do know where all your baby pictures are. I'll gladly help her."

"You can't do that!" Lennox cries, cheeks flushed with rage and embarrassment. Seeing that won't sway him, she tries a different tact. "Who is she, anyway? Why is she here?"

That question is one Joe can answer. "She's your new nanny, and if she tells you to do something, you do it," he tells his daughter, losing all laughter as his voice hardens. That is a tone Lennox knows well, and she knows not to cross it.

She rages at him as she stomps up the stairs, but Joe has been dealing with her tantrums alone since she was five and they no longer bother him.

Silence descends, and Mel is watching him with a small smile. "Nanny, huh?"

Her blue eyes are glowing with the fire of a battle well fought and well won, and he decides that he likes her this way. "The job's yours, if you'll have it."

Tipping her head up, Mel surveys the room, pursing her lips in contemplation. Then she lowers her head and grins at him. Joe releases the breath he'd been holding and gives a grin of his own in response.

Her answer is everything he wanted to hear. She puts her hand out, and he eagerly takes it within his own. "Call me Mel."

He can't help it— he chuckles, recalling the way she masterfully handled his kids. Oh, she'll definitely earn her keep here. "Call me Joe."


Bartender

One o'clock in the morning is not a time that anyone generally anticipates with any sort of eagerness, and Mel Burke normally wouldn't, unless it's a Friday.

For her, Fridays don't normally mean the weekend. They mean another night full of college students, college grads, drunks, and people wanting to forget. They mean another night of lousy tips, of both sober and drunk propositions (which she always turns down), and the occasional marriage proposal.

Until a few months ago. Now, Friday night is known-to her, at least-as "Joe night."

"He's here," Stephanie sings as she bustles by, bumping Mel with her hip. Her grin glows in the gloom of the bar, and then she's gone. She's hurrying home to her boyfriend and blissful sleep. Mel is stuck here until seven, when she gets to go home, crawl into bed, and sleep for eight hours before getting up and coming right back here to wait tables.

Her stint in politics was brief, and she couldn't take all the rivalries. (It was like high school, only with more drama). Now, she's a waitress and a bartender at her local dive, and most days, she hates her job.

Except for Fridays.

Fridays are made special by the man that she heads towards now, the man that she places a wine glass in front of and pours him some deep red before pulling up a stool and propping her elbows on the counter. This time of night, the only people in the place are Randy, the local drunk who has claimed his stool in the corner, and Bill, her boss, who is in the back washing the dishes.

"How's it going?"

Joe lifts his head and grunts, takes a long swig of the wine. "Had any hot dates recently?"

Mel grins in response, brushing her hair away from her face where it has escaped from her ponytail. This is always the opening statement, and she knows her customary response. She gives it. "Nope, sorry."

"I did!" This is Randy, right on cue, slurring his words and peering blearily at them. He can't quite focus with all the alcohol in his system, so he directs his words to the bottle of vodka just past Mel's right ear. "I asked her out!"

"Yes, you did," Mel says soothingly, and Randy subsides with a grunt.

Joe is watching her now, smirking. "I come here every week, and that bastard is still funny, every damn time."

Mel hops off her stool and pours herself a glass of water before reclaiming her perch. "Well, you do come here a lot. Maybe we should try a different routine?"

Joe shakes his head, his dark eyes gleaming in the multi-colored lights, his low voice hard to hear over the music that is rumbling over the speakers. "I've, uh, found that I look forward to this weekly ritual, Burke."

Mel blushes at that, but she can't let him see how much his words affect her. She really shouldn't be sitting in a bar, talking to a married man while he could be home with his wife. True, sitting at the bar is her job, but she shouldn't feel the need to talk to him.

It all started a few months ago, when a slobbering drunk had decided to make a pass at Mel while she was serving drinks. Before she could react, Joe had come up beside her, wrapped an arm around her waist and politely asked the man why he was groping another man's wife. Startled by the defense (she was used to taking care of herself, and no man had stepped in before), Mel remained mute, and the drunk had wandered off while apologizing profusely. Mel had felt compelled to offer her savior a drink and find out why he was in a bar at two o'clock in the morning.

His wife was on a business trip, Joe explained, and he hated being in the empty house without her. He came here just be around people. Surprisingly, they got to talking about Dancing With the Stars, and before they knew it, it was four o'clock and Joe was apologizing for leaving, but he needed to get home and get some sleep. Mel watched him leave, a little disappointed that she never got his full name.

She was pleasantly surprised when the next Friday night rolled around, and he was sitting at the bar, toying with the stem of his wine glass and offering her a sheepish smile. He just wanted to make sure she wasn't hassled again, he said. Mel thanked him for the concern, and another long conversation ensued, emerging in stops and starts as she poured drinks. She always returned to him though, even if it was for just as second. Most of their long conversations devolved into friendly arguments, and a second was just long enough for Mel to announce a rebuttal to his latest point before darting away to serve the next round.

"Is everything okay, Joe?"

He has been quiet all evening after their bit with Randy, and Mel has been hovering, curious and concerned.

He looks up, and the bags under his eyes tell the story of lost sleep. Mel is sure that it isn't because of her. "I think Tiffany's cheating on me," he says hoarsely, and the bleak look in his eyes nearly breaks her heart.

How can she explain to him that he needs to try to work things out with his wife, even as she has a crush on him? Biting her lip, Mel settles down onto her stool. "Joe, you need to talk to her, work it out. I'm sure you can fix it."

Joe grunts, but he doesn't seem convinced. He averts his gaze. Mel decides to use a different tactic, needing him to try, try so she won't feel guilty and plagued by the thought that maybe she caused it. That maybe the nights spent with her, here, platonic as they are, caused his wife to stray. She doesn't want the titles of "homewrecker." So she tries again. "Joe, don't you want it to work?"

He glances up suddenly, and the emptiness in his eyes has been replaced by fear and desperation. Mel rocks back, surprised by the intensity, but is shocked into stillness by his next words.

"I don't know."

They are guttural, ripped from his soul, and he gives her one last fearful look before grabbing his jacket and striding out of the bar.

He doesn't come back for weeks.

Stephanie watches as Mel mopes through numerous shifts, and then she takes matters into her own hands. One phone call later, she presses a note into Mel's palm on her way out the door. Joe has not been seen at the bar for nearly a month, and Mel deserves to know what has happened.

The handwriting is definitely Stephanie's, but the words are completely Joe.

Tiffany's gone. It didn't work. What now, Burke?

Scribbled below that is an address in Stephanie's jumpy hand, and Mel doesn't even think past the moment as she snatches at her coat and a bottle of red wine. That Stephanie has found Joe's address is no surprise; they have his credit card information, and from there, it isn't hard to get his address. Bill stares as she rushes past him, confused by the sight of his most dependable waitress flying past him like the demons of hell are after her, clutching a bottle of his most expensive red wine to her chest. "Burke, where are you going with that?"

"I'll pay you back!" Mel throws the words over her shoulder as she dashes out of the bar and to her car. Shoving the keys into the ignition, she tosses a prayer up to heaven that she can offer Joe a solution that he can live with.

Pounding on the door of the small brick house, Mel holds her breath. With a start and a jerk, the door flies open, and a rather rumpled Joe Longo stands staring at her. Far from the suits that she normally sees him in, he is dressed in an old t-shirt and sweatpants, and he seems rather surprised to see her.

"Burke?" He frowns. "What are you doing here?"

Mel hefts the bottle of wine in her right hand. "I have a plan. Can I come in?"

A glimmer of a smile can be seen in the corner of Joe's mouth as he steps back and lets her in.


Life as We Know It

Mel has declared the bright summer day to be one for a "family fun day," and even though Ryder and Lennox consider themselves far too old for such things, they concede when she tells them she wants to go to the zoo.

Their nods of acceptance turn to cries of dismay as Mel reveals that they are not going to the Toledo Zoo, but the Columbus Zoo. It'll be a nice change of pace, she decides, and then mutters something about being recognized by papparazi at the Toledo Zoo for some drunken misdemeanor that happened nearly a decade ago. Joe smirks at that but doesn't argue, and so Lennox and Ryder curl up in the back of the car for the nearly three hour trip. Mel has them up and in the car before six o'clock, so the ride there is remarkably peaceful as everyone but Joe (who Mel manipulated into driving) sleeps in the pre-dawn darkness.

The zoo is crowded—what zoo isn't?—but there are plenty of things here that aren't at the Toledo Zoo, and Ryder and Lennox soon forget that they are too old for such things and are soon marveling at everything the same way the younger kids do.

As they stand in the underground viewing area, staring at the polar bears that are swimming just beyond the glass, moving with a strange grace once fully submerged, Mel feels Joe's hand creep into hers. Once, she might have yelped and moved away and feigned disgust, but the light and the sun and the polar bears have woven a spell, so she just leans against his shoulder and enjoys the feel of his fingers laced with hers.

As they move away from the polar bear exhibit and Ryder and Lennox dash off to watch the arctic foxes, Mel is startled by a hand on her arm.

She looks down to find an older woman-probably grandmother to a handful of the numerous children that are all within five feet of them-gazing at her with a somewhat dreamy look in her eye.

"You and your husband make a very handsome couple," the woman tells Mel, and Mel blinks, surprised by that assessment. Briefly, she thinks about correcting the woman, but then figures that she will never see this woman, this stranger again, so she might as well accept the compliment. Once, she might have denied it and blushed and made sure that her disgust was made known, but now she merely smiles.

"Thank you," she says, patting the wrinkled hand that is still on her arm. "We're taking my niece and nephew here for the first time."

"You'll enjoy it!" The woman promises, and then her brown eyes wrinkle as she leans in close, asking a question, woman to woman.

"Any of your own yet?"

Mel doesn't need the woman's darting glance at her flat stomach to tell her what the question pertains to. She could deny it, once again, and try to explain the complicated situation, but again, she gives a mental shrug and offers the woman a gentle smile and simple shake of her head. "No."

The woman smiles at her, undaunted, full of the confidence and knowledge that comes from seeing everything life has to offer. "You will!" With that, her attention is drawn to a little girl in a blue dress who wants to know if they can have ice cream, and Mel slips away.

"What was that all about, Burke?" Joe is waiting for her, watching her quizzically, clearly curious. Ryder and Lennox are a few feet away, still watching with fascination as the arctic foxes stalk each other, and Mel can only smile.

She debates telling Joe what the woman said, but in the end decides it won't be worth it. "She recognized me," Mel shrugged, hoping her face conveys the proper sense of surprise and incredulity.

Joe grunts in surprise, lifting one eyebrow, skeptical. "Really? Was it from the, uh, act that got you banned from the Toledo Zoo?"

"I wasn't banned," Mel retorts, "I was just told that I shouldn't visit as often."

"And by that you mean, not at all," Joe counters, and Mel glares at him. "Let me guess," Joe drawls, heading towards Lennox and Ryder, Mel falling into step beside him. "You did something illegal?"

"No!"

"Indecent?"

"Longo! Ew, gross, no!"

"Just asking! Now, was it…"

Ryder looks to Lennox as their aunt and nanny move away from them, nearly lost in the crowds of people, once again immersed in an argument. "Do we want to know?"

Lennox snorts. "Probably not. Come on, let's catch up before they get all the way to the car and realize they forgot us back here."

Ryder rolls his eyes and follows her. "Wouldn't be the first time."


A/N: Reviews are appreciated, no matter the format!