A/N: I'm sorry it took me so long to get this one cranked out. However, I was extremely underwhelmed by the mid-season finale, and I couldn't find the enthusiasm or motivation to write about it. I'm not entirely pleased with this finished project, either, but I think this is as good as it gets. I hope you enjoy, and I'm hoping that the rest of season 2 is much better!
Disclaimer: Nothing you recognize belongs to me.
Summary: In which Mel and Joe go out drinking, and there are too many feelings involved. Spoilers for "Mel Marries Joe." One-shot, complete.
For the first time in what feels like forever, Mel Burke is heading out for a night on the town.
In the past three weeks-following Joe's disastrous fake wedding and subsequent thirty-second marriage, things have been a little…off in the Burke household. Ryder has been sulking because Elena left, Lennox has been focusing on her blog, and Joe has been moping.
In other words, Mel needs tonight. Halfway across the family room, she realizes that while Lennox is up in her room, and Ryder is sprawled on the couch eating popcorn, she hasn't seen Joe all evening. Usually he putters around the house these days, looking for something to do, because he can't seem to get back into his regular routine.
Mel checks her phone—she was supposed to be gone and out the door ten minutes ago, but hey, a girl's got to look good—and sends a spontaneous text before she can think about it any more. Then she turns on her heel and marches into the kitchen.
Joe Longo is sitting hunched over at the kitchen table, his laptop open in front him, the online chat screen open and waiting. He has done this every night for the last three weeks without fail, and every evening he waits, with no response.
It's really sad, and it's starting to get on Mel's nerves.
"Hey, Longo." Joe barely twitches at her greeting, and he keeps his eyes on the screen, never glancing in her direction. Mel huffs out an impatient breath. "Longo!"
"What do you want, Burke?" Joe's voice is low, and without the annoyance she is used to. He's really hurting, and tonight, of all nights, he's decided to be more mopey than usual. So of course Mel feels compelled to fix it.
"Get up, Longo. We're going out."
That gets his attention. His head swings towards her, and he blinks at her in confusion. "What?"
"Drinks, Longo. You and me." Mel spells it out for him, determined that if he doesn't say yes in the next two minutes, she's going without him. She needs this night out—if he wasn't so damn sad, she'd be out with her girlfriends right now, guilt-free. But he hasn't left the house except to get groceries and work out in over three weeks, and that's not right. She doesn't like his inactivity, or the way he doesn't response to her verbal barbs any more.
Joe is clearly having a hard time processing this. "Now?"
"Yes, now." Mel says, her exasperation clear. "Or I'm leaving you behind."
Joe blinks again, and seems to take in her attire for the first time: deep purple cocktail dress, gold bangles, hair swept up and back in a curled ponytail. He takes a look at himself—white muscle tee and washed-out, faded jeans—and grimaces. "Like this?"
Mel flaps a hand at him. "Just throw your dark sports coat over it. No one will notice. Besides," she grins at him, "I doubt anyone will be looking at you."
She preens at bit at her own self-confidence and appearance, until Joe eyes her with something like his old arrogance and scoffs, his dark eyes lightening briefly. "I think you have it backwards, Burke."
Two minutes later, Mel is leading Joe by the wrist towards the front door, berating for taking so long. ("Sometimes perfection like this takes time, Burke! Besides, you take longer!") She ignores his protests and calls up the stairs. "Lennox! Joe and I are going out!"
Lennox materializes at the top of the stairs, grinning and openly curious. "Really?" Even Ryder has stopped munching on popcorn long enough to twist his head and stare at them.
Mel blanches and recovers. "Not like that. We're going to get drinks. I'm trying to cheer Joe up."
Lennox seems somewhat disappointed, her grin faltering as she glances between the two. Feigning nonchalance, she shrugs. "Whatever." She bounces back upstairs. "I'm gonna go work on my blog some more. You crazy kids don't stay out too late!"
"What she said," Ryder mumbles around a mouthful of popcorn, his attention already back on the TV.
Mel turns to Joe, eager to be out of the house. Her grin is infectious, and Joe can feel something like a smile tugging at his mouth. "Let's go."
"My boss is buying me beer," Joe dryly comments sometime later as they squeeze into the tiny table with their drinks. The bar isn't too crowded yet, but it's also early. "Isn't there, uh, some law against this, councilwoman?"
Mel wrinkles her nose at him and sips her martini, privately relieved to hear him joke again. "Shut up and drink, Longo."
"Whatever you say, boss." Joe lifts the beer to his lips and takes a long swig, then puts it down on the table to stare at Mel. "So, uh, why'd you bring me out here, Mel?"
"Because I was tired of you walking around the house like a zombie."
"It's true!" Mel defends. "Joe, I meant what I said—"
"'An elephant's faithful, one hundred percent'?"
"It hurts now, but you'll be okay!" Mel perseveres, glaring at him.
Joe sobers at that, taking another sip of his drink and avoiding her gaze. "I don't know about that, Burke."
"It's been three weeks, Joe," Mel softens, reaching out to put a hand on his arm. "You've been wandering around the house like a ghost, and it's affecting all of us."
Joe just shakes his head. "I don't know if I can get over her that easily, Mel."
"Well, if you need a quick rebound," Mel suggests, swallowing a fourth of her martini, "Stephanie would the first to volunteer."
Joe eyes her, unsure if she's joking. "You know that would never happen, right Burke?"
"Oh, I know," Mel reassures him, blue eyes sparkling. "And Stephanie knows it, too. That doesn't stop her from hoping. It's a girl thing."
At Joe's silence and continued wary gaze, Mel continues. "Don't worry, at your third wedding, she'll still be the one taping the wedding and making snide comments about the bride." At Joe's puzzled glance, Mel winces. "Oh, right. You didn't see the wedding video. I'm sorry."
The truth is, she didn't let him see the wedding video because she didn't want to see him replaying it over and over and watching it on repeat. She can take his moping, but she isn't sure she can handle a depressed Joe Longo.
To her relief, Joe shakes his head and finishes off his beer. "I don't think I want to, Burke."
They lapse into silence, but it is clear that Joe has not snapped out of his funk—actually, it seems like he's sinking farther into it. Mel finishes her martini, gets up and orders a glass of wine and another beer for Joe. Bringing the drinks back to their table, she finds that Joe is staring into space, looking not much different than he had when staring at his laptop earlier. Not good.
Mel grits her teeth. She wasn't sure if she was ever going to reveal this to Joe, but he clearly needs something to distract him.
"Joe, did you ever wonder where Elena's wedding dress came from?"
Joe's face softens at the question, and he glances over at her, looking absolutely smitten. "It was a beautiful dress, and she looked so sexy in it…" Then something occurs to him, and his face loses that dreamy quality. He turns to her, curious now. "Where did it come from, Burke?"
"It was mine."
For the second time that evening, she has his full attention. One eyebrow arches, and he stares at her in disbelief. "I'm sorry, Burke, I must have heard you wrong. Did you say it was yours?"
Mel doesn't look away. Her blue eyes are shadowed with memories, and her lips turn down in the beginnings of a frown. "Yeah, it's mine. It was four years ago."
"What happened?" Joe's voice is as low as hers, and he unconsciously leans close, one hand reaching out to curl around hers.
Mel shrugs, and gives him the same answer she gave Elena all those weeks ago. "I realized right before that he wasn't 'The One,' so I called it off."
Joe squeezes her hand, eyes dark with sympathy. "I'm sorry, Burke."
Mel shrugs again, attempting to smile. "It's okay. I'd rather be unmarried than with the wrong guy, you know?"
Joe releases her hand and leans back, suddenly conscious of how little space there is between them. She watches him, blue eyes gleaming in the dim lighting of the bar, and Joe is struck by how intimate the setting is. The alcohol must be rushing through his bloodstream faster than usual, because all he wants to do is lean forward and kiss her.
High-pitched chatter draws their gazes away from each other and towards the door. A gaggle of young women head towards the bar, their giggles and laughter drawing the attention of everyone in the place—a tactic used by Mel and her girlfriends many times before.
Mel nudges Joe, and nods towards the woman with a wry smile. Sipping her wine, she glances at him out of the corner of her eye. "Well, how about it, Joe? Do you see the third Mrs. Longo over there?"
Joe gives the group a quick glance: all mid-to-late twenties, mostly dark-haired, a few blondes, but none that make him want to leave his seat. There are none that instantly captivate him, like Tiffany once did, like Elena did, like…
Joe turns back to Mel and quickly shakes his head. "Nope, Mel, sorry. No wedding bells in my future with any of them."
Mel laughs at that, and puts her wine glass down, still half full. "Too bad, Longo. I don't mind planning your weddings."
"You just like being in charge," Joe shoots back, and is rewarded with her blue eyes lighting up. She has missed their rapport, as he has.
"I'm good at being the boss," Mel lifts her chin proudly.
"Yeah, and not much else," Joe chuckles, leaning to the left to avoid the coming blow as she swats his shoulder.
"Not funny, Longo," Mel growls, glaring at him. Glancing down at her wine glass, she suddenly yawns and digs in her purse, fishing for her keys while Joe grins, triumphant. "Want to head home?" She asks, and Joe blinks at that abrupt change in conversation. It must be later than they thought, and no doubt the kids will wonder where they are.
Once home, however, they don't immediately leave the car and head for the house. Instead, they sit, relishing the comfortable silence that has sprung up between them. Joe is the first to break it.
"Thanks, Burke, for making me come out tonight. I, uh, needed it more than I thought."
"Not a problem, Longo," Mel reassures him, grinning. "After all, I'm always right."
"No." Joe is shaking his head, this familiar argument comforting, even though the alcohol he has consumed has given him a slight buzz, and shaking his head only seems to intensify the feeling. "Sorry, I won't admit that."
"Why not?" Mel challenges, leaning closer.
Joe heaves an exasperated sigh in response. "Burke, when will you learn that I am the one who is always right?"
Mel doesn't respond to that, and they are left staring at each other in the dark of the car's interior, gazes locked. It's not a romantic setting-Joe is leaning over the console to stare at her, and Mel is twisted awkwardly with the steering wheel in front of her-but that hardly seems to matter.
Later, Joe isn't sure who moved first. He's pretty sure he did, because one moment he noted how nice it would be to kiss Mel, and then the next one of his hands is curled around the nape of her neck, the other is following the curve of her jaw and cheek, and his lips are on hers. She doesn't pull away, even presses back for several glorious seconds, and the brush of her tongue on his is the jolt they both need to pull away. Their panting breaths fill the car, and they stare at each other, uncertain of what to do next.
"Joe, you're drunk, you can't be thinking clearly…"
Mel is offering him an out, her blue eyes clear, watching him warily, and gratefully, like the fool (coward) he is, he takes it. Rubbing his hand against his eyes, he leans back in the seat.
"Yeah, that must be it. Sorry about that, Burke, I, uh…"
He has no excuses, but Mel doesn't expect any, just raises a hand to stop the explanation that is already petering out. "It's okay, Joe." She is sitting back as well, putting distance between them, and Joe's heart twists in his chest. He wants to pull her back in, tell he's not drunk, just clear-headed enough to know what he wants, what he's wanted for a long time, but if she wants to pretend he's drunk, he'll do it. If that's what she wants, they can go on as they have, and they'll never speak of it again. Much like they never speak of the first (and only) real kiss they've shared.
Sometimes he hates how easily he can avoid things.
Pushing open the passenger door, Joe lets himself out, the stinging night wind on his cheeks clearing his head a little bit more, pushing the intoxicating scent of Mel away from his nose. Straightening his shoulders, he turns back and bends a little, giving the woman in the car a slight smile.
"Thanks for tonight, Burke."
At his simple gratitude, Mel smiles back at him, curling at her temples and cheeks where he had dislodged it. He has to swallow hard at the sight she makes, and remember the line they have just drawn in the sand.
"Any time, Longo."
Shutting the door behind him, Joe strides up the driveway, trying to ignore the sound of Mel getting out of the car. If he turns around, he knows what will happen, what he wants to happen. He knows he will pull her into his arms and kiss her until neither of them can breathe, until she is leading him back into the house, and they have brief argument over where they will continue, his room or hers.
Mel watches Joe disappear into the house and shakes her head, following him at a slower pace. Her lips are tingling from the (second!) kiss she has just shared with him, and she's not sure how to interpret it. As she reaches the side door, she pauses with her hand on the doorknob, and a smile rises to her lips. The thought that races across her mind is a fleeting one, one that shouldn't surprise her, seeing as she known it since high school, but it's one that brings her a quick flash of joy.
Alcohol is known to lower inhibitions.
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