"It was me, Jess. I couldn't help it."

He's been in love with her almost from the beginning. Even when he was supposed to be stuck on Caroline, he couldn't help but look at her. He's a man, isn't he? And she's beautiful, like some kind of fairy tale princess come to life, all big blue eyes and rosy cheeks and he's never thought he would be a sucker for that kind of thing, but it's safe to say that no matter who he's sleeping with, he's a little obsessed with her face and that long, wild hair and don't even get him started on her body. The short skirts she wears make him weak in the knees, even when she wears them with tights, which should be an automatic turn-off. Except that this time, they're not. Pretty much anything she wears, even those ridiculous pajama outfits, he wants to take off with his teeth. Slowly.

Nick knows just this is enough reason for the No Nail Oath. What he doesn't tell Schmidt and Winston is that as time goes on, the attraction deepens and widens and suddenly he can't get enough of her company, even the ridiculous songs she makes up and the bad imitations of washed up 80's sitcom characters. He can't get enough of her, and that horrible day when he thinks he might be dying and she asks him what he wants, he realizes that he's in big trouble. Because his brain and his heart and his stupid dick are all on the same page. What he wants is her.

He doesn't tell the other guys; doesn't even know how he'd begin to express it. He's not the greatest with emotions, okay? He expresses what he can, and mostly that gets interpreted wrong, but he's good with it. Or more like okay verging on good, and that's enough. She doesn't feel the same, and that's really what saves him from doing anything completely, ridiculously stupid. Like trying to date her. As much as watching her pursue other guys hurts, at least it's proof that anything he feels is completely one-sided.

Anyway, he loves her enough to want the best for her, and he knows for a damn fact that it isn't him.

And that's all good until Sam is shouting at him to kiss her. Sam. Her boyfriend. The man he's basically chosen to let love her and take care of her and, well . . . all Nick can see is red. If Jess was his, if he was privileged enough to be that man for her, if he was lucky enough, smart enough, rich enough, brave enough (and whatever else, he thinks darkly), he would never let another man touch her. She's too special to be the prize of some stupid party game.

Nevermind that he's thought about kissing her about one hundred billion times and it was definitely never like this. Kissing her like this means that he's giving up the fantasy of ever kissing her for real, and something horrible aches inside of him at the thought. The pain is worse even than when Caroline left him, and suddenly, it's all too much. He can't bear it.

And then the pain gets worse.

Watching Sam sling an arm around her, like everything's just fine and fucking dandy, like he hasn't just been encouraging someone else to kiss her, that's when something snaps inside him. Sam isn't the guy. He was never the guy. Trenchcoat Nick isn't really much smarter, but he's got some insight that Regular Nick's been purposefully blinding himself to. None of these guys were right for her because it's him. He's the one who's supposed to be kissing Jess.

Suddenly it doesn't matter that she's probably never thought about him like that. He knows what he has to do. Everything in that moment is stark and bright and perfect. For the first time in a really, really, really long time, he knows exactly what to do and he has the guts to do it.

I meant something like that.

Of course, after it's finished, he can't find the guts or the words or really any brain cells. She's burned them all to ash. He has nothing. There is nothing. Nothing else but their breath mingled together and an overwhelming urge to drag her into his room and prove once and for all, he's all the man she will ever need. But because he's male and because he's Nick Miller, he panics and fucks it all up.

In the end, it was kind of inevitable, wasn't it?

He comes home from work on a Thursday night and she's still up, he can hear the muted noise of the TV the moment his key turns in the lock, and the flickering lights dance across her face as he walks into the living room.

"Hey Jess," he says softly, "what are you still doing up?"

She turns from the TV to him, and her too-pale face is the first indicator that something isn't right.

He's known her almost two years now, and he knows her face almost as well as he knows his own. She's not only white, but there's a glazed expression on her face and her eyes are unfocused and wild.

"I don't feel good," she says and everything he needs to know is in her voice. It's paper-thin and watery, and he can hear the beginning of panic. And suddenly it doesn't matter that everything is all fucked up between them (that he fucked it up), and that they're barely speaking anymore, and she runs when he casually mentions the word "mouth," he'll do everything in his power to fix her and make her better. Because she's Jess and he loves her.

"You're sick," he states. "You should be in bed."

She just shrugs, and that's not good enough for him. "Seriously, in bed," he repeats. "You need sleep to get well."

"Can't sleep." Someday he'll tell her that when she looks up at him like she's lost and he's her savior, he can't help himself, but he can't deal with that right now. He's already messed this up enough.

A year or so ago, he would have warred with himself a little bit more, but he's come a long way to accepting that he's going to always be her fluffer. As long as she wants him around, he'll do it. It's pathetic and kind of sad, but in his dark moments, he tells himself that this is what love is. Building her that damn dresser was the beginning of that acceptance; he's ready to be whatever she needs, however she needs it.

"Okay," he says, reaching for the remote and flicking the TV off. "But you're going to need to try for me, anyway."

She looks up at him with a mute plea in her eyes.

She's so pale, he thinks with a little panic of his own. Too pale.

He reaches for her only to have her instinctually pull away. It hurts, she's never shrank from his touch before, and at this moment, he can't quantify if knowing what she tastes like was worth all this, but later, when he lays in his bed alone, he knows he'll agonize over it.

"Jess," he tells her sternly. "You're going to bed."

Her shoulders slump a little, and that's all the invitation he needs. He reaches out and sliding his hands along her body, he tries to ignore the skin under the flannel of her pajamas, and lifts her up. For the last six months, he's told himself that he's been getting in shape on the totally bizarre off-chance she might want to see him naked, and even though that's pretty much been ruled out, he's glad of it because when he lifts her, it comes pretty easily to him. "Nick," she mumbles into his shoulder, and he tightens his grip on her. He wants her to know that he won't let her fall. Not now, not ever.

"What is it, Jess?" he asks quietly.

"I'll get you sick," she half-moans.

No doubt this is exactly what led to her being alone on the couch at 2 AM, too sick to move to her own bed. He knows Schmidt and Winston are barred in their bedrooms, not wanting to catch whatever it is that's brought Jess down low. Selfish bastards, he thinks, before remembering that unlike him, there's no real reason for them to put themselves out there, even for a friend and their roommate.

It's not that he likes being sick any more than they do, but right now, all he cares about is making sure she's okay.

"Doesn't matter," he tells her as he walks down the hallway, and for a split second, she tenses, then even before can ask if she's still alright, she's relaxed into his grip, her head fitting perfectly into the crook of his neck. He can feel her breath on his ear, and he has to force himself not to let his mind go down any of the many paths it wants to. This isn't like that, he tells himself, and for once, he doesn't mentally add that it isn't ever going to be. Some nights he's just weak, and tonight he wants to believe this won't be the last time he holds her.

The door to her bedroom is mostly closed, and he nudges it open with a foot and lays her carefully, gently, on the bed and sinks back on his heels until his eyes meet hers. He can't even consider what Winston or Schmidt would say if they saw him right now. Actually, he reconsiders, Schmidt might understand after all. There's a haunted look in his eyes these days that Nick recognizes a little too well.

"Jess," he whispers, and almost without thinking, he reaches out and smoothes a strand of hair back from her face. "Did you take anything earlier?"

She shakes her head a fraction, and he wants to kill Winston and Schmidt for only thinking of their own dumb asses.

"I'll be right back," he promises, and for half a second, he doesn't even think she realizes that he's leaving, but then suddenly, her arm is on his and her grip is surprisingly strong considering how bad she must feel.

"Don't go," she mumbles. "Stay."

He's not sure he understands her. He glances down at the empty space in the bed beside her, and wonders if she can see the yearning in his face. He would like nothing more than to fall asleep beside her, but that way lies disaster. She'll wake up and hate him all over again.

"I've got to get you something," he tells her. "It'll help, and you'll fall asleep, I promise."

It's not really his promise to make, but he needs it to be true. He can't bear to sit here and watch her suffer.

"Okay," she agrees, and before he's out of the room, he hears her add, "then you stay."

His stomach is jittery with adrenaline and worry as he pours her a glass of water and finds the bottle of ibuprofen. He's both afraid that she means what she's saying and afraid that she doesn't.

When he returns to the bedroom, her eyes are closed and he debates internally if he should wake her up. She looks almost peaceful, her forehead smoothed out, her mouth slack.

"You came back," she says, startling him. She doesn't open her eyes and he has to wonder if she sensed his presence. In the kitchen, he'd toed off his shoes and his stocking feet were nearly silent on the hardwood floors of the loft.

"Of course I came back," he grumps, to cover up the weirdly thrilling thought that maybe she's as attuned to him as he is to her. "Now sit up and take these pills." He sets the water on her bedside table. Reaching out he laces his fingers around her flannel-covered arm and helps pull her up enough that she can swallow them.

He lets the pills fall into her palm, but when her other hand ghosts unsteadily over the cool, slippery sides of the glass, he slides his fingers over hers so that she won't spill the water as she takes a drink.

"All of it," he tells her as she takes tiny sips. "I mean it, Jess."

She shoots him a glare under her lashes, and just like that, even though she's clearly sick and hurting, he's imagining her hovering over him, all smooth bare skin, pale as the moon outside her window.

It's one of his favorites. She's interrogating him breathlessly, her questions a litany of what he wants to do to her. Helplessly he nods at everything because well, he does want to do everything to her, and she gives him the sexiest glare of his life, so hot he feels it might singe his eyebrows, and tells him that he's been a naughty boy and now it's time to be punished.

He has to shake his head to clear it. Focus, he yells at himself. Jess is sick and she needs you.

She drinks the water and he grips the glass, taking it from her like it's some sort of lifeline. Actually, it is. It means he can leave this room under the pretext of returning it to the kitchen, and maybe she'll forget what she asked earlier.

She settles back in the bed, her face still so close to his. "Stay," she says again.

So much for coming to her senses.

"Jess," he tries to argue, "this is. . .I mean . . .really. . .what I mean. . ."

The corner of her mouth upturns and he's pretty much putty in her hands. For a long time he tried saying no to her, but it's become increasingly obvious that he can't.

"Please stay," she whispers. "I don't want to be alone."

And god, he doesn't want her to be alone either. He knows what being alone feels like, deep down in the marrow of his bones, and it kills him that she feels even a fraction of that. He would make sure that she never felt that way again, he often thinks, if he was the right man for her.

But he's not, so there's no point in those thoughts.

"Just until you fall asleep," he hedges, and she dips her head in response, closing her eyes.

He rises to his feet and for a moment, he stands there, watching as her body relaxes into the mattress. Again he eyes the empty place next to her, and he wonders if she has any idea that she's granting another of his fantasies.

There's no bare skin in this one, no dirty words, no hot, flirtatious looks, but it's still his most shameful of daydreams. He'd love to just fall asleep holding her, tight and close, and wake up next to her, the early morning sunshine bright on her dark hair.

This feels like another moment when he should be yelling about it not happening like this, but before it was a game, and now it's not. She's sick, and he can't deny her what she needs to feel better. So he swallows the scream, and carefully, he pulls the quilt over her.

"Nick," she murmurs. "What are you doing?"

"Tucking you in," he answers way too quickly. "You're half-asleep already. . ."

"Not really," she sighs, and he feels himself give in.

He walks around the bed and sits down on the empty side. He's already taken his shoes off and he has absolutely zero intention of removing any more articles of clothing, even if it means he sleeps in his jeans and sweatshirt.

Not that he will be doing any sleeping in her bed. Sure he's fallen asleep next to her before, that's happened more than once on the couch, but a couch is not a bed, and as far as he's concerned, the two pieces of furniture are not even remotely comparable.

Pretty much, this is all a temporary situation that will end the second she's soundly asleep.

He leans back on the bed, and settles his head on the pillow, staring up at her ceiling. There's a good two or three inches of space between them, which before the night he lost his mind and kissed her, wouldn't have been that big of a deal, but now he rigidly enforces it. He won't force himself on her again, not that way, not ever again.

"Nick," she whines. "Not like that."

His breath whooshes out in a huff. "Like what, Jess?" he asks, and he means to be annoyed, really he does. He's taking care of her, after all, and she just keeps demanding more and more and more-and he can't fucking give her any more.

Okay, that's not exactly true, but he's trying to save himself here. Just a little bit.

She wiggles backwards, blindly seeking him, and he almost jumps out of skin. She might have shook her unbelievably delectable ass at him more than once, but they weren't in bed when she did it. Despite all his good intentions, he can feel himself tingling and getting hard, and it's ridiculous how embarrassed he is. He's thirty years old, but an ill-timed erection can still be humiliating.

"Jessica," he says as sternly as he can.

"Be the big spoon, Nick," she wheedles.

He glances down at his half-hard cock and thinks of Schmidt's mother. This mostly works, and he takes a long shaky breath, before he turns towards her, and carefully sets an arm on top of her side. He's very selective about its position, and he also makes zero movement towards her. There's still that precious inch or two of space between them. And he intends to keep it because if he feels her ass against him, there isn't a single thought on earth that'll keep him soft.

And if his kiss disgusted her, then god knows his rock hard dick against her ass definitely will.

"Go to sleep, Jess." When he thinks the words, they're stern, but when they exit his mouth, they're soft and gooey and almost-romantic. Or they would be, if his name wasn't Nick Miller.

She sighs, and he can feel her relaxing against him. His shoulder is touching hers now, and if it wasn't pitch black, he'd see only the dark waves of her hair on the pillow next to him. He can smell it, and the warm room and the scent of freesia weaves its way around him until he can barely keep his eyes open. Strangely, this is more of a relaxing position than he thought it would be, and it's late. He feels her rhythmic breathing soften, and though he fights it for a good minute or two, he knows he's going to drift off beside her. He doesn't even justify it as he falls asleep next to her. It just feels right.

He wakes up to her surprised shriek.

He knew this going to be a huge mistake, and of course, it is.

"Nick," she breathes out unsteadily again, and whips around to face him, and he can see she's still pale, but now there are bright red flags of color on her cheekbones. She's embarrassed, he thinks, and he knows exactly why. There was no way he was going to wake up pretty much exactly like all his fantasies, and not be hard as a rock. It was kind of inevitable.

"I'm going to get you sick," she moans, her head hitting the pillow as punctuation to her exclamation.

He's still mostly asleep—at least his brain is, anyway—and he doesn't quite follow. She's not mad about his dick up against her ass? Did she not feel it? He's not like huge or anything, but his erection is not exactly insignificant. The thought that maybe she thinks so is embarrassing and sobering, but of course that changes nothing.

"You wanted me to stay," he grunts. "So I stayed. You practically begged me."

She did beg him, but he's not going to mention that part.

Her head nestles into the pillow, and he reaches out to place a hand on her forehead. Just what he feared. She's burning up. Her unnaturally rosy cheeks aren't because she's embarrassed, it's because she's feverish.

"I think you have the flu," he says slowly. "You should stay in bed."

Her face is devastation. "Nicholas, you're going to get the flu," she says like it's the worst thing in the world.

He could fill her in on a couple of situations that are worse than the flu. Like loving someone who doesn't love you back.

"I'll be fine," he groans as he stretches his legs. Big surprise that his sleeping body did exactly what it wasn't supposed to, and he spent pretty much the entire night conformed to her bent form. "You're the one who's actually sick, Jess."

She doesn't say anything, just keeps staring at him. "Do you feel okay?" she finally asks quietly.

She has to know that he wouldn't be feeling any symptoms yet, so she must be asking about well. . .you know. . .everything else. Him falling asleep in her bed, practically in her arms, for one. And that this conversation isn't going to happen. The last thing she is going to feel is guilty for not returning his feelings, so that means they're not going to talk about them. Which is pretty much par for the course when it comes to Nick Miller.

"I'm fine," he says testily, and he doesn't need her to tell him that he's made the turtle face. "You're the sick one."

"And I feel pretty bad," she says mournfully. "I hate being sick."

He resists the urge to keep lying there with her, and sits up. He's got to get out of here before Schmidt or Winston see and he has to explain that he spent the night in Jess' bed but nothing actually happened. Because if he has to explain that, then there's going to be a lot of other explaining he'll have to do. Like about how he's not just insanely sexually attracted to her, but that he loves her too.

"Yeah, I don't think anybody likes being sick."

"I should get up and make some tea. Take some more Advil," she says, and his heart stutters. What did he think? That she wouldn't remember taking the pills? That she wouldn't remember him helping her? He's a fucking idiot.

"You're not going anywhere," he tells her firmly. "You're not getting out of bed. I'll get the tea."

She's still looking at him with that strangely speculative expression. "You don't have to take care of me, Nick."

If only that were actually true, he thinks.

"It's fine," he repeats testily. "I'll be right back." He swings his legs over the bed and stretches. Glancing back, he sees her still looking at him. "What?" he grunts.

"Just looking," she says, and even though she's stuffy and feverish and obviously not feeling well, there's a hint of flirtation in her tone.

His heart stutters again. She's checking him out. No, that's not possible; they all know she couldn't be attracted to him because that would be insane.

You put your mouth all over it; you just said. And I don't want to think about your mouth!

When he remembers her words from last weekend, it's hard not to contemplate the possibility, but he's Nick Miller so he's been actively trying not to, because the only fucking reason this has worked as long as it has is because he's so sure she doesn't like him that way.

"Then stop looking," he snarls. Good ol' defensive Nick Miller, he thinks to himself as he slowly opens her door, and glances into the hallway. It's empty, and he's definitely thanking God for that one.

Schmidt is in the kitchen on his laptop, intently interested in whatever it is he's looking up. Florists maybe, or spaceships. Or maybe another kind of hair chutney.

"Jess is sick," Schmidt says without looking up. "Just giving you a head's up so you can avoid her general vicinity for the next week." He sounds suspiciously glad about this, and Nick tries to ignore it, but can't.

"Jar," he snaps as he jerks the faucet on and grabs the kettle.

"What?" Schmidt looks up and holds up his hands in fake innocence. "I'm sad, I really am. Devastated that my roommate is infected with the viral plague." His eyes narrow. "Don't tell me you're making her tea." He spits out the word like it's somehow laced with poison. He crosses his arms. "Nick, don't tell me you're taking care of her."

He kind of shrugs, busying his hands with the mug and the spoon. Somehow he has managed to hide his non-sexual feelings towards Jess from Schmidt but as Schmidt himself will attest, he knows him better than just about anybody. For the last few weeks Nick knows he's been on thin ice. Schmidt saw him with Caroline for six years. He never took care of her when she was sick, and he doesn't even feel guilty about it now, but the idea of letting Jess go only to save his own skin is too awful to contemplate.

Schmidt is not stupid and will eventually put two and two together. Nick just hopes that today is not the day that happens, because he slept like a baby last night, and his morning has been pretty damn great so far. He woke up next to the woman he loves and she didn't exactly kick him out of her bed.

"You are," Schmidt announces in a loud voice. "You're totally nursing her."

"Jar," Nick says again, even though he knows he's being ignored.

"Observations are hardly worthy of the douchebag jar," Schmidt points out. "Especially if they're true."

"I don't have feelings," he tries to argue, but even to his ears it sounds really stupid. Everybody has feelings, it's more about whether he shares them or not.

"Whatever. The truth will tell. But don't you dare expose the rest of us to the black plague."

The kettle boils, and Nick doesn't even bother arguing with Schmidt over his serious over-exaggeration of Jess' condition. He just pours the water and stirs in a tablespoon full of honey. Just in case her throat is sore, he tells himself. He grabs the bottle of Advil from the cupboard and a banana from the fruit basket on the counter.

"You're pathetic," Schmidt says as he exits the kitchen.

He sits on the edge of the bed (the safe zone, he thinks), and eats the banana as Jess drinks her tea and takes the advil he pours into her outstretched hand. He notices now that she's careful not to touch him, and he wants to tell her that it's a little late for him—on so many different counts—but he stays silent. The less they discuss his need to take care of her, the better.

"Thanks," she says, and her smile is definitely droopy this morning. He searches his head for what else might help her feel better, and since he's not exactly a health nut, comes up with very few suggestions.

"You should uh. . .take a . . .shower or something. Hot water is good. . ." he extemporizes. "Helps make you feel better."

He swears the look she gives him is ripe with something sexual, but it's probably just his imagination. At this point, he could probably use a hot shower of his own. There's a few things he needs to take care of, before he completely loses every ounce of self-control he has left.

"Not a bad idea, Miller," she says, attempting a jaunty tone, but it falls flat. When she can't pull that off, that's when he knows she really feels terrible.

"Here," he says, holding his hand out for her empty mug. "Give me that, and go take a shower. Then you should probably go back to bed."

She cocks her head to the side, rumpled dark curls falling across her shoulders, and his fingers itch. He wants to put his hands in that hair. He wants to know if the strands are as soft as they look, and what they'd feel like against his bare skin.

And now he's crossed the line from semi-pathetic to officially pathetic. Fantasizing about hair, for god's sake.

Jess slowly gets to her feet and he turns to leave. "Well," he states awkwardly, which is strange because from last night until this very moment, the awkwardness of the last few weeks had kind of disappeared. He jams his hands in his pockets. "Feel better, Jess."

"Thanks, Nick," she says softly, but he's already leaving the room, afraid of what he might say (or do) if he stays.

He's working the night shift again, but during the day, he keeps an eye out for her. He hears the shower go on and it stays on for so long that horrible visions flash before his eyes.

Jess, passed out in the shower, slowly drowning to death.

But right while he's debating with himself on whether it would be weird for him to notice how long she's been in the shower, he hears the water switch off, and he leans back in his rickety desk chair with a gusting sigh. With the afternoon free, he'd booted up his laptop, but instead of doing his normal random web browsing, he opens the folder on his desktop that contains the draft of Julius Pepperwood, Zombie Detective.

He hasn't really shared any details about this new novel with anybody but Jess. He's afraid that if he does, it'll turn out the way that Z is for Zombie did-a half ass attempt that he basically sabotages because he's afraid of what succeeding at something might actually mean. But Julius Pepperwoodis important to him for reasons Nick Miller isn't ready to face just yet.

He hears her go back to her room, and the door shuts. Returning to his word document, he stares at the screen for a minute, then his fingers begin to type until the words begin to flow. He doesn't look up, doesn't even break for a beer until his eyes begin to feel scratchy, and he's really surprised when he glances at his phone and he's been writing for two hours and he has like five pages that he actually feels semi-good about.

It's a damned good day, he can't help but think to himself as he leans back in his chair, contemplating the last few sentences he's just written.

Then it hits him that it's been two hours, and he hasn't checked on Jess. Should he even check on her? Would that be awkward? Would it be weird? A month ago he wouldn't have even questioned his instinctual response but now he over-thinks everything. He grimaces at his own stupid indecision and gets up, opens his door and glances across the hallway.

Her door is still closed, and even after creepily shuffling across the hall, he can't hear a sound coming from her room. She's either asleep or dead, a thought which doesn't exactly help his mental state any.

Staring at her door, he finally decides to postpone his decision, and goes to take a shower.

Jerking open the shower curtain, he valiantly tries to ignore the smell of freesia still lingering from her shower, but it's kind of inevitable. Within thirty seconds he's as hard as he was when he woke up next to her, her hair in his face and his body curled against hers, and he doesn't even try to resist, he gives in and his hand slips down to his dick.

The fantasy his mind selects is a well-worn one by this point, but considering the position he woke up in this morning, it's not exactly a surprising choice.

She turns towards him, her hair a dark, curly cloud and she reaches for him, wraps her fingers where his are now, and he can feel his pulse drumming as she works him up and down slowly. Her eyes are big and wide and so innocently naughty it's like a kick to the gut, and they never leave his. Her tongue slides along her bottom lip and as she worries the spot with her teeth, she proceeds to tell him, in explicit and raunchy detail, just how much she wants him to come. His breathing goes ragged, and as he closes his grip over the head of his dick, he knows he's so close. The smell of freesia clogs his brain, and there are her blue eyes begging him to give her what she wants so badly.

So big and so hard, she moans, as if she can already feel him moving inside her. I love it, Nick, I want it. I want you. I love you.

It's the words that push him over the edge and with a last desperate jerk, he comes. He exhales in a long, shaky swoosh and he's almost dizzy for a minute as the hand practically holding him upright slides up the slick, tiled wall of the shower.

He's never added that particular ending before, and before he can stand there and overanalyze every single second of the fantasy, the door opens.

It's not her. She's never caught him doing this before, if only because he's pretty fucking careful to do it when there's no chance she'll interrupt him. It's one thing to fantasize almost religiously about your roommate, but it's another to let her catch him at it.

"You better have disinfected every inch of that shower after Jess was in it." Schmidt's testy voice rises over the shower curtain, and Nick wants to groan. Not even five seconds of post-orgasm haze. Sometimes he hates his best friend.

"Not exactly," he snarls. Like hell he was going to wash away the evidence of her. Even if it's full of fucking germs. Today he's existing on a whole other plane of self-sacrifice and desire and for a split second he wants to remind Schmidt of what he would have done for Cece, but that's kind of unforgivable even for Nick Miller, so he stays silent.

"I give up," Schmidt half-yells and Nick hears him stomp out of the bathroom.

His head drops against the tile and he's still for a minute, the hot water beating over his back.

Finally the turns the water off and wraps a towel around himself. There's no sign of Schmidt in the hallway, and Jess' door is still closed. He dresses quickly, throwing on a t-shirt and a pair of jeans, and heads into the kitchen to find something to eat.

As his fingers brush the cans of chicken noodle soup in the cupboard, he knows that he's already made up his mind. He's going to have to make sure she eats something before he goes to work because god knows, Schmidt won't be that self-sacrificing and he has no idea where Winston is. Maybe he's gone over to Daisy's to avoid the viral plague.

He heats up the soup in the microwave as he makes himself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. It's gone in four bites, and he contemplates making another, but the microwave beeps, letting him know the soup's hot. He pours another glass of water and grabs more pills before he slips a spoon into the bowl and heads for Jess' room.

His hands are more than a little full, between the water and the soup, so he doesn't knock. Usually that's a hard and fast rule, especially when it comes to them, but this time when he swings the door open there's nothing for her to hide. She's still curled in a ball, the quilt a rumpled mess around her, and he kind of freezes because she's shed the flannel pajamas she was wearing last night and now she's only in a black tank top. No pants. None at all.

He doesn't want to be a pervert. Really, he doesn't. As much as he would love-and I mean, love-to look at her semi-naked body, at the bare legs she's always hidden underneath those thick tights, at the red polka-dotted panties peeping at him from underneath the quilt,he forces his gaze up. He clears his throat once, then says her name. Loudly. As un-sexually as possible.

She opens her eyes slowly, and even when he can verify she's actually awake, she doesn't seem to care that she's wearing so little and he's there in her room. Which should make things more awkward, but it doesn't, for some reason. It feels comfortable and right, like they do this all the time.

"Nick," she mumbles, rolling onto her back. "I feel awful."

"I know," he says, and he can see she's still feverish. Her hair is wild and damp with sweat at the temples and the thought isn't even tinged with lust. He's only worried now.

"Take these," he says, dropping more pills into her outstretched hand. "And drink your water. Then there's soup."

She frowns, the crease between her eyebrows furrowing, as if understanding his words and formulating a response takes all her available energy. "But I'm not hungry."

"Don't care. You're eating it." He knows he sounds a lot more forceful than normal. Normal Nick Miller usually doesn't give a shit, but everything is fucked up, and he's just about ready to pour this damn soup down her throat.

She finishes the water, and he grabs the glass and begins to hand her the soup but her hands are so shaky and feeble that after five seconds, he gives up and sits down next to her, and his back is resting against her bare legs and he tries to ignore the zolt of sensation that streaks up his spine.

"Open up," he orders. "You're going to eat this soup if it's the last thing I do."

There's a single shy glance under her lashes that nearly undoes what's left of his good intentions, then she opens her mouth up hesitantly.

He doesn't say anything, merely, scoops up liquid in the spoon, and hand trembling, guides it into her waiting mouth. Her lips close over the utensil and when she opens up again, the soup's gone. They rinse and repeat half a dozen times, until there's not much left in the bowl but an inch or so of broth. He's trying unsuccessfully to chase the liquid around the sides of the bowl when she reaches out and puts her fingers around the hand that's holding the bowl. He's so surprised he almost drops it, but her eyes meet his.

Without a word, he understands what she wants to do, but he still exhales a little shakily. Each moment he does this, it feels like they are taking one step further past the invisible line he's drawn. He wants to tell her that he didn't draw it for him-him, he's used to rejection and despair and loneliness-but that he drew it for her.

He lifts the bowl to her lips and it feels strangely natural to be feeding her like this, as she slurps the rest of the broth. When she's finished, she settles back down in the pillows, and pushes her hair back from her face.

"Thank you," she murmurs, and the vulnerability in her voice scares the ever living shit out of him. He's not supposed to be that guy, damnit. He's not good enough to be. The sooner she faces that fact, the better off they all are.

"It's nothing," he insists. So what if those ridiculously blue eyes can probably see right through his bluster right to his fear? "Go back to sleep. I'll check on you when I get home from work."

She smiles then, her usually bright smile a little worn, a little sad, at the edges. He tells himself it's because she's not feeling well.

"Stay until I fall asleep?" she whispers as her eyes flutter closed, and he tenses.

"Please?" she adds before he can argue that it's a terrible idea, and because he's got literally no spine when it comes to her, he gives in just like that.

"Sure, just until you fall asleep," he says. He's got the time before he needs to leave for the bar, and let's face it, if he wasn't in here, he'd be sitting on the couch, pretending to watch TV while he thought about being in here. Maybe it's less creepy if the fantasizing element gets removed completely.

"Nick . . ." she mumbles, and almost instinctually, he's reaching out for her, stroking the line of her back as her breathing mellows. He sits on the bed another ten minutes, his hand not leaving her, until he's sure he's crossed some kind of boundary.

Yeah, he probably has, because when he glances up, sure that he should leave her to her sleep, Schmidt is standing in the doorway, arms crossed, an expression on his face that leaves nothing to his imagination.

They are going to have to talk about this. There's no way to avoid it, now that Schmidt has seen this particular scene.

So he rises slowly, making sure that her breathing doesn't change. She nestles further into the quilts, into the pillows, and he brushes a few strands of hair out of her face before walking out of the room and closing the door behind himself.

He holds up a hand so that Schmidt won't explode, which he obviously wants to do. His face is red and incredulous, and he's clearly pissed. Even more pissed than the kiss, and suddenly Nick is just so fucking tired of the whole thing. He hates talking about his feelings, but hiding them from Schmidt is becoming even more of a pain in the ass.

He gestures towards the living room, and as soon as they're safely out of the hallway, Schmidt lets it fly.

No big surprise there.

"What the hell do you think you are doing, buddy?" he practically screeches, and Nick just shrugs, and flops down on the couch.

"She's sick," is all he really can say.

"I saw you," Schmidt continues ranting as if he's said nothing. "I saw you feeding her. You know, like actually spooning liquid into her mouth. You. Nick Miller."

"That's my name. Don't wear it out."

"This isn't just about a kiss, is it?" Schmidt persists, glaring over at him. "This was never about the No Nail Oath. That was just an excuse!"

"Oh, it was about that," he says, "I was serious as fuck about that oath. Because I knew if you nailed her, and I found out, it wouldn't just ruin the roommate thing, but I'd never fucking speak to you again."

Schmidt is silent after he spits this out, and Nick's sure he just said too much, but it's like word vomit now, and once it's started he can't seem to stop.

"I caught her outside your room one night," he says, "with a whole fucking box of condoms. And I can't even tell you what I thought or I felt. I know I don't do this, you know, the feeling thing, but man, it killed me. Worse than Caroline, worse than Julia, worse than anything. And after you tried to kiss her on your birthday. . ." He can't even finish the sentence. He'd been with Julia, but it hadn't mattered. His thoughts had run darker than ever during those weeks, and though he's never wanted Schmidt to know just how dark, maybe it's better that everything's out on the table.

"So what you said a week ago, about things not turning out how you expected, yeah, well, count me in." He balls his hands into fists, and stares at the TV, unable to even look at his best friend after that particular part of the confession.

Sometimes people wonder why he's friends with Schmidt, why he's still around ten years later, but right now, this is why. They're best friends.

"You should have told me, man," he says. No judgment, no anger, nothing. He can barely make himself look up, but when he does, the emphatic look on Schmidt's face makes it hurt worse.

"You know I couldn't," he says bitterly. And he is fucking bitter. Why is he this way? Why is he so messed up? He doesn't even fucking know.

Of course, Schmidt says the one thing that he knows he can't do. "You need to tell her." Nick knows his eyes fly open in panicked shock and Schmidt glares while he continues. "I know, I know, the Roommate Dynamic and everything, but you don't have to sit here and suffer. I fucked it up with Cece; I deserve to be miserable. But you, Nick. Nobody says you have to be miserable except for you. The kiss, it was great, yeah?"

Great. A fucking understatement of the century, he thinks, and nods, not really trusting himself to go into detail.

"So she . . .likes. . .you too. God knows why, but it seems she must."

Nick stands abruptly. "I don't want to hear this."

"So, what? You've made up your mind? Nick Miller isn't good enough for Jessica Day?" Schmidt's got that high, whiny, annoying tone of voice going that he pulls out when he wants to bother him into doing something, but this time he isn't going to be harassed into anything.

"Quiet," he hisses, "this isn't something we're talking about. Not now, not ever. I'm not telling her. End of discussion."

He leaves Schmidt hanging in the living room, grabs a hoody from his room, and his keys and wallet and even though he wants the front door to slam behind him, he closes it slowly.

Jess is sick. He doesn't want to wake her up. And somehow that's more important than a metaphorical exclamation point on a message to his annoying best friend, who won't fucking leave him alone to live his own damn life.

Work sucks. He hates working Saturday night, even though the tips are okay, and especially hates it when nobody comes in to see him. It's Jess, he realizes as he scrubs the bar with a towel harder than is completely necessary, she's the one who brings everyone together to see him when he's working.

He scowls at the next four or five or fifteen customers.

He walks home in the semi-chill of LA in March, and misses Chicago.

He also misses what was left of his sanity. That completely ill-advised conversation with Schmidt ruined what was left of it and now he's left with a million "what ifs" floating through his mind.

The loft is quiet when he opens the door, and it's late, and he's had such a shitty night, and he just wants to go to bed and forget everything that's gone wrong in his life.

He almost does. He almost just flings himself on his bed and closes his eyes and lets sleep overtake him. But he hesitates in the hallway, pauses outside her door. He told her he'd look in on her after his shift, but he should really let her sleep, right? It's selfish and ridiculous, but she's the last person he wants to see before he falls asleep. He doesn't know he'll ever face it if she meets someone she could actually love and moves out and leaves him worse off than she found him.

He remembers Schmidt's face from earlier, and there's an unspoken fear boiling inside him. What happened with Caroline will be child's play compared to what might happen with Jess when and if she leaves.

Nick eyes Jess' door again, and scrubs a hand over his face. He's just kind of been floating along with this whole thing; never really assuming that they'll be together, but at the same time, he's never considered what it might feel like to watch her fall in love with someone else. What it would feel like to watch her marry someone else.

He doesn't want to be that guy who stands up when they ask if anyone has any objections, but for Jess, he could be that guy. He could be that guy who grabs fear by the balls because he doesn't want to be the angry, regret-ridden guy. That guy who yells at kids who cross his yard.

"You're home." Nick glances up and Schmidt is standing at the mouth of the hallway. He's in pajama pants and a t-shirt, and from the droop in his eyes, he was either in bed or heading that direction. "Jess is good. I made her some tea and she took some meds a few hours ago."

He's almost speechless. Schmidt is literally petrified by illness of any kind, but before he can point this out, he continues. "I get it, you know, I really do. I wasn't sure I did, but . . ." There is something truly pained in Schmidt's eyes now, and Nick's eyes burn in sympathy. Or that's what he tells himself.

Nick clears his throat. "Cece. Yeah I know."

Schmidt looks at him for a long moment, before stops before he turns to head back to his room on the other side of the loft. "She asked for you. When I woke her up, it was you she wanted."

"I . . .I. . .I guess I'm not sure I understand." Except he understands perfectly and Schmidt knows better than to buy his line of crap, only rolls his eyes and disappears into the darkness of the living room, his point made.

He goes to bed, but he doesn't sleep. Much like the night after the kiss, he tosses and turns all night long, and when the clock radio next to his bed hits 10 AM, he gets up with a gritty throat and tired eyes.

He brushes his teeth and showers before coming to a stop in front of Jess' door. He knocks this time, and when there's no immediate response, he opens it slowly.

She's still in bed, the quilt almost hanging off the edge, her legs sprawled haphazardly across the mattress, and she's snoring. Lightly, almost daintily, but it's definitely snoring, and weirdly he finds it adorable.

He sinks to his heels in front of her bed again, until they're eye to eye, or they would be, except that she's fast asleep. "Jess," he says softly. "Jess."

Her eyes flutter open, and he can nearly see the sleepy haze in them clear, the deep blue focusing and lightening and it does something strange and perfect to his heart. He wants to see her eyes every single morning he wakes up from now on. "Nicholas," she mumbles, and he knows. This is pretty much it for him. He's never going to be able to sit quietly in the pew and let her marry some other guy. And if he's really, really lucky, she might be on board that with particular plan.

She kissed him back, didn't she?

"How're you feelin', Jess?" He reaches out and smoothes her tangled, sweaty hair from her brow, and he actually aches because he can do that. She's letting him do that. Of course, she's mostly asleep but he still chalks it up as a win.

"Better," she mumbles, and rolls on her back. "I think you managed to save me from a fate worse than death. Otherwise known as the flu. Crisis averted."

"Good," he says, getting to his feet. "You want tea? A shower?"

"Shower, then tea," she says, and her voice is getting clearer and stronger by the second. She is better. The fever's broken, and she no longer looks so heartbreakingly pale. "But I think I can manage on my own today. Thanks again, though, for being there." She sends a quick smile his direction-a thankful, grateful smile, and he hopes that he isn't too late. He hopes that he wasn't an idiot, and somehow managed to screw up the best thing that he's ever been privileged to find.

Still, the awkwardness that hovered between them for weeks has finally evaporated. He's not sure if that's because he took care of her and saw her almost naked and fed her soup. Or maybe it's because he's come to some sort of crossroads when it comes to her, and he's fairly sure he's made his decision. As if there was actually some sort of decision to make.

He's putty in her hands, remember?

"You're welcome." He shoves his hands in his pockets and lets himself really smile back. No turtle face. "I'm glad you're feeling better."

"You've got the evening shift again?" she asks and he swears there's the faintest hint of interest in her words. Like she actually cares what he's doing tonight.

"Yeah. Thought I'd get some more writing in first."

"Julius Pepperwood?" There's a full blown smile at that, he notices, and he wonders, not for the first time, if Julius means almost as much to Jess as he means to him.

"Yep. And don't forget, his trusty girl Friday, Jessica Night," he reminds her. "Julius wouldn't be anything without her."

Her smile is nearly like the sun breaking over the ocean waves on a bright summer morning. "I couldn't, ever. But I think she needs him, too. They're just. . .right." The glance she sends him this time isn't subtle and it does fairly interesting things to his insides.

And just like that, the awkwardness is back between them, but it's got an anticipatory hum to it, he thinks as he shuts his bedroom door and sits down at his desk, booting up his laptop.

"Let's do this thing, Julius," he says to nobody in particular. "It's time we got our ass in gear. Zombies to kill, battles to win, beautiful women to save."