May You Softly Go

by Chris J

Joey was used to Chris just coming into his home, helping himself to leftovers and playing with the baby before Joey himself even woke up. It felt natural. It wasn't even an invasion of space, because this was Chris's space. It was all of their space, all five of them, and they were always welcome.

So he wasn't surprised, wandering into the kitchen in his sweatpants one morning, to find Chris making coffee and Briahna playing with her toy dump truck on the floor at his feet. Or he was, because Chris's habit was to show up at Joey's place in Florida, not New York. But not surprised enough to do more than a double take.

"Hola," he said, wiping the last of the sleep from his eyes then kneeling down on the floor next to his daughter. "Are you being a good girl for Chris?" he asked her, tickling her ribs and making her squeal in delight.

"She was until you started mauling her, Fatone," said Chris. His distrust of fathers was legendary. "Quiet as a little mouse. You want coffee?"

"You even have to ask?" said Joey, straightening up again and leaving Briahna to her toys. She seemed pretty fine right where she was, and he'd gotten pretty adept at not tripping over her. Even in his bleary, just-woken state. "I wouldn't object to breakfast, either."

"Neither would I," said Chris, pulling another mug down off the shelf and filling it for him. "You cooking?"

Joey snorted. "Nevermind, then. I'll just take care of Briahna's. There should be an open jar of applesauce in the fridge, you wanna...?"

Chris was opening the fridge and handing him the jar before he'd even finished asking the question. Joey set it on the counter and hefted his daughter up into his arms.

"You're a big girl, aren't you?" he cooed at her, lifting her into the air. "You're my big girl. You want some breakfast, big girl?"

"Big!" she said and giggled, and that would be one of the words she'd picked up. One of the increasing number. He held her against his hip with one arm and grabbed the jar and a spoon with the other and settled down in a kitchen chair with her on his lap.

Briahna immediately made a grab for the spoon when Joey set it on the table to open the jar. "Chris, you wanna grab me a bowl? One of the plastic ones?" She had her hand fisted around the spoon and Joey wasn't about to wrest it away from her, but there was no way she could get the applesauce out of the jar and to her mouth by herself.

"These ones?" he said, handing Joey one of the bright orange monstrosities that Kelly had chosen.

"That's the one." He poured the applesauce into the bowl and held it out so Briahna could have at it. One arm firmly around her so she didn't slip while she was eating, Joey turned back to Chris again. "When did you get here?"

"Maybe an hour ago," he said, busy pouring milk and sugar into both his and Joey's coffee. "Briahna was trying to crawl out of her crib. I figured it couldn't hurt to get her out of your hair for a while."

"I thought you were in L.A.," said Joey as Briahna smeared applesauce on her cheek. Which was another way of asking him what he was doing there, and wasn't really that subtle, but it was early and maybe it would work.

"I was," said Chris. "Where's Kelly?"

Touché. "Out," said Joey shortly. "Briahna, honey, you want some help?"

"No!" she said, and Joey wasn't sure if she understood the question or if she was just practicing her new word, but he didn't push the issue. Some of the food was actually getting in her mouth, and that wasn't bad.

"So," said Joey after a moment of silence. "You staying a while?"

"Yeah, maybe," said Chris. He was very still for a moment, then all at once he was restless again. Normal. Stirring his coffee noisily then slurping it and giving Joey a grin. "You know. If you've got room."

Joey gestured broadly at his relatively spacious apartment. Nothing like his place in Orlando, of course, but not bad at all. He trusted that the person he'd had find the place for him had done the best he could.

"I'll take that as a yes," said Chris, slurping down the rest of his coffee. Briahna giggled and spit applesauce onto her shirt and dropped the spoon. Joey took that as his sign to feed her a few more mouthfuls of it and eat the rest himself.

"I'd tell you that was gross," said Chris, "but only because you beat me to it. Briahna, pumpkin, you're a mess."

"Yes, I think it's bath time," agreed Joey. The applesauce was all over his sweatpants, too. "What do you say, Briahna? Time for a bath?"

She looked like she was thinking about it, but at least there wasn't an automatic "no". Especially since Briahna knew what "bath" meant, and some days she really wasn't too keen on them.

"Why don't I take her, Joey?" said Chris, dropping his cup in the sink. "You have a cup of coffee to finish. You wouldn't let my hard work go to waste, would you?"

"Her toys are in the cabinet under the sink," said Joey after a moment, nodding his head. That cup of coffee was looking real good right about now. "Hope you brought a change of clothes."

"Yeah, my stuff's already in the spare bedroom," said Chris, and he was gone before Joey could even react to that. It was Chris's space, too, after all.

* * *

Joey felt a little more human once he'd brushed his teeth and showered and put some clothes on. A little more ready to tackle his day, which was already fuller than he was comfortable with, when he was still trying to settle himself and his daughter into their new home.

He passed by the bathroom on his way back to the kitchen and could hear her splashing in the tub while Chris sang her the Rubber Ducky song. Or maybe it was Chris who was splashing. Either way, it made him smile. A little.

But only a little. Much as Chris was always welcome, and took advantage of that frequently, Joey knew he'd been in L.A. only a day or two earlier, with no plans to leave. He picked up his phone off the table and hit speed-dial four, thrumming his fingers on the table as he waited for the call to be picked up.

"Tell me what happened, Justin," he said, skipping even the hello, when it was.

"What?" said Justin. "Joey? What are you... oh! He's there? Is he there, Joey? Thank God."

"Yeah, he's here," said Joey. "Showed up before I got up this morning . What's going on, Justin?"

"Oh jeez, Joey, it's a real mess is what's going on," he said, and yawned, and belatedly Joey remembered just how much earlier it was on the west coast. "We just... I just... and we couldn't anymore, you know? It wouldn't work. And I thought things were cool and then Chris just disappeared. He said he was going out to clear his head, and he never came back."

Joey let that sink in for a few moments. "I guess he's still working on that part," he said finally.

"He didn't tell you anything?"

"Not a word," swore Joey. He could still faintly hear Chris's singing from the bathroom. "Hell, Justin, what happened? I thought things were going good?"

"He's great, Joey, you know I love him," said Justin quickly. "I just... it wasn't the right time for us. I'm so busy and he's... Chris."

Joey didn't know what the hell he meant by that, but he guessed it wasn't good. And really, it was none of his business what had happened between them, except that Chris had suddenly moved into his guest room.

"So... he's okay?" said Justin finally. "He's good?"

"He seems fine," said Joey honestly, smiling at the continued sound of splashing coming down the hallway. He wasn't going to be the one to clean that up. "He's Chris, Justin, you know how he bounces back."

"Right," said Justin. "Right. So... good. I'm glad he's there. It's a good place for him to be."

"Well, he certainly seems to be making himself at home," agreed Joey, trying to catch the nuance in what Justin was saying. Which was damn hard, over the phone. "You okay?"

"Me?" said Justin. "Yeah. You know. Takes some getting used to and all, but... it's for the best, really. I'm so busy, and... so, how's Kelly? How's my favorite little girl?"

"Kelly's fine," said Joey, and he was sure that wherever she was, she was definitely fine. "Briahna's great. Pretty unfazed by the move, now that we've got her toys unpacked. That first night was a bit of an ordeal, though. So yeah, things are going good."

"So... we should talk soon," said Justin, yawning again. "But I've gotta... I've gotta go. I've got things, you know?"

"Yeah, me too," said Joey. "Keep in touch, Justin. And don't worry. I'll look out for him."

"Thanks," said Justin quietly, and then he was gone. Joey hung onto the phone for a long while after that, trying to figure out just what he was going to do.

* * *

When Chris brought her back out, Briahna was shiny happy and dressed in her soft Star Wars jumper that Grandma had made for her. She was struggling to get out of Chris's arms and the moment her stocking feet hit the floor she started toddling towards her daddy.

"Hey sweetheart," said Joey, crouching down and holding his arms out to her. "You look great, but we need to get you into some going-out clothes."

"Going-out clothes?" came Chris's voice, from somewhere above him for once. "Who's going out? Does she have a playdate?"

"No, I do," said Joey, straightening up again when Briahna toddled right on past him and grabbed hold of her dump truck. "Only not a playdate so much as a meeting. Today's the day I sign my life away for a few months, and I guess Briahna gets to come with me."

"Okay, not to harp on the obvious here," said Chris. "But where the hell is Kelly, Joe? Shouldn't she be here?"

Joey shot a glance at Briahna, but to his relief she wasn't gleefully echoing Chris's "hell" the way she had Joey's, the night before. "She's not here," he said finally. Speaking of obvious. "She's taking some time off."

"From being a parent?" said Chris, and Joey just gave him a look. "Okay, okay. You should've just said, though."

"Well, since you brought it up," said Joey. "I talked to Justin. Speaking of 'just saying' things." Chris gave him his look back, and Joey figured they were even. "Yeah, so let's not, right now," he added finally. "I need to get ready, and then meeting, and then I'm interviewing nannies this afternoon and this evening..."

"Ah, good," interrupted Chris. "Cause I was wondering how you were gonna pull this off."

"And I'm already running later than I'd expected to be," Joey finished. "Time flies."

"Joey, just leave her with me," said Chris. "Don't be a hero, man. You know you can get all your shit done a lot faster without the rugrat along."

Joey looked at Chris, then he looked at Briahna who was on all fours, pushing her truck along the carpet, then he sighed. Chris was right, or course, and he did trust her with him, and he was just being dumb if he didn't accept.

"She'll probably be happier not to be lugged all over the city anyway," he said. "You sure you don't mind? I know you didn't show up here just to be on babysitting duty."

"Maybe I did," said Chris, and went and carefully steered Briahna in a new direction when her truck was threatening Joey's stacks of recently-unpacked CDs. "It's not such a bad thing to be doing. Besides, you're hiring someone soon, so it won't be for long."

Chris didn't say anything about the fact that it was pretty obvious Joey wasn't expecting Kelly back any time soon, and Joey was grateful for it, even though he knew it was only a matter of time before he did.

* * *

Joey pressed his forehead against the kitchen table as soon as the potential nanny left. He'd seen three today, and two yesterday, too, and shouldn't it have been easier than this, to find someone he trusted to care for his daughter? Any one of them had more experience than he did, after all. He wondered if Chris would be offended if Joey offered him a salary to look after her full-time, while he was in New York.

"See daddy?" he heard Chris saying as they got closer to him. "See daddy being all stressed out because he hates interviewing people? Let's go give daddy lots of kisses, okay, Briahna?"

"Daddy!" she said, and that alone, right then, was enough to make Joey lift his head and smile, just in time for Chris to lift her off the ground and swoop her in to give Joey lots of messy kisses on the cheek. It was definitely one of her good days so far. He wondered if Chris would be so eager to stick around if he'd arrived on one of the bad ones.

"That's a big girl," said Chris, and set her back down on the floor again. She wobbled on her feet and fell onto her diapered butt, but it didn't seem to faze her at all and she pulled herself back up again on the leg of the chair. "How'd it go, Joey?"

Joey just groaned and made a face. "I have one more tomorrow," he said. "Maybe Mary Poppins will show up on my doorstep."

"Hope you're not holding your breath," muttered Chris, looking back over his shoulder as Briahna toddled away. He'd already learned to keep a close eye on her, since Joey hadn't finished putting things away yet and there were things lying around that it was best she didn't get into. "I'm sure someone will work out."

"Well, it's not like I can get away with not hiring someone," said Joey, banging his head against the table one last time for good measure. "I wish we could have kept Linda. Briahna threw a fit when Linda wasn't here when we got here."

"You couldn't entice her with obscene bonuses?"

Joey shook his head. "And you'd better believe I tried. That's the thing with not hiring a live-in -- she had a family there, a reason to stay. And now I'm only trying to find someone who'll work for six months or so. Maybe that's my problem. Maybe I should be looking for someone who'll be willing to move back to Florida with us when this is over."

"Or maybe not," said Chris. Briahna had found her blue teddy bear and was busy sticking his foot in her mouth. At least it wasn't her own foot. "Just trust your instincts, Joe. She's your kid, after all."

"Well, half-mine," he said, but he didn't want to talk about that when Briahna could still hear them, so when Chris looked like he was going to ask, Joey held up a hand and shook his head. "Later," he added, and stood up from his chair. "Okay, big girl, it's time for bed."

"No!" she said, and threw her bear at him, or in his general direction at least. He picked up the bear from the floor at his feet and handed it to Chris, calmly. The after-dinner interview had run long, and she'd gotten overtired. He should have just told Chris to put her to bed.

"Okay," he said lifting her struggling body up into his arms. "How about we go play in your room, then, okay?"


"You can lie in your crib and I'll read you a story. The one about the princess and the castle and the flowers..."

"Mommy?" Joey winced and closed his eyes and enjoyed the moment of uncertain silence while it lasted. "Mommy!"

"Baby, Mommy's not here right now, but Daddy will take good care of you, I promise." He held her against his hip and carried her into her bedroom, squirming the whole way.

The wailing began as he lay her down in her crib, and as soon as he determined there was nothing else wrong, other than tiredness and crankiness and the absence of her mother, all Joey could do was stay with her and rock her and, when that didn't work, cradle her in his arms and pace back and forth across the room until she started to wear herself out.

It wasn't like this every night, thank god, and Joey hoped it was something that she would outgrow. Either that, or Kelly would come back sooner than later and it wouldn't be an issue at all. And even if it was, even if it was something else, Kelly could take care of it herself.

Finally, after the wails and after the sobs and after the hiccups and after Joey singing just about every children's song he knew, she settled down and pressed her face into his shoulder and finally fell asleep. He gently lay her down in the crib and pulled her blankets over her and snuck out of the room.

* * *

"You need a beer," insisted Chris, and before Joey could argue, Chris was handing him one. Joey wasn't really planning to argue anyway.

"She doesn't always," he said. "Cry herself to sleep, I mean. I swear, she doesn't always. It's just--"

"She's tired."

"She misses Kelly." Joey's shirt still felt wet with Briahna's tears.

Chris nodded. "How come you didn't tell anyone she was gone, Joey?"

"She's not gone," he insisted, and that was part of the reason he hadn't mentioned it, right there. "She's just... I don't know. She went away for a little while, she's back in Florida. She just needed a break."

"I wasn't aware that parents got to take breaks. Ones longer than the standard babysitting job, anyway."

"Well, she said I got to take breaks all the time. So." Chris didn't argue that, and Joey wondered if he agreed. Joey couldn't actually bring himself to argue it either. "But Briahna doesn't understand why Mommy's not here right now."

"I guess she's used to Daddy being the one who's gone."

Joey hated that he was absent so often, for so long. But Kelly trying to teach him some kind of "lesson" about it, if that was what she was trying to do, was only hurting Briahna. "She cries when I'm gone, too," he said after a moment, and felt guilty that he hoped it was at least a little bit true.

"So okay, Kelly's not gone," said Chris. "So why the urgency hiring a nanny, Joey? It's not like Kelly works."

"She likes to shop," said Joey, which wasn't really the answer, but it was true that they would've hired someone anyway, just because of their lives. "And. Okay, I won't know when she'll be back. But she will. She calls every night. She loves Briahna."

"Just Briahna?" asked Chris, and that was one push too far.

"So what happened between you and Justin, Chris?" he asked, instead of answering. "This was all pretty sudden."

"What is 'this', exactly?" asked Chris, and Joey could see the wariness in his expression, never mind his voice.

"Things were fine, I thought, and then suddenly he's there and you're here and the two of you... aren't the two of you anymore."

"It happens, Joey, people break up, people grow apart, it doesn't mean you have to make a big deal out of it. So I had some free time and I wanted to come up and see you for a while. You don't have to turn it into some big raging conspiracy where I'm being a big asshole and abandoning Justin to his trashy friends and flying across the country to hide from him."

"Right," said Joey, and just stared at him for a moment. "Cause you're not the type of person who would do that."

"Damn straight," said Chris. "I'm the type of person who would've keyed his car. But if Justin calls complaining that someone keyed his car, it wasn't me."


"Not me," he insisted. "All I did was leave when he asked me to, and not bother him to get my things once I had. I was courteous." Chris looked down at his shoes, but Joey already knew that he missed Justin, even without such an obvious visual clue.

"So your things will still be there when you go back," said Joey quietly, and didn't quite look up either.

"I'm sure," said Chris, his tones clipped, "that Justin already has my things packed and stored away so that when he has people over there's no trace left to suggest that I ever lived there. Which, of course, I didn't. I just visited a lot."

"Right," said Joey. "Right. Well... I hope you're not planning on having them shipped here. We're tight on room as it is..." It was meant to make Chris smile, but it didn't.

"No, only some," he said after a moment. Joey had been kidding about the shipping, to his place or to anywhere else. "The rest is going to my place in Orlando. More storage room there. There's nothing much I want anyway." Chris looked like he'd shown up with hardly more than the clothes on his back. But then again, Chris never really seemed to need much to get by.

"You can tell me, you know." said Joey as he watched him for any sign of what he was really thinking. "About what happened. For serious."

"I know I can," said Chris. "I'm just not going to right now. You want me to make some popcorn and we can watch a movie, or are you wiped?"

"All I ever do is stay in anymore," said Joey with a dramatic sigh. Once he had a nanny, though, he would have the time and energy again to go out. "Sounds good. And another beer?"

"You got it."

* * *

"She needs her hat," said Joey, and dug through the open box of things in the front closet, things that he hadn't made time to put away yet. "She needs her hat before she goes out, Chris."

"Joey," he said firmly, putting a hand on Joey's shoulder and pulling him out of the closet. "First, it is not cold out. Second, it is not sunny out. Third--" He was dangling something from his finger when Joey looked up. "I already packed her hat, just in case. You're a good dad, now just relax and let us go."

"Just... take good care of her," said Joey, still sure that Chris had to have forgotten something. Joey would've forgotten something.

"You know I will," said Chris. "She's precious, I know that. Now you, you just take it easy and try to just relax a little. Watch some TV. Nap. I don't care. We'll be back in a couple hours. Enjoy it."

Despite the pang he felt at seeing Chris carry Briahna and the stroller out of the apartment, to be met by security on the ground floor, Joey planned to enjoy every minute of his two hours' reprieve. He hadn't known just what it would be like, just him and his daughter and no one else to lean on when things got rough.

He'd barely poured himself a drink when the phone rang; he jerked at the sudden sound in the midst of so much blessed silence and spilled coke on his thumb.

"Yeah?" he said, picking the phone up and holding it against his ear with his shoulder as he opened the fridge to refill his glass. "What did you forget?"

"To call last night," came Kelly's voice. "I got back later than I expected and I didn't want to wake her. I assume you got her to bed on time?"

She wasn't even really being accusing when she said it but Joey still felt stung. "You know I did," he said. "You know she gets cranky if she stays up too late. How's the vacation?"

"Good," she said, "Fine. It's been really nice. Can I talk to her?"

"She's out," said Joey, glancing at the door and feeling that tiny pang again. "You could call back later if you want."

"Out?" repeated Kelly. "And you're not with her? Big surprise there. Say hi to your mom for me when they get back."

"Don't be a bitch, Kelly," he said, the reaction practically instinct. "She's not with Mom. I haven't even talked to Mom in a couple days. For all I know she's back in Florida and basking in the sunshine."

"It's raining," said Kelly dryly. "Who'd you foist her off on, then, Joey? Not one of your stupid friends..."

"She's with Chris," snapped Joey, rolling his eyes. "They've gone to the park for a couple hours. Jesus, Kelly, don't you ever stop? I thought your vacation was supposed to make you less of a--"

"Chris?" Kelly interrupted him. "When'd he show up?"

"Yesterday some time. Does it matter?"

"Well, at least I know he's good with kids," she murmured, then made a very unladylike noise. "I should call him and warn him that once he starts taking care of Briahna, you're never going to let him stop."

"Well, if he gets sick of it, he can always just take off, like you did."

She was silent for a moment, but Joey knew she'd probably just been lightly wounded by that. It was far from a killing blow. "At least I was there in the first place," she said finally. "Which is more than I can say for her father. What time are they getting back?"

"I don't know. Later," he said. "When they're done."

"Wow, you keep such good track of her. If it wasn't Chris she was with, I'd be on the next flight to New York."

Joey very much doubted that. "But she is with Chris, and that's the point," he said, rubbing his forehead with one hand. He felt a headache coming on. "I don't just hand my kid over to strangers, Kelly."

"Right, whatever," she said. "If she's not there, I'm gonna go, then. I've got plans this afternoon."

"I'm sure," he said. "Listen, Kelly, when do you think you're gonna be--?"

"I don't know," she answered before he could finish. "I don't know, Joey. When I'm ready. Look I've really gotta go. Love you."

"Right, you too," Joey sighed and disconnected the call. It probably wasn't going to be such a relaxing afternoon after all.

* * *

It just figured that his mother would pick that day to call and say she wanted to see them. She'd been staying with Joey's aunt for the last week and showed no signs of leaving again for a while, which seemed like not a very good sign of her faith in him as well. But she was calling it her "vacation for your father," and so Joey had to take her at word.

He just didn't say no to dinner with his mother, so he packed Briahna up and made sure Chris could find his way around the kitchen -- or at least, showed him where the takeout menus were -- and headed for Brooklyn.

"Joey!" said his mom as she opened the front door, kissing his cheek before taking Briahna right out of his arms and kissing her on the cheek as well. "And here's my little girl. Are you looking forward to a real meal, sweetie?"

"Ma, you know she's not going to answer you," laughed Joey. "And are you implying that I don't feed my own daughter?"

"Joey, you're my son and I love you, but I also know you. Besides, some things just require a grandmother's touch. Come in, come in, and remember to wipe your feet." She opened the door wider and let them get off the front step, still carrying Briahna. Joey didn't think she was going to let her go until it was time for them to leave.

"Where's Aunt Fran?" he asked when he realized she wasn't there to greet them, which she definitely would've been had she been home. She wasn't actually his aunt -- more of a second cousin, or something like that, he'd never been sure -- but it had never made any difference. She'd always been his weird, fun Aunt Fran.

"It's her poker night," she said as she closed and locked the door behind them, and started taking Briahna's coat off. "Are you sure she needed this, honey? It's warm out there."

"There was a breeze, Ma," he said, trying blindly to fix his windswept hair before his mother decided to do it for him. "She could've caught a chill. I know what I'm doing."

"I know you do," she said, carrying Briahna into the kitchen and leaving Joey's hair be.

It smelled wonderful in there, like Joey's kitchen hadn't in quite some time. He'd always been the cook in the relationship, but lately he hadn't felt like doing much more than making himself a sandwich, or eating out. At least, if that was they way he was going to live, New York was the place to do it.

"Ma, you can leave her with me," he suggested, as she was holding Briahna against one hip and stirring a red sauce with her other hand. "Since I know if I try to touch whatever it is that you're making, you'll just slap my hand."

She looked dubious for a moment, but finally she did hand Briahna back. Once Joey had sat down at the kitchen table and she was confident he wouldn't drop her or something. "Stay and keep me company," she insisted. "I want to keep an eye on you."

"Ma!" he said again, settling his daughter in his lap. "You see us at least once a week, you don't need to worry so much."

"Well, someone needs to," she insisted. "Now be a good boy and tell your mother all about your life."

Joey laughed and pulled Briahna's hand back as she tried to grab the pepper shaker off the table. "Everything?" he said. "Not much that you don't already know, Ma. Oh, but Chris is here, showed up in my kitchen yesterday."

"Hmm, not surprised he was in the kitchen," she said, taking a taste of her sauce and looking thoughtful for a moment. "What's he been up to?"

"Not... much," Joey had to admit, when he thought about it. Or not much that he knew about, anyway. Other than sleeping with Justin, and then hanging out with him. "Just enjoying the break."

"It's nice that one of you boys knows how to enjoy a little time off," she mused, dropping a few more spices in that Joey was sure he would have recognized if he'd been sitting a little closer. "And how's Kelly?"

"She's... good," said Joey, watching Briahna warily for any sign of a reaction to the sound of her mother's name. But she was being good for grandma, not even squirming in Joey's lap. "I talked to her today, she's having a good time."

"I'm sure she is," said his mother, in such a neutral tone that Joey -- having known her all his life -- couldn't even read it. "I hear the weather's been beautiful."

"Kelly says it's been raining."

"Well, I'm sure she'll find something to do, then. That girl always did know how to take care of herself. I talked to her mother the other day and she said that Kelly was settling in nicely."

On one hand, that wasn't what Joey was hoping to hear. On the other, it was exactly what he wanted. And either way, not unexpected. "I'm sure she'll be back soon to see Briahna. She doesn't like to stay away from her for too long."

His mother made a non-committal noise and started slicing up bread. "Remind me I have some pictures to give you, from Vera's birthday party last month. Briahna was wearing that pretty yellow dress and they all came out so nice."

"Thanks," he said, and his first thought was that Kelly would like to see those. She could never get enough pictures of her daughter. Joey, for his part, had enough photographs to last him a lifetime. Which didn't mean he didn't always have a camera and camcorder handy, just in case the kid started doing gymnastics or something.

She finally stopped messing with the food and came over to him, laying a hand on his cheek and forcing him to meet her eyes. "You doing okay, Joey?" she asked him.

"Yeah, Ma," he said honestly. "I'm doing good."

* * *

"You want me to try for a bit?" said Chris, and Joey was ready to try just about anything at that point. He hated this, hated it, wished that he could just lay Briahna down and she would close her eyes and that would be it. Like it had been before.

He carefully passed her over into Chris's arms, kicking and twisting and crying, and covered his own face with his hand for a moment. "Thanks," he said quietly as Chris took over rocking her gently and cooing at her and, finally, singing to her. Joey knew that she couldn't possibly have much left in her anyway.

Chris finally got her into the crib about fifteen minutes later, and stayed with her, softly telling her a story that Joey couldn't hear, until she fell asleep. Joey made sure the elephant nightlight wasn't going to slip out of the wall and then led Chris out of the room.

"She misses her most at bedtime," he said, and sighed and closed his eyes. "Kelly always put her to bed. It's rough to see her like that."

"Of course it is," said Chris. "You love her. You don't want to see her hurting. Taylor was like that for a little while when she was young -- when... when what happened happened. All I can say is, it passes."

Joey wiped his eyes and finally faced him. "I just hope it passes soon," he said. "Little kids are real adaptable, right?"

"They are," said Chris, and rested a hand on Joey's back as they made their way back into the living room. "And you can train them to do almost anything. I always wanted a dog when I was a kid, but Mom had another kid instead, so I made Taylor like my puppy dog."

Joey laughed and snorted simultaneously. "You did not."

"Ask my mother," said Chris. "At least I didn't teach her to do it on all fours."

"And Kelly thinks you'll be good for my child," said Joey, shaking his head as he sat down on the couch, wiping his eyes one last time for good measure.

"You talked to Kelly?" asked Chris, and Joey actually felt the silence fall over them for a moment. Chris sat down at the opposite end of the couch and waited.

"Yeah, this afternoon when you were gone," said Joey finally. "I told you she called every day. She was just... you know. I told her you were here, and we chatted, and that's about it."

"And things are okay?"

"As okay as they ever are," said Joey with a shrug. His relationship with Kelly was pretty well understood among his friends. "Well, maybe a little less okay, in that she's not here, but there's no big thing, you know? Nothing that wasn't already always there."

Kelly had gotten pregnant with no real idea what it was gonna be like to have a kid around. She was very excited while she was carrying Briahna, talking about decorating the nursery and buying things for the baby. And then she actually had a kid, a baby to take care of, and all her joyfulness about it was gone. Joey had gone into it with no real idea either, but he'd always been a little wary. His own joy at having a kid had only grown, since then. But it had actually come as a surprise to him, that they were going to have a baby, and Kelly had never really seemed surprised at all.

"Well, say hi for me next time," said Chris, a little too easily. "You know... you actually can talk to me about it, you know. I'm not fourteen months old. You don't have to put up a brave face."

"You could talk to me about Justin, too," said Joey, more to redirect him than because he thought it would get him anywhere. He seemed to remember making that offer before.

"There's nothing to say about Justin, Joey," said Chris, reaching out for one of Joey's feet and dragging it back into his lap. Tugging the sock off. "You seem to think there was some big blowout. There wasn't. It was just really... quiet."

"Quiet and you aren't necessarily a good combination," said Joey, wiggling his toes and grinning as Chris extravagantly fanned the air around them.

"Well, it just was," said Chris after another moment had passed, curling his hand over Joey's toes. "Justin's got his whole thing going on right now. He doesn't have a lot of room for someone like me."

"That's not really his decision to make alone."

"And I," Chris went on, "decided that I didn't have room for someone who didn't have any room left for me. So I left."

"You left all your things behind."

"They're just things," said Chris, waving it off with his free hand. Which Joey didn't actually believe for one second. Chris put more stock in people than things, sure, but they were his things, his own things, and he took a lot of pride in the stuff he had. "He'll send them along like a good boy. It's already worked out."

"Maybe he'll keep them. Maybe he doesn't want to let them go."

"He won't keep them, Joey," said Chris, and he sounded so sad. Joey didn't think he'd heard him sound so sad since he'd lost Busta. "It's over."

Not if Joey had anything to do with it. Chris and Justin had always had this bond between them, making the notion of them eventually getting together an inevitable one. And it had. And Joey just couldn't believe that it was over, just like that. Not a fight, not a falling out, just... over.

* * *

Chris, Joey found out, was every bit as good with his kid as Kelly had thought he would be. He didn't take off when she was cranky, he took care of the dirty bits that the rest of Joey's friends shied away from. It was one thing to have experience with kids -- which Chris had in spades. It was another to take on the nitty gritty of their lives.

And Chris had settled into the spare bedroom just as comfortably as Kelly had apparently settled into her parents' place in Florida. Even though his things never had showed up from California, much as Joey had anticipated. He'd just replaced what he needed and gone on with his life and -- as far as Joey knew -- had never even spoken to Justin.

The search for a nanny was neverending, it felt like. Joey didn't think he was being too picky, but the people the agency was sending over were either really only looking for something permanent, or were people Joey wouldn't trust with his pet turtle. If he had a pet turtle. And so as he started rehearsals and was busy for the better part of every day, there was Chris, picking up the slack for him.

Joey should probably do something really nice for him. Like get him his boyfriend back.

"I ordered in," said Chris as Joey shut the door behind him. "When you weren't home by six, I just ordered pizza. Figured you wouldn't want to cook and you wouldn't want to eat mine. It's cold, though."

"Cold pizza is great," said Joey, kicking off his shoes. "How's my girl?"

"Asleep, and without a fuss," said Chris. "But I swear I didn't drug her."

"Vulcan nerve pinch?"

"Blow to the head."

"Bastard," laughed Joey. "Wow, it's early, she really went down so easy?"

"We played in the park again," said Chris. "I wore her out. And you'll be happy to know I kept her from eating the cigarette butts she kept picking up."

"God," said Joey, and rolled his eyes. "She'll stick cigarette butts in her mouth. Keys, CDs, carpet lint, her own feet. But will she eat peas? No."

"Yeah, well, I don't eat peas either, Fatone," said Chris. "Come, eat your pizza before it gets... colder."

"In a second," he said, having second thoughts and putting his shoes in the closet before Briahna stuck those in her mouth, too. "I have to call Kelly. I blew her off this afternoon and promised I'd call her back as soon as I got home."

"And she'd begrudge you one itsy bitsy piece of pepperoni and extra cheese?" Joey made a face and Chris got the picture, nodding. "You miss her, huh?"

Joey was surprised by the question, and just shrugged. "I guess," he said. "It's... weird. Doing all this without her. And Briahna... I don't know what this is doing to her, you know? I worry. Is all."

"Briahna's going good, Joey. She's a good kid."

"She's a great kid," said Joey. "I just want her to have everything. Including her mother."

Chris nodded again, and Joey didn't know if he understood or not but he didn't argue. "I'll get you a plate," he said finally. "Meet me in the kitchen."

So Joey was alone to make his call, which was good because he never really knew what Kelly was going to say to him on any given day, and he was a lot happier when there wasn't a witness to it.

* * *

"So hey, I heard from Justin that him and Chris broke up," was the first thing JC said after the hellos.

"What, because the hundred and fourteen messages I sent you didn't clue you in?" said Joey, rolling his eyes. "Nice of you to call back, finally." Joey'd just put Briahna down for her nap and Chris had gone out to have coffee with some producer friend of his, so Joey could be pretty confident he was alone. But he still took a quick look back behind his shoulder, just to be sure.

"What, you've been calling me? Huh, I don't remember any messages. Maybe Carlos took them or something."

"No, actually, I think Carlos would have passed on that kind of thing," said Joey. "Carlos probably would have called me back himself. No, I called your home. Your machine? The one with an actual tape in it?"

"Oh! said JC. "Man, I haven't checked that thing in forever. So you've been calling, huh?"

"Yeah I've been calling," said Joey, and gave up on it. When JC was in the studio, nothing else mattered, which is why he hadn't worried about the lack of response in the first place. Joey should have probably just called Carlos directly. "Chris is staying here with me."

"Yeah, I know, that's what Justin said. Tell me the truth, is he doing okay? I think maybe Justin was worried."

"You think?" said Joey. "That's... that's good, I think. That he misses him."

"So I'm just wondering, you know, what happened. I figured if anyone would know, it would be you."

"I don't," said Joey, and sighed and slumped down onto the couch. "That's already pretty much the extent of my knowledge."

"That's not much to go on, Joe," said JC. "And I don't have much to add. I talked to Justin last night and that's all he said about it. And Justin's usually the first guy to up and talk about his feelings. So."

"And you know Chris," said Joey.

"I do know Chris," said JC. "I talked to him this morning, too. All he told me was about you and Kelly. How are you holding up, Joe?"

"How am I...? I'm fine, JC, we're not talking about me, here. We're talking about Justin and Chris." Chris hadn't said anything about that phone call to Joey. But then, Joey wasn't planning on saying anything about this phone call to Chris.

"Hmm," said JC, but he didn't push. "I say give 'em some more time. Sometimes Chris just needs his space and Justin just needs to get his head on straight again and realize how much it sucks when Chris isn't there."

"Yeah, but it's been a couple weeks," said Joey. "Chris has practically moved in, and they're not talking to one another at all."

"Don't fuck with this, Joey," said JC warningly. "I know how much you like to meddle. You get it from your mother."

"What? No, shit no, C. And besides, I was counting on you to help me out, here. I just wanna get them together again and let nature take its course is all. Which is kind of hard to do when they're hiding out on opposite ends of the country."

"Well," said JC slowly. "Okay, you may be on to something there. I'll let you know if I hear anything, that I think might help."

"That's all I'm asking, C," he said. "That's all I want."

* * *

It was almost five when Joey called Justin and he knew he was cutting it close, that Chris would be back any time, but he didn't want to leave it. Briahna was fine playing with her dump truck, the back filled with Cheerios, and Joey decided not to worry when they rolled around on the floor and she ate them after. There were worse things.

And even though Joey didn't expect Chris would be pleased about it, it wouldn't be the end of the world if Chris knew that Joey was talking to Justin.

"Hey," he said as soon as Justin picked up. "Look, it's not seven a.m."

"Thank God for small blessings," said Justin, yawning even though it was late afternoon. "How's things, Joe?"

"They're going," said Joey, then, "Ow, fuck!"

Briahna rammed her truck into Joey's foot again and gleefully echoed, "Duck!" Joey breathed a quiet sigh of relief and leaned down to steer her in a new, less painful direction. Now was not the right time to be trying to teach her that hitting is wrong, especially hitting bare toes.

"If that's Chris pinching your ass," said Justin dryly, "tell him it's not funny even when you're dating him."

"It's not Chris, it's Briahna," said Joey. She was now pushing the truck in circles in the middle of the living room floor, and Joey was happy to let her. "But I was calling about--"

"Chris," Justin finished for him. "Yeah, I figured."

Despite Justin's tone, Joey forged ahead. "He mentioned you were shipping some stuff here and, well, I noticed you haven't."

"I was what now?" said Justin. "No one ever asked me to ship any stuff to him, Joey. It's all pretty much packed up and stuff, but it's just sitting there. I figured he'd just send someone to get it one of these days."

"He never asked you to send it?"

"Come on, Joey, you know he's not talking to me," said Justin, sounding impatient. "When would he have asked me to send his stuff? Maybe you were supposed to do it or something."

"No, he never..." began Joey, trying to get the conversation back on some sort of track that he was prepared for. "I don't want you to ship all his stuff, Justin, it's fine where it is."

"You sick of him already?" said Justin. "He does tend to get on a person's nerves after a while."

"No!" said Joey, shaking his head like Justin could see him. "No, Chris is fine where he is. I just don't think he needs his things from your place right now. You should keep them there."

"Well, there are a few he might want," said Justin, sounding thoughtful now, like Joey had given him the idea to send the stuff back, which was exactly what he didn't want. He wanted to hear that Justin had kept the things on purpose. "He's got some, you know... toys. That he might want."


"You know..." said Justin awkwardly. "Like, sex toys? And since he's not getting any anymore, and I know he likes to be fucked, he might want them. I could ship them today, even."

"God, Justin," muttered Joey. "That's... kinda cold. Don't you miss him, at all?"

"Like crazy," Justin said instantly. He didn't even hesitate. "Of course I do... you think he could just disappear and I wouldn't miss him? Even if we hadn't been together? But I'd go crazy if I thought about it all the time, Joey."

"I know," he said, and felt a bit guilty and a bit wrong that he was happy to hear that. But only a little happy, at least. "I'm sorry. I just... want to have something good to tell Chris, when he gets home. Back. When he gets back."

"Don't," said Justin shortly, then paused. "Don't tell him, okay, Joey? If he wants to call, he will. It's not like I'm hard to find."

"He's Chris, Justin. Sometimes he needs a push."

"Not this time," he insisted. "Joey, I know you mean well, but..."

"Butt out?"

"Yeah, that," said Justin, and actually, finally, chuckled. "Is that all you wanted?"

"Yeah, that's all," said Joey. "You can forget I even called. Talk to you soon, Justin." And he definitely would.

* * *

Joey liked the people he worked with. Really, genuinely liked them. Or at least, he did after the first couple of days when everything was awkward and he'd had to prove to them all that he was there to work. They were lively and friendly and liked to have fun. And they helped him miss the rest of the guys just a little less.

"You coming, Joey?"

Joey looked at his watch and grimaced a little. But hey, he'd already told Chris he'd be a little late, so Chris could watch Briahna until Joey got in. He hadn't been out in a long time, he owed it to himself.

"Yeah, Jai, I just need a second," he said. He checked himself out in the mirror and he looked fine. He looked great. He was ready for a night out.

It was past midnight when he got home, moving quietly so he didn't wake Briahna. He was sure Chris had gotten her to bed on time, Chris was good like that. Hell, Chris was probably asleep, too, if only stretched out on the couch, fully clothed.

But he wasn't.

"Hey," said Chris, sitting on the couch and watching TV, not even turning his head as Joey entered the room. "Have a good night?"

Joey grinned. "Yeah, it was a great night," he said. "Went out with the cast, you know, got to know each other better. Or I did. I guess they all already knew each other. You?"

"Well, obviously I didn't go out," said Chris, still not turning his head. "Since I was here and all. Watching your kid."

"Yeah, thanks for that," said Joey. "I really appreciate it."

"Okay, not to go all harpy on you," said Chris, turning suddenly, "But fuck you, Joey. Seriously. Fuck you."

"What? What the hell, Chris?"

"I'm not your housebitch, Fatone. What the hell were you thinking? Did it even occur to you to call?"

"Oh, come on, Chris. Don't Kelly me, here," said Joey, checking his watch. It wasn't that late.

"For once, I actually think she was right about this," he said. "You were out all night and it didn't even occur to you to call and see if your girl was okay? Not once?"

"What? You were with her," said Joey. "You would've called if something was wrong."

"Yeah, I would've," said Chris. "And maybe you would have even gotten the call if you remembered to turn the phone back on after rehearsal."

"What?" said Joey, digging in his pocket for his phone, panic beginning to rise. "No. No! Fuck, Chris, what's wrong with her?" He didn't even wait for an answer before backing out of the room and starting for the hallway. "Is she here? What happened?"

"Joey, stop," said Chris, but Joey didn't stop, he was already pushing the door to Briahna's room open. Where she was sleeping peacefully in her crib, one arm still loosely around a stuffed bunny that Chris had bought her last week.

"She's okay," he whispered, and almost fainted with relief. He'd never felt that weak-kneed "oh, thank god" feeling before, not like that, and hoped fervently he'd never have to again.

"She's fine, Joey," said Chris, putting a hand on his shoulder and tugging him back out of the room.

"No, no, not yet," said Joey, and tiptoed inside and ran his fingers down her cheek. She was fine. She was fine. "Okay," he said after a moment, and started back out again. Chris was still waiting at the door.

"I didn't say that to scare you, Joey," Chris said when they'd closed the door halfway again. "But your phone was off. And I did try to call. And I had no idea where you were."

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry," he said and he was. So, so sorry. "I fucked up."

"Yeah," said Chris, and he wasn't supposed to agree with that, but Joey probably deserved it. "And also? I had plans tonight. So."


"No, I'm serious, I did," Chris said, and Joey hadn't actually doubted him. "Which I cancelled, but I shouldn't have had to. I love you, man, but take some responsibility."

"What, and I haven't already?"

"Not enough," said Chris. "Not enough, Joey. You have a kid, and that means shit has to change."

"She's over a year old, Chris, I think I already know..."

"And you've had Kelly for that year," said Chris, taking his arm and leading him away from Briahna's bedroom, back into the living room. "You've had Kelly to stay at home while you went out and had fun."

"I had Kelly when I went out and worked," corrected Joey, and really, Chris had no right, Chris didn't know what it was like.

"Okay, you had her for both," conceded Chris. "And don't give me that look, Joey, it's not going to work. I know you. I like you but I know you."

"You know, I never planned to have a kid, Chris--"

"But you do," Chris interrupted him harshly. "You do."

Joey finally shut up, just shut his mouth and let Chris's words sink in. Because Chris had a temper, sure, but he didn't persist like this unless he meant it. If he was pissed off, he just yelled at you and slammed things.

"I love her," he said finally. "And don't you dare try to tell me I don't."

"I know you do," said Chris, and for a moment everything was just calm. "I know. You just..."

"I'll remember next time," he said. Which wasn't quite the point, he knew. But he got the point, he got the point painfully and clearly.

"Good," was all Chris said.

* * *

Joey wiped the mayonnaise off his lower lip and sucked off his thumb before answering the phone. "I'm here, Chris," he said. "It's on."

"What's on?" asked JC. "Are you and Chris doing something?"

"Oh!" said Joey and paused outside the back doors before returning to rehearsal. "Hey, JC, you're lucky you caught me. What's up?"

"I'll make it quick," he promised. "But first, how are you? Things going okay?"

"Yeah," said Joey, finding another dab of mayo at the corner of his mouth and licking it off. "Yeah, things are okay, everyone's good. You?"

"Oh, great, doesn't matter," said JC, talking quickly. "Listen, you said call you if I came up with something? About Justin and Chris?"

Joey had almost forgotten about that. "Right, right," he said, crumpling his napkin and tossing it in a wire trashcan. "You got something?"

"Sort of," said JC. "Justin's gonna be there, in the city, in a few days. Business stuff. He'll tell you himself, probably, but I figured you might want a head start on... whatever it is you plan to do with that."

"He's gonna be here?" said Joey. "That's... that's great. That'll work great. Thanks, C."

"No problem," he said. "And, you know, say hi to Chris for me. Since the bastard isn't returning my calls and all." Joey bit his tongue and let that one go. For about five seconds. "Maybe he's been taking lessons from you and isn't checking his machine."

"Ha ha, Joey, he doesn't have a machine," said JC, which just missed the point completely. "Anyway, that's it. I gotta go."

"Me too," said Joey. "Bye, C." He pocketed the phone and went inside.

* * *

Joey waited until Chris was in the shower before calling. Partly for the privacy, partly because it took him a long time to figure out what he wanted to do. What he should do.

"Hey, Justin," he said, ignoring the noise of sound engineers in the background. "You got a minute?"

"A minute? Sure. More than that? Make an appointment like the rest of the peons, Fatone."

"You're a laugh a minute, Timberlake," said Joey. "Seriously, I need a favor."

"I'm not lending you money..."


He cackled, and at least Joey had caught him in a good mood. "Hey, I'm gonna be in your neck of the woods in a few days--"

"I know," Joey interrupted him. "Listen, remember that blanky that Briahna left at your place that time?"

"Huh? That yellow thing? Yeah, sure."

"You still have it, right?"

"I... guess. I think it's in the linen closet somewhere. Why? I thought you said she didn't care about it anymore."

"Yeah, well, I was wrong," said Joey. "She's been all fussy without it lately. You think you can ship it out here? At least, I think that's what's wrong. I hope that's what's wrong."

"I'm gonna be there in a few days anyway, Joey," said Justin, the connection crackling with sudden static. "If you can wait that long, why don't I just bring it with me then?"

And that was exactly what Joey had been waiting to hear. "That would be perfect," he said. "She'll want to see you anyway, you know how much she likes you. And you won't believe how she's grown, Justin, did you get the pictures I emailed you?"

"All fifty thousand of them?" teased Justin. "Yes. And I looked at all of them. Don't you ever wash her face, man? She looked like she was wearing half her lunch."

"You just wait," said Joey. "You just wait until you have one..."

"Any child of mine is going to be perfectly well behaved," insisted Justin primly. "So how's... you know. How's Chris?"

"He's fine," said Joey, smiling to himself. "He's doing all right."

"That's good," said Justin, and the silence grew awkward. On his end, at least. "I didn't... I never wanted to break his heart or anything."

"I don't think you did," said Joey slowly.

"He was just always around, you know?" Justin went on. "And that's great, that's Chris for you, but I needed some space this time."

"And that's why...?" Joey prompted him. It was the most he'd heard about the breakup yet, from either of him.

"Sort of, yeah. I guess. He gave me a lot more space than I expected, though. Clear across the country." Justin grunted. "And he didn't know what he wanted to do, and... how can you not know what you want to do?"

"Half the time I don't know what I want to do, either," said Joey.

"Yeah, well, you and I weren't dating," said Justin. "It didn't matter, with you. You're just my friend. I mean, a great friend, but still, just a friend." He fell silent, running out of things to say about it, and Joey didn't really want to prompt him anymore.

"Anyway," Joey said finally. "Things'll work out for the best."

"Whatever that may be."

* * *

"I cooked," said Chris, and Joey could tell from the faint, charred smell in the air that he had. "I warned you I would."

"You did not," said Joey, leaning down and scooping Briahna up off the carpet. "And how's my little girl?"

"Just because I'm wearing your mother's castoff apron does not make me a girl," said Chris, emerging from the kitchen, grinning. "She already ate, so don't bounce her too hard, man."

"Oh, but she likes bouncing," said Joey, bouncing her in one arm and looking into her smiling face. She was a beautiful, beautiful girl. "What did she have?"

"Half a banana," said Chris. "And some mashed carrots. And Cheerios." Joey just shrugged and smiled back at her. The carrots were a real accomplishment. These days anything other than the Cheerios was an accomplishment.

"That's great," he said, slowing the bouncing and carrying her across the room with him. "But if you're serving me mashed carrots for supper we're ordering Chinese."

"You might want to anyway," Chris admitted, "but no, no mashed carrots. Chicken's in the oven." So that was the smell. "When's the last time you had roast chicken?"

"Not since I moved, that's for sure," said Joey. "Didn't anyone tell you that you don't actually ever have to cook in New York? That's the beauty of it."

"You cook."

"Yeah, but I can," said Joey. Chris didn't look hurt by that in the least, he just grinned. "Okay, fine, it smells good. You're a miracle worker. Briahna's happy, you're happy, there's food, the place is clean... what did you break?"

"What? Nothing," said Chris. "I was just bored. Oh, and, well, you have a phone message. Not a bad one! It's just a complete coincidence that I thought of it now, right when you're accusing me of having ulterior motives."

"Right," said Joey dubiously. "What is it, Chris?"

"Honest!" he said, crossing his heart. "Kelly called."

"Oh," said Joey. "Is that all? I'll call her back after we eat."

Chris shook his head. "No, she's gone out, that's why she called early." Briahna began wiggling in Joey's arms and he let her down again. She didn't cry anymore about Kelly, much, but she seemed to understand when her mom was being talked about. "She's coming back, Joey."

"She's... what?" Joey couldn't quite wrap his mind around that.

"Not, like, back back," Chris clarified. "But she'll be here day after tomorrow. She wants to meet you... wait, I wrote it down." He disappeared into the kitchen and returned with a slip of paper. "At one o'clock. At Le Madri." He looked up. "Do you know where that is?"

Joey nodded his head and held out his hand for the paper. "It's a good thing I don't have rehearsal tomorrow. She should have talked to me before deciding when and where to meet."

"Well, she probably knew when your days off were," said Chris.

"She was already gone when I started rehearsing," Joey reminded him, shaking his head. "She got lucky, is all."

"You're gonna go, aren't you?" said Chris, as if it was ever in doubt.

"She's Kelly," said Joey. "Of course I'm gonna go."

Chris nodded slowly, and started for the kitchen again before turning back abruptly. "Oh, and your agency called, too. They have a couple more people to send over."

"What, you couldn't have told me that first?"

"I wanted to save the good news for last," said Chris with a saccharine smile. "They also said you're too damn picky."

"They did not!"

"You're right, they didn't," said Chris. "But you are! Now go wash your hands and kiss your daughter. Dinner's almost ready."

* * *

It was easy to tell Justin what time to show up, since Kelly had dictated when Joey would be out of the apartment. Chris would have to be there, watching Briahna, and things couldn't have worked out better. Except for the fact that he was meeting Kelly for lunch, but that part really couldn't be helped.

And it wasn't like he didn't want to see her, but he was pretty sure it wasn't going to be the easiest of lunches. even if it went well. He slipped in the front door and there she was, at a table near the door, waiting for him. He waved at her, but she'd already spotted him.

"Hey," he said, taking the seat opposite her. "How are you doing, Kelly?"

"Fine," she said, glancing at her watch. "You're on time. I'm impressed. And that's a nice shirt."

"It's Chris's," he said, pulling it away from his chest self-consciously. "And I'm on time when it matters."

"Well, then I guess it's just a question of what you think matters," she said, smoothing her hands along her skirt. "Looks like Chris is good for you. He's tamed you well.

"Chris doesn't think I'm something that needs taming."

She made a slight noise, the way she always did when she wanted Joey to know she had something to say about that, but didn't want to take responsibility for saying it. "Well. You might as well say what you wanted to say."

"What I wanted to say?" said Joey. "I thought we were getting together just to... to get together, Kelly. I thought you had something to say."

"Me? You're the one who wanted to get together, Joey. And here, of all places. What, were you afraid I'd make a scene if we weren't in public?"

"Kelly, I don't know what you're talking about," he hissed, trying not to draw attention to them. "Chris told me you wanted to meet here, one o'clock, and that's all I know."

"Chris told you what?" she said. "No. No, Chris told me that you wanted to meet here. I only flew up here because you wanted to meet, Joey, so this had better be good."

It didn't take long for Joey to put it all together. "That bastard," he said, gritting his teeth. "Chris set us up."

Kelly seemed to have already come to the same conclusion, though, because all she did was nod her head and sigh and look at him sadly. "If I'd actually picked the place, I would've picked somewhere that we could've brought Briahna. Like McDonald's."

"Or the apartment," said Joey. "Me too, you know."

She nodded again and looked down at her lap. "So what now?"

"Well," said Joey. "I'm here, you're here, so I guess we talk. That's apparently what he wanted us to do."

"What, and you always do what Chris tells you to do?"

"Only when he's right," said Joey, and smiled at her. As awkward as things were, Joey had kind of missed having her around. They'd known one another forever, and Kelly often reminded him that no one knew him better than her. "How've you been, Kelly? For real."

"I've been... good," said Kelly, and she sounded surprised. Like it shouldn't have been good. "I don't know what I'm doing, Joey, but I'm happy being back in Florida."

"And Briahna?"

"I miss her," she said softly. "Oh, I miss her, but... we weren't ready to be parents, Joey. I wasn't ready to be a parent. I needed this"

"We had no idea what we were getting into," he agreed. "But we've already survived the first year, Kelly. We have a kid. That's not going to change."

"No, you're right, it's not," she said. "God. Joey, you know I love her, I love her so much, but..."

"But what?"

"I know I don't have to tell you that this isn't working, Joey. You and me. You, me and her. The whole thing. We've been happier apart than we have been together in a long time."

She was right, much as Joey has resisted admitting it, even to himself, let alone to anyone else. Because admitting it meant that things had to change, and that was something that Joey wasn't ready for. "You're not taking her from me, Kelly," he said, his voice more fragile than he'd expected it to me. "You can't do that to me."

"No," she agreed. "No, Joey, I'm not. I... you guys have been doing all right? You and Briahna?" She smiled. "And your mom."

"I'll have you know my mom had nothing to do with it," said Joey, a small acknowledgement to the lighter mood she was trying to create. "And Chris is an expert at changing diapers. I wouldn't be surprised if he could get her to eat peas, even, given another month or so."

She nodded. "I couldn't do it on my own, Joey," she said. "You were never there and it was just me and her and... I can't even tell you the number of times that I wanted to give if all up. You weren't there for us."

"It wouldn't be just you anymore, Kelly. I'm not... I've learned. I'm learning. Things are changing."

"Well, they had to," she said. Joey heard a little sniffle, and he wondered if she was crying but he couldn't see her eyes to know for sure. "When it was just you and her, they had to. Of course, you had people around to help you. But it's too late for us now, Joey."

Joey wasn't even trying to save their relationship anymore -- he knew as well as she did that the shreds of it weren't worth saving. But there was still Briahna. There would always be Briahna. "She's not going to understand."

"She will eventually," said Kelly. "I'm... I'm not going to take her from you, Joey. My life feels like it's starting again, and... but I still get to see her. You have to let me see her." Joey didn't even point out to her how appallingly selfish that was, what a selfish decision that was, because he got to keep his girl. And there might've been a time when he valued his freedom over anything else, but that time was passing.

"I would never keep Briahna from her mother. We'll have to..." He coughed politely, unsure of how to broach this. "I think, probably, we have to do something legal."

"Joey," she said, and sighed. "Let's just worry about that another day. This one is going to be hard enough. And I have to... I thought you were going to make this harder. I made plans for the rest of the day, to keep me busy. But I want to come over tomorrow. I want to see her. I need to."

"Of course," said Joey. "I won't be there, but there's Chris. I started in the show in just over a week so... rehearsals, you know." He really wouldn't keep them apart, even knowing that Briahna would be a mess when Kelly left again. She would get used to it. She would have to. "I'm taking her to mom's later anyway."

"Okay," she said, still looking down. "That'll work, then."

"Why don't we just have some lunch, right now," said Joey. "And everything else we can work out later."

* * *

Joey already felt tired when he went back up to his apartment, in his body but mostly in his mind and in his heart. Everything had been fine at the time, during lunch, but afterwards, when the enormity of if all hit him, it was too much.

He forgot, until he was almost inside, that Chris had had a visitor, too. Might still have a visitor.

"Hello?" he said softly, pushing open the door just enough to pop his head in. If the plan went right, Chris would be spending some time with Justin right now, but Joey almost hoped he wasn't. No, not even almost. But either way, whether Justin was there or not, Chris was going to have something to say to him, and Joey probably wasn't going to get to lean on him like he wanted to. Needed to."

"Don't come in, I'm naked," said Chris, and Joey winced and started discreetly closing the door again. He hadn't quite gotten it shut when he heard, "Joey, you knob, I'm kidding."

"What?" he said, pushing right back inside, all the way this time, looking around the room for Chris. He was seated on the couch, legs crossed, watching the door. Joey wondered how long he'd been waiting there. "Where's Justin."

"He had to go," said Chris. "I should be mad at you. But... where's Kelly."

"She had plans," said Joey shortly. It made him angry now, that she would not come like that, plans or no plans. That she had something better to do than see her own daughter. "I've gotta... I've gotta get Briahna ready to go out," he said, looking around. "Dinner at Mom's again. Where is she."

"In her room," said Chris, nodding toward the hallway. "She managed to unroll an entire roll of toilet paper earlier. Impressive kid you've got there. Are you okay?"

"I'm great," snapped Joey, but he forced himself to calm down before he went to get his daughter. "Come with me, Chris, I want to know... how did things go with Justin?"

"We're broken up," said Chris with a shrug as he followed Joey to the bedroom. Briahna was playing with her set of blocks that Grandma had gotten her. Right now they spelled out, roughly, "SSYLM", not counting the "R" that she was chewing on. "I'm not sure what you expected would happen, Joey."

Joey looked back over his shoulder at him, but Chris didn't look upset. A little sad, maybe, but not upset. "Her blanky's in the crib, he said you wanted it?"

"Right," said Joey, and didn't even look as he picked his daughter up and gave her a kiss on the cheek. "We're going to Grandma's for dinner, sweetpea," he said, and kissed her again. "We need to make you all pretty."

"He brought some other stuff, too," added Chris, coughing politely. "But I don't think your daughter needs to be hearing about that."

"So what happened?" asked Joey, opening Briahna's dresser and picking out a light green dress for her. "I really thought you and Justin..."

"Are great friends, and lousy boyfriends," Chris finished for him. "We could've tried again, but we would have been miserable, Joey. I don't want to live my life like he lives his life, and he sure has hell doesn't want to live his life the way I live mine. And we already had that figured out before your devious ass put us in the same room together with your daughter as a buffer."

Joey smiled a little as he straightened the dress and started pulling Briahna's socks on. "She just helped me keep you here." And, in a strange twist of fate, Chris helped keep Briahna there.

"She did a fine job," said Chris. "You've got a good girl there. So... Kelly?"

Joey bit his lip and, as Briahna pulled the first sock off again, took his time about putting it back on. "I guess we're officially separated," he said. "She's staying in Florida. It's over."

"Oh hell, Joey, that's not what I..."

"Expected?" said Joey. "Wanted?"

"Expected," said Chris. "I though you guys wanted to be together."

Joey shrugged and put the second sock back on again. "And you know, we all knew it all along, but no one wanted to say it, you know? You, me, Kelly, my mom. We all knew it was going to end like this at some point but we all walked on eggshells about it."

"Only because you wanted us to."

"Well, now she's gone, and she's gone alone, and I have Briahna alone now, and she's only coming back to visit, and--" Briahna gleefully pulled her sock off again and showed it to him. "And I can't even get my daughter to keep her god damn socks on. What kind of father am I? How am I going to do this, Chris?"

"You're a great father," said Chris, absolutely calm, taking the sock from Briahna's hand. "That's great, Briahna, that's a great sock. How about you wear your sandals to Grandma's, yeah?"

Joey blinked at him a couple times and then closed his eyes and felt his body slump. "You should come with us to dinner," he said. "I wouldn't have been able to do this without you, Chris."

"Sure you would've," he said cheerfully. "Of course, you would've actually hired one of those nannies by now just out of self-preservation, even if she did have pink hair and no references. And you would've cleaned up your CD stacks a little sooner, and not gone out quite so much. But in the end, you would've handled it just fine."

"I don't want to do this alone."

"Yeah, well, in case you didn't notice," said Chris, "you're not. Do you know where her white sandals are?"

"Bottom shelf of the closet," said Joey instantly. "Both pairs are there. I had to clean them after you took her to play in mudpuddles."

"Every kid should have a chance to play in mudpuddles," said Chris. "Joey, did you even hear me?"

"I heard you," he said, but the words weren't entirely making sense yet. Or they were, but Joey didn't know what to make of them. "I thought you wanted Justin back."

"That's because you weren't listening," said Chris. "Don't get me wrong, the guy's hot in the sack and we had a great time, but no. Not anymore. It's not right, it's not enough. Like you and Kelly."

"I did want Kelly back," said Joey. "But not for me." Briahna drooled and wiggled her bare toes at him. "You're not going to just up and leave, right?" said Joey. "We're not going to fight and the next thing I know, you're all the way across the country from me?"

"Not if you don't give me reason to."

"I might."

"I know," said Chris. "I'll take my chances."

Joey thought he might take his chances too. And what was more, he was willing to take that chance with his daughter. His lovable, frustrating, gorgeous, screeching daughter. He watched her try to get one of her feet into her mouth again and sighed. And smiled.

"I'm still going to have to hire a nanny. There's got to be someone out there who'll do it."

"Damn straight," said Chris. "I'm not your babysitter, Fatone."

"No," said Joey, and turned and kissed Chris's stubbly jaw. "You're not."

For Anyone Can Whistle: A Joey Challenge.

the fun is done.
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