"So for Thanksgiving we're going…?"  Chris asked as Melanie stood over the stove in the kitchen.  It was the day before the holiday and he was feeling a little nervous about their plans.  It had been more than a month since he fell into this life, but little things still triggered his panic reflex.

            "We're going to Shannon and Dave's house.  Eddie, Liz and the girls will be there too."

            "Cool."  Chris nodded.

            "That way the kids can all play together and we won't really need to get all formal."

            "Okay."  Chris smiled, the smaller the better.  "What are we bringing?"

            "Um, I told Shan I'd send you to get those dinner rolls from Betsy's Bakery, and then I'm going to make a couple pies."

            "Yum."  Chris smiled and picked a carrot from the skillet in front of Melanie.  "What kind of pies?"

            "Thanksgiving standards."  Melanie laughed.  "Apple and pumpkin."

            "Double yum."  He smiled and kissed her cheek.

            "Yep.  I get to start on those as soon as the little rascals go to bed."  Melanie sighed and looked out to the backyard where Jenny and Lauren were digging in the sandbox.  She smiled slowly, then sighed.  "So… how's work going?"  She'd put off asking him for three days, but couldn't resist any longer.

            Chris shrugged and opened the fridge.  "It's going okay I guess.  It's… you know, it's just… it's hard getting back into the swing of things."

            "Yeah."

            "But it's pretty slow this time of year anyway.  Half the office is on vacation and it's been pretty quiet."

            "Well that’s good."  She nodded and threw more chicken into the stir-fry.  "And you're feeling okay?"

            "I feel great."  Chris nodded, but kept his back to her as he nibbled on the pea pods that she would add in last.

            "Good."  Melanie sat her wooden spoon down and placed her hand on her belly.  "Dang kid, chill out."

            "What?"

            "Little miss gymnast here is making it her in-utero goal to break my ribs." She grimaced then smiled.

            Chris laughed and popped another pea pod in his mouth as he turned around.  "Kathryn…"  He sang softly as he bent down to Mel's stomach level.  "Don't kick and hurt your mommy or she'll evict you and keep the security deposit."

            "Yeah I will."  Melanie laughed.  "But seriously Chris, I need you to run to Betsy's and get those rolls.  If you wait till tomorrow it’s going to be a madhouse in there."

            "Okay."  Chris stood up straight and cracked his back.  "Don't eat till I get back."

            "It won't be ready for another half hour; you've got plenty of time."

            "It's just right up by Henry's Market right?"

            "No, that's Southland Bakery.  Betsy's is the one that's across from Jenny's school.  By the video store."  Melanie shook her head and reached for the pea pods.

            "Oh, okay."  Chris smiled.  He was getting a lot more sly about asking for directions to places he knew he should know.  "Then I'll be right back."  He headed for the door with his hands in his pockets.

            "Hun?  The keys are on the washing machine."  Melanie called after him.

            "I'm just going to walk."  Chris said over his shoulder as he pulled the front door open.  Walking was something he loved to do, since for the first time in years he was able to walk somewhere completely by himself and not worry about anything.

            "Okay, well hurry.  They close at six."

            "I will."  Chris mumbled and let the front door shut softly behind him.  He walked up the street with a smile on his face.  Without warning he began to hum "Gone" and found that he had actually forgotten some of the words.  "That's just 'cause Justin sang them, not me.  I know my parts."  He tried to rationalize to himself, but deep inside he knew that that part of his life was slowly fading away.

 

            When he returned a half hour later, dinner was done and everyone was already at the table.  "There you are, I was beginning to think you got lost." Melanie laughed from her chair.

            "Did you get lost?"  Jenny asked.

            "Nope, there were a lot of people there though.  Their dinner rolls are pretty popular."

            "That's because they're the best."  Melanie smiled.  "Come sit down, we've already started."

            Chris sat with his family at the table and ate the stir-fry dinner Melanie made.  He spent the evening watching cartoons with the girls, then getting them ready for bed while Melanie made the pies to take for Thanksgiving the next day.

            By the time he got to bed it was after eleven and he was both tired and nervous about the holiday.  Thanksgiving would be the first real family get together since he got there, and he wasn't sure what to expect.  With the stress of going back to work that week also, Chris just wanted to go to sleep and not wake up for a week.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

            "Hey guys!"  Shannon hugged everyone as they walked in the door the next afternoon.  "Trent's out back girls, why don't you go out and see his new slide."  She laughed as Jenny took off running for the back door and Lauren toddled after her.

            "It smells great Shan." Melanie said as she juggled a pie in each hand.  "Where do you want these?"

            "Oooh, those look good."  Shannon closed her eyes and inhaled the spicy scent of the pumpkin pie.  "Go ahead and set those in on the hutch.  We're going to actually eat in the formal dining room today."

            "For the first time this year of course."  Melanie laughed.

            "Of course."  Shannon rolled her eyes and took one of the pies.

            “Where’s Megan?”

            “Asleep.  She should be up in about an hour though.”

            “Is she sleeping through the night yet?”

            “Almost… we’re really close.  Six hours most of the time, so that’s not bad.”  Shannon smiled and tried not to yawn.  “But anyway.”

            “Have you talked to mom?”

            “Nope, but Courtney called this morning.  They're going over to mom and dad's for Thanksgiving so they're going to call a little later.  I told here we were going to eat at four, so we'll see."

            "Cool."  The ladies skitted off toward the dining room leaving Chris standing in the entryway with two bags of diner rolls and a diaper bag for Lauren.

            "Touchdown!!!"  Chris heard two guys shout in unison from a room to his right.  He smiled and shook his head, it finally felt like Thanksgiving.  After dropping the rolls off in the female dominated kitchen along with Lauren's bag, Chris retreated to the den where Eddie and Dave were watching the game on the big screen TV.

            "Damn, lookit that."  Chris said as he sat in the empty chair by the couch.  "Who's up?"

            "Redskins.  We just got a touchdown."  Dave high-fived Chris and smiled.  "How's it going?"

            "Good."  Chris nodded.

            "Mel about ready to pop?"  Dave's eyes danced as he kidded his brother-in-law.

            "Yeah, another couple weeks."

            "Right on."  Dave nodded, and then turned back to the game as he took a drink of the soda in his hand.  "Grab a drink; I brought the ice chest in here."  He nodded to the blue and white cooler serving as a coffee table, without taking his eyes off the game in progress.

            Chris laughed and shook his head, every man's dream come true.  "Awesome."  He helped himself to a Coke and sat back in his chair.  This was exactly how he would spend Thanksgiving if he had to choose.  He knew that if he was with the guys they'd probably be in a random city eating a catered meal.  Promotional tours were merciless, and holidays didn't mean a thing.

            He looked around and listened to the women in the other room chatting, the game and the happy screams of the kids outside and shook his head.  This was home and where he was supposed to be.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

            The week after Thanksgiving was slow at work for both Chris and Eddie.  So many people were on vacation and most of the schools they spoke at were busy preparing for Christmas and holiday events.  "Now is the best time to really get caught up on all this stuff, you know what I mean?"  Eddie asked as he and Chris ate lunch together in Chris' office.  "I mean, Bill is on vacation so we don't have any interruptions.

            "Yeah, that's cool."  Chris nodded.  He'd noticed that the phones had been mostly quiet and he hadn't been interrupted once.  "I'm glad its Friday though."

            "Same here."  Eddie laughed.  "What are you guys doing this weekend?"

            "We're going Christmas shopping Sunday, but other than that, I don't know.  Mel's probably got some stuff planned."

            "I love how the wives plan stuff and don't tell us until its like, ten minutes before we have to leave."  Eddie laughed and wiped his mouth on his ratty napkin.

            "Yeah, no kidding."  Chris smiled politely, thinking that things like that must have happened before, but since he'd been there Melanie hadn't pulled anything like that.

            "Anyway… we should probably get back to work before Janie starts to think we always take two hour lunches."  Eddie laughed and stuff up with his bag of chips in his hand.

            Chris smiled and shook his head, their receptionist was known to take long lunches of her own, and he doubted if she even paid attention when they went out for theirs.  "I'll catch you later, don't stay too late."

            "I won't."  Eddie promised as he walked down the hall to his own office.  Chris laughed lightly to himself, then threw his trash in the can under his desk and got back to work.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

            Melanie surprised Chris by not having anything planned for the weekend, so they spent quality family time at the zoo, and even took a picnic to have on one of the grassy areas.  Chris was hesitant about going back so soon, but after Melanie reminded him that he wouldn't have six kids, he seemed to ease up.

            By the time Sunday rolled around Chris was ready to spend the day with Melanie alone, and happily dropped both girls off at Melanie's sister’s house before they headed for the mall.  "This is what we call commando Christmas shopping."  Melanie laughed as she waddled toward the main entrance of Sears.

            "What's that?"

            "That's where we get all of our shopping done in one day."

            "All of it?"

            "Yep.  I've got a few little things at home already, but whatever else we're getting, we're getting today.  I'm not coming out here again when I'm eight months pregnant.  Forget it."  She smiled and took his hand.

            "Sounds good to me."  Chris squeezed her hand and held the door open for her.

            They spent the first half of the day shopping for their parents and siblings, then took all of those gifts to the car and went back to the toy store to get the girls taken care of.  Chris loved kid shopping, so they saved the best for last.

            "Oooh, let's get this."  Chris reached for the tag of the large playhouse with the pink door and a little kitchen.

            "Honey… no."  Melanie shook her head and squished up her nose at him.

            "No?  Jenny would love this."

            "Yeah but we don't love this."  She pointed to the price tag.  "It's nice, but we can't afford it."  Melanie pushed the cart ahead with a heavy sigh.  "There's no way to rationalize a three hundred dollar playhouse.

            "But it could be for both of them.  For all three of them." Chris argued as he trotted after her.

            "That'd be all they get then."  Melanie shook her head.  "I think they'd rather open a couple small gifts than just one big one."

            Chris had to bite his tongue from saying that they could just get it all.  He wasn't in charge of the finances in his house, but it was apparent that he didn't have the seemingly endless cash flow that he'd had with Nsync.  Not that he spent a lot of money on himself, but if he had that kind of money now he'd happily spend it on the girls and Melanie.

            "Come on, Jenny really wants a Barbie doll so let's go find her a good one."  Melanie smiled over her shoulder as Chris followed.

            "Can we get a Barbie car too?"

            "Chris…"  She sighed.  "I swear, you're acting like you're the five year old here."  Melanie shook her head and turned down the pink lined aisle.  "I'll tell you what; I'll let you pick out which doll she gets."

            "Yay."  Chris laughed and began searching the aisle; hoping one would jump out at him.  For a moment he remembered that there had once been an Nsync Fan Barbie, but he knew he wouldn't find it on those shelves.  "How about this one?"  He held up a Dream Wedding Barbie and smiled.  "We can get a Ken too."

            "Is there a Dream Wedding Ken?"  Melanie laughed.

            "I'm sure there is.  She can't be getting married to no one."  Chris smiled and placed the doll into the cart to search for her husband.  He returned a minute later with a tuxedo clad Ken doll and dropped him into the cart beside his bride.

            "She'll love it."  Melanie smiled and looked down at a little list she brought with her.  "Now, she also wants some board games, but I don't know which ones.  She pointed to about a dozen last time we were here."

            "Okay… well what does she have?"

            "Chutes and Ladders, Sorry and some Blue's Clues checker game thing."   Melanie said.  "And I think she had Mousetrap, but if so the pieces are gone."

            "That's it?"

            "She was never into them before this year."  Melanie shrugged and pushed the cart down another aisle.  Chris rested his hand on her back as they walked across the store to the games.  "Man, there are so many…"

            "What was your favorite game when you were a kid?"  With his hands on his hips, Chris stared up at the wall of games.

            "Candyland."  Melanie smiled and licked her lips at the thought of a chocolate river.

            "So let's get that."  Chris craned his neck to look up at all of the games, then picked Candyland out of the stack.  "Here, check that out.  She's gonna love that."

            "And it's only $5.99, that's awesome.  Is there anything else for kids her age?"

            "Um… let me look."  They walked slowly up the aisle until Chris stopped and stood on his tiptoes.  "Here we go.  This is perfect."

            "What is that?"

            "Operation."  Chris smiled and placed it in the cart.  "That was one of my favorite games."

            "It makes noise."

            "Not that much."  Chris shook his head.  "And not if you're good."

            "Chris, the girls are just gonna walk around setting it off for fun."

            "Don't be a party pooper."  Chris laughed and took the cart from her.  "It's either that or the playhouse."

            "That."  Melanie laughed and took Chris' hand, letting his steer the cart with one hand.  "So okay, these toys and the clothes we already got her and that flower quilt set for her bed... I think that'll do it for her."

            "What about Lauren?"

            "Well, we got her a lot of clothes since most of Jenny's hand-me-downs were stained.  Jenny was a messy kid." Melanie laughed.  "But other than that and those Lego’s I picked up on sale a while back, we haven't gotten her anything else."

            "Well what should we get?"

            "I don't know.  I mean, she really doesn't need any more toys.  Neither of them do really… but at least the board games will help her learn stuff."

            "We could get Lauren some of those baby books."  Chris suggested.

            "Yeah, I was thinking about that.  Or a See-N-Say thing.  Remember those?  Where you pull the handle and it says 'B is for balloon' or whatever?"

            "Yeah, that'd be cool."  Chris nodded.  "It makes noise though."  He smirked as he leaned down to kiss Melanie's cheek.  "What about you?  What do you want for Christmas?"

            "Nothing."  She smiled.

            "Come on…"

            "I want to have this kid and get it over with."  She placed a hand on her tummy.  "Unfortunately, I'll have to wait till after the New Year."

            "Anything else you want?"

            "I'm not picky Chris, you know that.  I really don't need anything."  She shook her head and helped steer him toward the toddler toy aisle.  Chris let the subject drop while his mind worked overtime to try to find something perfect for Melanie for Christmas.

            They finished up shopping and got toys and little trinkets for both of the girls.  When they left Melanie sighed with content, her Christmas shopping was almost complete, she just needed to pick up little things for her sisters.

            Chris loaded everything into the car, then drove them home. He was becoming more familiar with the city and getting around on his own.  Melanie had relaxed a lot and barely batted an eye when he "forgot" things or acted like he didn't know, when he wasn't really acting.

            When they returned home they hid all of the gifts in their closet then Melanie volunteered to pick up the girls at her sister's house.  "I'll go get them, but then you have to start dinner."  Melanie smiled as she waddled back toward the garage.

            "Okay."

            "And that doesn't mean you call out for pizza.  We can't afford to get pizza all the time."

            "How about Chinese?"

            "How about you make something for dinner with your own two little hands?"  Melanie laughed as she pulled the garage door open and let it slam shut behind her.

            Chris laughed lightly as he leaned against the counter in the kitchen.  He was secretly glad for all of the home cooked meals he'd had over the past few weeks.  Out on the road they filled up on fast food and catered food, which just did not compare to the warm meals that actually felt like home.  He pulled the freezer open and got the family sized Stouffer's lasagna out then turned the oven on.  Even frozen food was better than fast food; he could at least pretend it was made from scratch.

            Chris stuck the dinner in the oven when it was heated, then sat on the couch and surfed through the channels.  He avoided MTV regardless of what time it was, the last thing he wanted to do was catch another glimpse of Justin being something other than he remembered.  If he didn't see it he could pretend, and fool himself into thinking they just weren't there.  That was easier for him to do, otherwise he spent his days doing nothing but thinking about them.

            When he was alone Chris found it a hundred times harder to keep his mind off the guys, no matter how hard he tried.  Somehow Joey's smart remarks, or JC's clumsiness, or Lance's laugh would sneak up on his when he least expected it.  Several times when he was at the grocery store he'd heard someone's voice in another aisle and swore it belonged to one of the guys, but it never did.  When the girls were around he could easily distract himself, but when he was alone he found himself wanting to get lost in the memories from before.

            Chris shut his eyes and shook his head roughly as he forced himself to concentrate on the TV in front of him.  Melanie would be home with the girls any minute and he needed to be mentally prepared for that, not still lost in the dream of being in Nsync.

            "Daddy!"  Jenny shouted as she burst through the door and ran down the hall.  "Did you get me lots of presents?!"  She asked as she jumped onto the couch beside him.

            "Hmm, I don't remember buying and presents today."  Chris smiled slowly, then grabbed her and tickled her sides.  "Have you been a good girl this year?"

            "Yes."  She giggled and tried to roll away.

            "Then maybe we did get you some presents."  Chris released her then stood up and straightened his shirt.

            "Dinner smells great."  Melanie said.  "And I don't see any take out containers."

            "Nope, it's not take out."  He laughed and walked into the kitchen to check on the dinner in the oven.  "It's just about done.  Yum, smell the garlic."

            "It smells good daddy."

            "Thanks."  Chris ran his hand over her head.  "Why don’t you get out some forks and napkins and set the table." 

            "Okay."  Jenny frowned suddenly and pulled open the drawer for the napkins.

            "So what do we get?"

            "Lasagna, garlic bread and salad.  I've gotta throw that together still."  Chris said softly.

            "I'll do that.  Here, take Lauren."  She handed the toddler over to Chris and she smiled up at him with her tiny row of teeth.

            "Hey cutie."  He bounced her on his hip and carried her over to her high hair.  "Are you ready to eat?"

            "Dadadada."

            "Yep, that's me."  Chris kissed the top of her head and smelled the baby shampoo that seemed to linger around her.  Jenny set the table while Chris fought with the high chair.  After more than a month he still couldn't quite figure out how to do it with only one hand.

            Melanie threw together a quick salad, then got the dinner out of the oven and began to get everyone’s plates ready.  Chris heaved a heavy sigh as he finally got Lauren into her seat and sat across from Jenny.  "So did you have fun over at Shannon's?"

            "Yeah."  Jenny rested her chin in her hands.

            "What did you guys do?"

            "We drawed."

            "What'd you draw?"

            "I don't know."  Jenny shrugged and pursed her lips.

            "What's up Jenny girl?"  Melanie set Jenny's plate in front of her then gently ran her hand over the little girl's hair.

            "Nothing."

            "You're being kind of quiet.  Did you have fun at Trent's house?"

            "Yeah."

            "Does your tummy hurt?"  Melanie sat across the table and gave Jenny a concerned look.

            "No."  Jenny shook her head and blew on a bite of the lasagna.

            "Ooookay."  Melanie said softly as she shrugged and ate her own dinner.  "This is really good."

            "Thanks." Chris smiled.  "Mrs. Stouffer's came over to help though."

            "Did she clean up the mess too?"

            "Yep.  We should have her over to make dinner every night."  Chris smiled and took a bite.  "I made the bread myself though."

            "You did huh?"  Melanie laughed.

            "Yep.  It's hard work taking the wrapper off and sticking it in the oven you know."  He wiped his brow dramatically and laughed.

            "I know… trust me I know."  Melanie shook her head and smiled.  "Oh Lauren honey, no.  Eat it, don't play with it."  She leaned over and used Lauren's little plastic spoon to scoot the cheese and pasta into a little pile again, ruining Lauren's full tray art project.

            "I'm done."  Jenny said softly.

            "I don't think so."

            "I ate all I can mommy."  Jenny whined.

            "Jennifer."  Melanie sighed.  "You've only taken two bites of your dinner.  You need to eat more than that."

            "I don't want to."

            "You can't live off of two bites of pasta.  Eat three more bites of your dinner and at least a bite of your bread, then you can be done."

            Jenny sighed and rolled her eyes then took a bird sized bite of her dinner.  "One."

            "That's half of one; you know how to eat like a little girl."

            "I'm not hungry."  Jenny frowned and took a full bite.

            "If she's not hungry…"  Chris started.

            "She's just being finicky."  Melanie shook her head.  "There, that's one bite, now take two more and you're home free."  She turned to Chris and lowered her voice.  "She's so tiny anyway, she needs all the calories she can get in a day.  She takes after you, you know.  My side of the family never had trouble getting the calories in."

            "I'm small boned."  Chris retorted, trying to sound offended.

            "I know sweetie, I know.  And you've passed that along to little miss Jenny.  She's all skin and bones, five bites of lasagna won't fill her up."

            "That's two."  Jenny said as she swallowed and wiped her mouth on her napkin.  "One more?"

            Melanie nodded, "And a bite of your bread."

            "Can I take my bread upstairs?"

            "If you take a bite down here first, yes." Melanie reached over to spoon a bite into Lauren's mouth.  "Come on kiddo, just eat it."

            "The bread is really good."  Chris smiled at Jenny and took a bite of his own.  "Try it."

            "I did try it." Jenny pouted and took a bite of the piece she had in her hand.  She winced as she swallowed it, then took a drink of her milk before going for her last bite of dinner.  "I'm done."

            "Okay."  Melanie sighed and looked over at Jenny's plate.  "Go on upstairs and start getting ready for bed."

            Jenny wordlessly stood up and took the garlic bread from her plate, then walked upstairs slowly.  "Is she okay?"  Chris asked.

            "She's just being moody I think.  She was fine when I picked her up from Shannon's."

            "Yeah, I saw."

            "She'll snap out of it."  Melanie shrugged.

            "You know… she got that from you." Chris smirked, then laughed as he finished his dinner.

            "Shut up."  She laughed at him and shook her head.  Lauren laughed from her chair as she grabbed a handful of lasagna and tried to feed herself.

            "You're gonna have a mess to clean up there."

            "Yep.  It's a good thing you have bath duty tonight."

            "How do you figure?"

            "Uhh…" Melanie thought for a minute.  "Whoever makes dinner bathes the kids."

            "Since when?"

            "Since forever."

            "You made dinner all week last week and I bathed them like, half the time."

            "You didn't enforce the rule."  Melanie laughed.

            "You're so full of baloney."  Chris shook his head.  "But I'll do the bathing tonight.  I'll let you do the dishes."

            "Deal."  Melanie raised her eyebrow and looked at Lauren who by then had tomato sauce in her ear.  The two girls laughed at each other as Chris sat back and watched.

            Chris nibbled on a piece of garlic bread and stared in wonder.  "How could I have ever wanted to leave this life?"  He thought to himself.

 

            Jenny stayed upstairs in her room playing quietly while they finished up dinner.  Chris carried Lauren upstairs while holding her away from his body as bits and bites of dinner fell off her legs.  "You are a mess."  Chris chuckled as they hopped up the stairs.

            "Dadada byeeee."  Lauren laughed hysterically while Chris made car sounds down the hall.  He dunked her in the kids bathroom and started the bath water before he pulled her shirt over her head.

            "You have got lasagna everywhere kiddo, really.  We should just put you in the washing machine."  Chris dropped the shirt in the sink.  "Should we put you in the washing machine with clothes?"

            "Nooooo."  Lauren shook her head.  "Dadada uppie."

            "Okay, no washing machine."  Chris took the plastic fish cup and poured water over her head as she sputtered.  "Gotta get that gack outta your ears."  He laughed as Lauren baby talked through the whole bath time.

            Fifteen minutes later Lauren was cleaned up and tomato sauce free.  Chris placed her on her changing table and covered her in baby lotion before affixing a clean diaper to her bottom and pulling her pajamas on.  "You… are… gorgeous."  Chris pulled her to her feet and kissed her cheek.  "Look at you!"  He turned her around to face the big mirror over her crib.  "Look!"

            Lauren squealed and pointed to her image.  "Dadada."

            "That's me.  That's right.  And who's that cute little baby there?  Is that you?"  Lauren just stared at her reflection and waved bye-bye.  "Aww, that baby is going bye bye."  Chris smiled as they left the room.  He took her downstairs to where Melanie was in her office getting more work done.  "Here, can you watch her for a minute?  I'm gonna go check on Jenny."

            "Did she have her bath?"

            "Lauren?"

            "Jenny."

            "Not yet."

            "You should have put them both in there."  Melanie said as Lauren toddled over to her.  She picked the baby up and sat her on her shrinking lap.

            Chris just shrugged, “That was my alone time with Lauren."  He smiled.  "I'll be right back."  He shut the door to keep Lauren from wandering away then hopped back up the stairs to Jenny's room.  "Hey kiddo."

            "Hi daddy."  Jenny sulked as she sat in her rocking chair with a book on her lap.

            "What are you up to?"

            "Reading."

            "What are you reading?"

            "Trains."

            "A book on trains?"

            "Yeah."  Jenny sighed and held the book up.

            "The little engine that could."  He read the title.  "That's one of my favorite books."

            "Me too."  She opened the book and didn't look up at Chris at all.

            "It's time for your bath Jenny girl."

            "Now?"

            "Yep.  Lauren already had hers so you get the bath all to yourself."  Chris smiled.

            "Can I have the shower on?"

            "Sure."  Chris nodded and held her door open.  "You can even use the shell soaps."

            "Okay."  She huffed as she stood up and dropped her book on the floor.  She took her time getting to the bathroom and undressing as Chris started the water again.  He pulled the lever so the water came out of the shower, then let Jenny in with the little basket of shell shaped soaps.

            Chris sat on the toilet as he let Jenny bathe herself, then leaned in to wash her hair when she was ready.  She was already so grown up that part of Chris was sad he didn't get to see her get there.  He wrapped her in a thick towel when she got out and hugged her tight.  "I need you to brush my hair."  She said softly.

            "Okay."  Chris smiled and sat back on the toilet as she got her little pink brush out of the drawer.  He took his time brushing the tangles out of her dark hair, then put the part right where he'd seen Melanie do it.  "There you go."  He patted her toosh when he was done.  "You need to go get your pajamas on now."

            "I know."  Jenny sighed and put the brush away before heading back to her room with the towel still wrapped around her.

            "And you need to snap out of your funk."  He muttered softly so she wouldn’t hear.  Chris cleaned up the bathroom then went back downstairs to rescue Melanie.

            He and Lauren spent the evening playing with her little plastic kitchen in the living room until her eyes started to droop closed and she began to yawn.  "Okay kiddo.  Time for bed."  He lifted her up and cradled her against his shoulder as he picked up the scattered toys.  On his way to the stairs he tapped on Melanie's office door, "Hey… it's getting late."

            "Oh…"  She checked the clock on her computer and shook her head.  "Yeah… I'll finish up here then I'll be up."

            "Okay."  Chris smiled and carried Lauren upstairs.  He spent almost a half hour in her room reading her three stories and singing softly as he rocked her in the big wooden rocker in her corner.  When she finally sighed and closed her eyes, Chris laid her in her crib and adjusted her blanket.

            On his way out he flipped the nightlight on and the overhead light off, then went down to Jenny's room.  "All righty Jenny girl, it's time for bed."

            "I know."  She said softly as she looked around at the stuffed animals she had spread out all over her room.  "We were having school."

            "Ahh, cool.  Were you the teacher?"

            "Yes."  She said as she began to pick up the toys.  She tossed them all into the far corner, which wasn’t where they belonged but Chris knew she wasn’t in the mood to fight about it.

            Jenny crawled under her comforter and shimmied down so that she was covered up to her chin.  She frowned up at Chris as he sat on her bed and said, “Daddy I think you have to fix me."  Over the past few weeks he'd happily taken over the night time ritual of putting the girls to bed, and secretly looked forward to it all day.

            "Fix you?  Why?  Are you broken?"  He laughed and tickled her behind her ear.

            "No I'm not broke.  But my throat is scratchy."  She crinkled her nose and put her hand on her throat.

            "Inside or outside?"  Chris asked.

            "Inside.  When I swallow and talk it hurts like this - "  She scratched her hands in the air.

            "Uh oh."  He frowned, “Open up, let me look."  She opened her mouth as wide as she could and he looked; though he didn't know what he was looking for.  "It looks a little red.  Maybe we should have mommy take you to the doctor, what do you think?"

            "Yeah."  Jenny nodded and lay back down.  "I think I need a shot."

            Chris laughed lightly, “We'll have to see about that."  He leaned over and kissed her forehead and almost unconsciously used his lips to see if her forehead was hot.  It didn't appear any warmer than usual as he sighed and said, "G'night Jenny girl."

            "Night night daddy."  Jenny yawned and rolled over onto her side as Chris closed her door halfway and made sure the hall light was on.

            Chris walked back down the hall to Lauren's room and listened outside her door for a minute before entering the master bedroom, “Hey Mel?  Jenny's not feeling too good."

            "I thought she said she was okay?  What's wrong?"

            "I don't know.  She said he throat was scratchy and it hurts when she talks or swallows."  Chris gave her a concerned look while Melanie just sighed and rolled her eyes.

            "Great, just what we need.  That poor kid has had so many sore throats this year; I'm beginning to think she's allergic to the air or something."  She frowned and maneuvered herself onto the bed.  "I just hope it's not contagious, because then Lauren will get it, then you and I will get it... then Jenny will get it again.  Ugh... it's a neverending cycle."

            "This happens all the time?"  He asked with a worried look.

            "Every year at least three times a year."  She grumbled and fluffed her pillow beneath her head.  "I'll call Dr. Lee tomorrow and make an appointment to get them both checked out."

            "Okay."

            "Does she have a fever?"

            Chris shook his head, “I didn't take her temperature but she didn't feel warm."

            "Good, then maybe it's nothing."  Melanie reached to turn off her light and waited for Chris to turn his out as well.  "I hope she's not sick honey, that would really be a lousy way for her to start winter break."

            "Yeah."  Chris nodded and turned on his side to kiss her goodnight, letting his hand fall across her round stomach.  "G'night girls."  He whispered softly with a light laugh.

            Melanie laughed too, making her stomach tighten and twitch as baby Kathryn gave a soft kick and turn from inside.  "Good night."  She whispered.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

            Chris went to work early the next morning and didn't get a chance to see Jenny when she woke up.  Melanie was there though, and discovered that Jenny had a fever and was more irritable than usual.  She kept Jenny home from school and called the doctor as soon as the clinic opened.  Dr. Lee agreed that he wanted to take a look at both Jenny and Lauren before they were sent back to school or daycare since strep throat was going around.

            "Jenny, honey please eat something."

            "No mommy."  Jenny pouted as she huffed in her chair at the table.

            "Just take a few bites of your oatmeal.  It's warm and soft and it won't hurt your throat."  Melanie spooned a bite into Lauren's wide open mouth as she tried to convince Jenny.

            "It does too hurt."  Jenny pushed her bowl away and drank what was left of her apple juice before leaving the table.

            "Well we're going to the doctor's in about an hour, so hopefully he can make it feel better.  Will you pretty please, with sugar on top, just take a few bites though?"

            "No it hurts mommy."  Jenny flopped down on the couch and pulled Lauren's little blanket over her legs.  She rested her head on the throw pillow and sighed deeply.

            "Okay."  Melanie sighed and fed Lauren more of her breakfast.  "You'll eat Jenny's oatmeal, won't you?  You're my little dump truck."  She laughed lightly while Lauren tried to shove a bite of orange in her mouth around the oatmeal.  "And attractive too."  Melanie added with a smile.

            "Don't laugh at me."  Jenny scowled.

            "I'm not laughing at you."  Melanie shook her head.

            "Yes you are."  Jenny's voice shook.

            "Jenny, I'm not laughing at you.  Why would I laugh at you?"

            "Because you're mean."

            Melanie sighed and placed another orange slice on Lauren's tray before standing up to go over to the couch.  She sat by Jenny's feet and placed her hand on her daughter's leg.  "What's wrong kiddo?  You're being grouchy today."

            "You are."

            "Honey, I just want you to eat something so you don't get sick."

            "I'm sick already."

            "I know, but I don't want you to get sicker."

            "I just think I need a shot."

            "I don't think you need a shot."  Melanie shook her head.  "But when we go see Dr. Lee he can tell us what you need."

            "I just need a shot mommy."

            "We'll see."  Melanie leaned over and kissed Jenny's warm forehead.  "If I bring you a granola bar will you eat that for me?"  Jenny nodded slowly and looked up at her mom.  "Okay.  Thank you honey."

            "You're welcome."  Jenny said softly.

            Melanie brought her the granola bar, then took Lauren upstairs to get dressed.  The toddler had way too much energy and didn't act sick at all.  Melanie hoped that whatever Jenny got she wouldn't pass it on to everyone else, because being pregnant complicated things enough as it was, she didn't ant to imagine taking care of a whole sick family.

            When she walked back downstairs with Lauren dressed in little purple overalls, Jenny was asleep on the couch with half of the granola bar eaten.  "Close enough."  Melanie whispered as she set Lauren down by her toys and went to Jenny.  "Jenny?  Jenny honey, we need to get you dressed."  She sat by Jenny's feet again and gently shook her toes.

            "Now?"

            "Yep.  We need to get ready to go to the doctor's office."

            "Can I wear my jammies?"

            "I'd rather you went upstairs and put on your sweats that I laid out for you on your bed."  Melanie sighed softly.

            "Mommy…"  Jenny whined.

            "Come on, you can do it."  She pulled Jenny into a sitting position and smiled.  "Come on… let’s go.  Maybe on the way home we can rent a movie to watch this afternoon."

            "Okay."  Jenny grumbled as she stood up and made her way slowly to the stairs.

            "Thank you sweetie."  Melanie said softly as she watched her go.  She wasn't looking forward to going to the doctors.  Jenny was definitely sick and two weeks of a sick family was a sure fire way to kill the holidays.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

            Just after lunch Chris sat at his desk going over paperwork, checking for accuracy and logging the information into the computer.  The phone beside him rang, so without even looking he picked it up and dropped it onto his shoulder.  "Hi this is Chris."

            "Chris, Jenny needs to have her tonsils out."  Melanie sighed into the phone.

            "What?"  He stopped typing and set his papers aside.

            "She had a fever when she woke up this morning so I took her in and her tonsils are all swollen and infected."  Melanie sniffed as she lowered her voice.

            "When?  When are they going to do it?"

            "They want to do the surgery tomorrow."  Her voice cracked slightly, “They'll have to keep her overnight."

            "We can stay with her right?"  Chris asked as he looked at his weekly calendar.

            "Yeah, one parent can."  Melanie sniffed.  "But with Lauren and… and me being so huge and pregnant, I just can't."

            "Don't worry about it babe, I'll stay.  How are you doing though?  You sound a mess."

            "I am."  She sniffed again and wiped at her nose with a kleenex.  "Our baby has to have surgery, that's just really scary."

            "I know it is Mel.  But I had my tonsils out when I was a kid, it's a breeze."  Chris tried to sound reassuring while his own palms began to sweat.  "Are you okay though?  Do you want me to come home?"

            "No, I'll be okay."  She tried to smile.

            "How's Jenny now?  Does she know?"

            "She's okay.  She's on the couch watching Beauty and the Beast."  She laughed lightly as she wiped her eyes.  "Jenny's fine about it I'm the one turning into a puddle of tears."

            "Just like any mom would."  Chris smiled.  "Listen, I'll try to get out of here early tonight.  I'll swing by and get some dinner and some frozen yogurt for dessert, okay?"

            "Yeah."  Melanie nodded.

            "Okay… are you sure you're okay?"

            "I'm fine.  I'm gonna call my mom though.  With all these hormones and everything I'm just an emotional mess.  She'll put up with me… you can go back to work."

            "Okay babe, give Jenny a big hug for me okay?  I love you."

            "I love you too." Her voice cracked as she sniffed again.  "Bye."

            "Bye."  Chris said softly with a smile.  He scared himself at how used to Melanie he was.  In such a short time her emotional jags were something he grew to expect and even handle well.  He picked up his phone and called his own mom to let her know about Jenny.  She was appropriately concerned but reminded him that he'd had his out as well.  "And technology has come a long way since then."  Bev smiled.

            "Yeah, I'm not too worried."

            "How's Melanie doing?"

            "She's a mess."  Chris laughed nervously.  "Her baby is going in for surgery."

            "I'm sure she is."  His mom smiled.  "I went with you and stayed the night.  You were all upset because you couldn't have shredded wheat for breakfast the next morning."

            "I don't even like shredded wheat."

            "You used to."  Bev laughed softly.  "Is Melanie going to stay the night at the hospital with her?"

            "No, I am."

            "You are?"  She asked with a hint of surprise.  "Well that's great; she's a little daddy's girl anyway.  I'm sure she'll be thrilled."

            "We don't really have a choice.  Melanie doesn't sleep that great anyway because of the baby, so…"

            "True."

            "So I'm going to stay.  It'll just be easier with Lauren and everything."

            "I understand."  Bev nodded.

            "Okay, well I've gotta go let Eddie know I won't be here for a couple days again.  He should love that, I mean I just got back off vacation like two weeks ago."

            "He'll understand, he's a father too."

            "Yeah but still.  I feel like a tool."

            "Chris."  The motherly tone translated well over the phone line.

            "You know what I mean." He sighed.  "I'll give you a call tomorrow before we go in."

            "Okay, give her a big hug for me.  I'll try to call later this evening when Melanie's had a chance to get used to the idea."

            "Thanks mom."

            "No problem hun.  Love ya."

            "Love you too."  Chris smiled and hung up the phone.  He took a deep breath and looked around his office.  In the few weeks he'd been there, he'd already grown accustomed to the flow of traffic around the office.  The phones out front rang almost constantly, and people actually got through to him occasionally.  He did a lot of data input into the computer, and made himself useful by working with the video coordinator on editing their newest video on teenage self-esteem.  Being back in a studio, even if it was a video studio, still felt familiar to Chris and he found himself right at home among the slides and monitors.

            Chris smiled at the family portrait taken before he remembered, then stood up and headed down to Eddie's office two doors down.  He tapped on Eddie's open door and poked his head in, “Hey."

            "Hey Chris, come on in."  Eddie smiled and set his calculator aside.  "What's up?"

            "I uh… Mel just called.  Jenny has to have her tonsils out tomorrow so I'm not gonna be in for a day or two."  Chris said as he leaned on the doorframe.

            "Is she okay?"

            "Yeah."  Chris nodded.  "She'll be fine, it's just her tonsils.  But Melanie can't stay the night at the hospital, so I'm gonna stay with her.  I don’t know what time tomorrow they're going to do the surgery but they want to keep her overnight."

            "How's Melanie?"

            Chris let a little smile slip out, “She's in tears, of course."

            "I'll have Liz give her a call."  Eddie laughed.

            "Yeah."

            "Well hey, don't worry about it.  You don't report to me, so do what you've gotta do."  Eddie waved his hand through the air.  "Just take care of the kidlet; I know how scary that can be."  Chris nodded and lowered his eyes.  "Molly had hers out last year, remember?"

            "I uh…"  Chris shrugged and blushed slightly.

            "Oh yeah."  Eddie bit his lip.  "Well Molly had hers out last year and she was bouncing off the walls the next day practically."

            Chris nodded and tapped the door frame. "Okay."  He said softly as he looked at the muted blue carpet.

            "She'll be fine."

            "Yeah."  Chris forced a smile and sighed.  "So anyway, I wanted to let you know I wouldn't be here for the next two days.  Just… you know… so you'd know."

            "Thanks."  Eddie smiled and reached for the phone.  "I'll call Liz right now and have her call Mel."

            "Thanks."  Chris raised his hand in a half wave, then went back down the hall to his own office to worry in private.

 

 

 

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Copyright 2002, Amy Lynn