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the choices we make

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It was just like any other investigation; there really wasn’t anything special about it. In fact, it was almost remarkable for how uneventful it was. They hadn’t gotten any interesting EVPs, no weird unexplainable noises, and the spirit box didn’t produce any results (not even any like ‘spaghetti’ or apple tater’). It was honestly incredibly boring and if they had been at some gross old location, Ryan’s sure he would have complained.

They were hiking around a mountain range in New Mexico where, in the 1600s, hundreds of Native Americans had been slaughtered.  Ryan had done lots of research and there were so many types of weird occurrences in the area that Ryan didn’t know what to think. There were typical ghost sightings and things of that nature, but there were also accounts of people being possessed or shown visions. People who lived nearby commonly reported having incredibly weird dreams, including prophetic ones.

Ryan thought it was going to be nerve wracking the whole time they were there. He had prepared himself for being creeped out and feeling watched. He wore really old, gross shoes that were comfortable so if he needed to run from something, he could. However, when they got on the mountain, Ryan didn’t feel the slightest bit weird. It was just gorgeous.

Even Shane couldn’t really complain about the location (though he did complain about the amount of hiking they did) because it was so nice. They set up a tent in what was supposedly one of the most active areas, and for once Ryan didn’t feel that unsettled by the idea of sleeping in a haunted location. In fact, as they were sitting around the bonfire talking about random work stuff, Ryan even forgot for a moment that he was at a haunted location, and not just on a camping trip with friends. For the first time on location, he slept through the night.

As they were packing their gear up in the morning, Ryan had the sensation of being watched. Not in a negative way, just in a peaceful, longing sort of way, like when you’re watching someone you care about drive off and you don’t want to look away even when you can’t see them anymore. It was a sweet farewell.

It wasn’t until they got to the airport that Ryan started to feel weird. With all the reports from this location, Ryan couldn’t help the suspicion that was seeping into him as they all boarded their plane home to LA. He just felt unsettled, not in a supernatural way like he had after the Sallie house (he specifically remembers feeling off for weeks after), but in a completely mundane way. The uneasiness was coming solely from his own anxiety because of how calm everything had been. With how many accounts had turned up in his research, it was incredibly odd that nothing had happened to them. Ryan hadn’t had any freak outs but they had a lot of fun on the mountain. The investigation went so smoothly that Ryan would normally feel like he had to act a bit more scared to pad the runtime, but he knew the episode would be good even though there was no evidence. Everything just seemed to be going too well and Ryan couldn’t shake the feeling of something else looming.

&

As Ryan starts to wake he can immediately tell something is wrong. Maybe not wrong exactly, but definitely different, and in his anxiety-prone brain that always gets turned into a negative.

Most obviously, he’s not alone in bed. He can feel someone in the bed behind him, warming him, their arm around his waist. Ryan can feel their breath on his neck and it gives him goosebumps. He hasn’t been in a relationship for months now, so any other time he would love to sink into this person’s arms, except that he doesn’t know who it is. He can’t remember picking anyone up last night. He can’t even remember going out last night. Could he have really gotten that drunk?

He retraces his steps. Ryan remembers landing at LAX, being disproportionately jetlagged considering he actually slept well the night before and there was only an hour time difference. He had called an uber, said goodbye to the crew and gone home. His roommates had welcomed him back, but he had just gone straight to his room and passed out.

Ryan is working himself into an anxiety attack thinking about how he got himself into this situation when the body behind him groans quietly and pulls Ryan in closer. The noise obviously comes from a man, and Ryan thinks he must have been really drunk last night. Except he doesn’t feel hungover. There’s always the possibility it was one of his roommates who had gotten really drunk and gone into the wrong room. That hadn’t happened to Ryan before, but the guys had some similar stories from before he moved in.

Ryan finally opens his eyes for the first time, braving the sunlight he knew would assault him.

He’s in a room he doesn’t recognize at all, and yeah he’s having a full blown anxiety attack now. His eyes dart around wildly, but his body goes rigid. There’s a window right in front of him, which he already knows isn’t the right layout for his room. Ryan can tell the walls have photo frames all over them, though he can’t see what the photos are. Suddenly the most important thing to him is getting away from whoever it is whose house he’s in, probably some creep , his brain supplies, since he can’t remember anything but doesn’t feel hungover, so the likely scenario would be that he was drugged. He takes a deep breath and then holds it, as if that’s going to prevent the person behind him from waking up.

He finally lifts the sheet and looks down at the arm which is still curled around him. It’s pale and thin, coated sparsely with light colored hair. He grabs ahold of it gently, lifting it up and then quickly sitting up and setting the arm back down where Ryan had just been laying.

He finally turns to look at the face of the person he’d been sleeping beside, and the wave of emotions that runs through him makes him sit there frozen for a few moments. First, he feels intense relief, because it’s just Shane. Then, he feels shock because it’s Shane and why would he be in bed with Shane. Still, most of his anxiety is alleviated knowing that it’s his friend he was in bed with, and not someone who might have taken advantage of him.

Ryan glances around then spots his glasses on the bedside table. He puts them on and takes a closer look around the room, and that’s when things start to really get weird. Even though Ryan hasn’t seen Shane’s bedroom many times, he knows this isn’t it. What’s weirder is that Ryan spots some of his own things around the room. His sneaker rack, with all his favorite pairs, his guitar in the corner, but then he sees some things that he’s pretty sure are Shane’s.

He stands up, trying not to wake Shane more out of courtesy than anxiety. His anxiety is starting to overwhelm him again, though. Ryan moves closer to the photos on the wall, and when he sees them clearly he can’t stop himself from saying “What the fuck!? ” aloud. It’s not as loud as his normal voice, but it’s louder than a whisper and he can hear Shane start to move in the bed. He doesn’t know whether to scream or laugh or cry and when Shane’s eyes flit open, Ryan’s sure he looks like a mess.

“Ryan?” Shane grumbles, sitting up in bed. “What are you doing here?” Shane looks around and spots his own glasses on his bedside table. He puts them on and his eyes move around the room. He cocks his head to the side as his eyes find their way back to Ryan. “Where is here?” he asks with soft curiosity, obviously not all the perturbed by their situation.

Ryan’s sure his expression hasn’t changed from one of shock and disbelief since he saw the photos. He rubs his face, trying to clear his head. Something makes a noise against his glasses and then he looks down at his hand. There on his left hand ring finger, is a ring. He looks from his hand back up to the photos, and his brain just gives up trying to understand and he starts laughing.

“This is a dream, right?” Ryan says, the shrillness of his voice nearly reaching haunted-demon-location levels. “Or an elaborate prank. Where are the cameras? Guys, come out, I figured it out!”

“What are you talking about?” Shane asks, genuinely confused by what Ryan is saying. “Where are we?”

Shane still doesn’t look too bothered by any of it, he just goes about stretching like he probably would at home. When he stretches his (insanely long) arms in front of him, something on Shane’s hand catches the sun. Ryan looks closer and yep, it’s a ring, on Shane’s left hand ring finger, just like his own.

“I don’t know where we are!” Ryan says, raising his voice for the first time. “I just woke up next to you in this random ass room, which is full of our shit, and there are photoshopped pictures of what’s apparently our wedding on the wall and we’re both wearing rings!” Ryan sticks his hand out for Shane to see, and Shane looks down at his own hand where there is, indeed, a ring. “So either this is a crazy lucid nightmare or it’s an elaborate prank that’s definitely being filmed so--” Ryan is cut off by a loud scream.

Shane and Ryan look at each other, both equally confused now. Their attention shoots to the door as the scream turns into what’s easily identifiable as a baby’s cry, and then Shane is up and Ryan is opening the door because what the fuck .

“Did you look at the rest of this place yet?” Shane asks as he follows Ryan into the hallway. Ryan shakes his head, opening every door as he goes by, trying to find the source of the crying. The first door leads to what looks like a weird amalgamation of their unsolved sets, the second door has a stacked laundry set behind it, the third door is a bathroom, and the last door which is slightly ajar leads to what is obviously a nursery, where there’s a baby sitting in a crib, crying.

“Whose baby is this?” Shane says to no one in particular (though he hopes there is someone listening on hidden cameras because this is getting weird), bolting forward and picking up the child, who instantly stops crying. It snuggles into his chest. “dadadadadada” it mumbles while chewing on its pacifier.

Ryan takes a moment to look around the nursery. His eyes stop on a photo frame which is sitting on the dresser. The photo in it makes Ryan feel a way he can’t quite put his finger on, but he refuses to consider that.

“This is the shit I’m talking about, “ Ryan sighs, grabbing the photo and bringing it towards Shane.

He studies it closely. It’s a close-up of Shane and Ryan each kissing a cheek of the baby, who is grinning at the camera. “That’s…” Shane starts, glancing at the baby in his arms, “really well doctored.”

Now that the chaos and confusion has died down (though there still is a great deal of confusion), they’re confronted with the fact that they are actually in the possession of a baby, and they’re the only ones who are there to take care of it.

“Really though, whose baby is this?” Shane says, looking down at the child. Shane’s relieved it  still seems comfortable in his arms.

“I don’t know. There are only a few people from the office who have babies, and this one doesn’t look like any of them.”

“Who would volunteer their baby for a prank like this?”

No one would trust us with a baby.” Ryan laughs.

The baby looks up at Ryan and reaches its arms out to him saying “babababa.” Ryan can’t help but smile. He takes the child from Shane’s arms and holds it close.

“What should we do with it?” Ryan asks, not looking away from the kid’s big brown eyes.

“Have you changed a diaper before?” Shane scratches his head, still shaking off some remnants of sleep.

Ryan nods, “Yeah, big family remember?”

“So you do that, and I’ll check this place out and find our phones so we can call someone and figure out what the fuck is going on.” Shane smiles and leaves the room quickly.

Ryan thinks that's odd given how relaxed he’s been all morning, but then Ryan is hit by the distinct smell of shit. He groans. “You asshole!” he yells out the door, and he can hear Shane laughing. He’s worried for a moment because he just yelled right by the baby but it doesn’t seem to care as it’s still just chewing on its pacifier.

Ryan makes his way to the changing table and finds everything exactly where he expects it to be. Not just in a ‘this is really well organized’ way, but in a ‘every time I need something it’s always in the first place I look’ way. It’s odd, but Ryan doesn’t think too much of it.

The baby doesn’t seem to care at all that Ryan is undressing it, even though he struggles to figure out how to take all the layers off. The baby (it’s a girl, he discovers) just lays there and let’s him clean her up, mumbling to herself the whole time. Ryan feels like he should say something back to her but he has no idea what people normally even say to a baby.

Shane returns just as Ryan is buttoning up her onesie, and for the first time all day he seems genuinely bothered. “Whoever is pranking us fucked with our phones too.” Shane says, handing Ryan’s to him.

Ryan doesn’t look at his phone right away, instead he picks up the little girl and says “let’s go sit down for a minute” and Ryan’s not sure if he’s saying it to Shane or the baby.

They head out into a part of the house they haven’t seen yet, the living room and kitchen. It’s a wide open space, but clean and well laid out. Shane sits in a recliner which Ryan thinks he recognizes from Shane’s apartment. Ryan puts the baby on the carpet in the living room where she’s surrounded by baby toys, and sits down next to her. She occupies herself playing with a crinkly fabric book and Ryan pulls out his phone.

He immediately sees what Shane meant. While the outside of his phone is the same, the lock screen is the same picture from the nursery. He unlocks it with his thumb print, and the wallpaper is another really well photoshopped photo of the 3 of them, but this one looks like a selfie where Shane’s behind Ryan with his head is resting on Ryan’s shoulder, and Ryan is holding the baby, though she looks a lot younger than she is now.

Shane is looking at his phone with increasing confusion and then says “ Fuck , look at Instagram.”

Ryan does, and he sees what Shane’s freaking out about. Almost every photo has him and Shane, or him and the baby girl, or all three of them. There are still a few ‘normal’ Ryan photos - selfies and photos with friends - but not many. As he scrolls down he sees the baby getting younger and younger, until he finds the first photo she was in. It’s dated December 23, 2017 (which, how the fuck do you ante-date an Instagram post?) and it’s the same picture from his phone wallpaper. The caption reads “Best Christmas present ever! It’s been a long journey to get here but it’s finally official! Meet our daughter, Charlotte. We’ve already agreed to call her Charlie. She’s about 2 months old. We’ll post a video about everything in the new year. Happy holidays!!!!”

“Her name is Charlie” Ryan says, and she seems to respond to her name because she starts grabbing at Ryan’s knee and saying “babababa” again.  

“Bottle? Is that what you want?” Ryan asks, picking her up and then struggling to get up one handed.

He makes his way into the kitchen. Whoever set the house up obviously knew there was going to be a baby because there are bottles in a drying rack next to the sink. Ryan grabs one and then realizes it will be nearly impossible to do anything while holding Charlie. “Hey Shane can you come take her for a minute?”

Shane doesn’t say anything, but he gets up and takes Charlie from Ryan. Ryan can’t read the look on Shane’s face, but he doesn’t have time to put much thought into it because as soon as Charlie sees Ryan holding a bottle - albeit empty - she starts crying.

“Okay, okay baby, I’m getting it. Just a second.” Ryan slips into his baby voice that is normally just reserved for dogs. He knows he needs formula and he doesn’t even have to think about where it might be; he just opens the cupboard and there it is. Just like in the nursery, it’s almost as if he knows where everything is already, even though he’s sure he’s never been here before.

He quickly reads the instructions and looks at the age chart and does the math that if she was 2 months in December that would make her 8 or 9 months now. He puts the powder and water in the bottle and then shakes it. He realizes his mistake a beat too late as formula starts spraying all over the kitchen.

“Fuck,” he sighs, then just continues to shake the bottle over the sink. Shane laughs at him, and Charlie isn’t crying anymore as much as whining. Finally he gives the bottle to Charlie and motions for Shane to hold it for her.

He slowly makes his way over to the couch to sit down.

Ryan opens a drawer and, yet again, finds exactly what he’s looking for, which in this case is towels so he can clean up all the formula.

“This is really weird.” Ryan says, partially about how easy it is to find things, but also about the entire situation in general.

“I don’t know how anyone could pull a prank this elaborate in one night.” Shane says, “The stuff on the walls, the recliner, a lot of this stuff is from my apartment, where I just was .” He pauses, thinking. “Did you see how many followers you have on instagram?”

Ryan shakes his head, but pulls out his phone. “Holy shit.” He breathes out when he sees that he has just over a million followers. “That’s nearly... 4 times as much.”

Shane opens his mouth as if to say something, and then in the distance they hear a train. Ryan doesn’t think anything of it, but Shane’s eyes go wide. Shane stands up, still holding Charlie and her bottle, and goes to the window in the living room. He nudges the curtains to the side and for the first time all day they look outside.

“I think... “ Shane doesn’t complete his thought, just walks to their bedroom on the other side of the house and looks out that window, which is pointed a different direction. “We’re in Chicago.” Shane says, completely sure.

“What?!” Ryan squeaks. He looks out the window and sees water, which wouldn’t rule out them being in LA, except the coastline is completely different and in the distance Ryan can make out a skyline that looks nothing like LA.

“I don’t think this is a prank.” Shane says grimly.

Chapter Text

“They couldn’t have gotten us to Chicago without us knowing, so it’s not a prank, but if it’s not a prank then what the fuck is going on?” Ryan thinks out loud. His tone is more curious than panicked and Ryan realizes he’s not as distressed as he probably should be.

Charlie pushes the bottle away and starts babbling at them, and her timing is perfect to lighten the mood.

“Oh really? Is that your theory?” Shane slips into a baby voice that sounds strange coming from him, but it’s also incredibly endearing. “You take after Ryan then, don’t you?” Shane starts walking back towards the living room and Ryan follows.

Charlie is happy to sit on Ryan’s lap and entertain herself with a toy now that all her needs are met, so they finally get a chance to start analyzing what’s going on. Without intending to they’ve already made Charlie the priority so even though they keep trying to figure it out, they’re interrupted by the baby every time.

They turn on the morning news to make sure the entire world hasn’t gone to shit, and it seems that everything is the same, except for them. They have their phones out, checking all their social media accounts to see exactly what in their lives has changed.

Ryan opens maps just for fun, and yeah, they’re in Chicago.

Shane is on facebook and Ryan sees him on Sara’s profile. He’s suddenly struck with how agonizing this must be for Shane.

“So Sara..” Ryan starts, not sure how to bring it up.

“Doesn’t know who I am,” Shane laughs a bit harshly. “We were coworkers, back when we were at buzzfeed, but then you and I left so apparently I haven’t seen or spoken to her in over a year.”

“Wait… we left Buzzfeed?”

Shane shrugs “Didn’t you look at youtube? We have our own channel and one of the videos is actually titled ‘why we left Buzzfeed’. I couldn’t watch. Photoshopped pictures are one thing but if I play a video and it’s really me but it never happened I might actually lose my shit.”

Ryan takes his focus away from his phone to look at Shane and for the first time he sees how agitated Shane is. This morning it had been the opposite, but focusing on Charlie had calmed Ryan down. As Ryan had relaxed, however, Shane had just become more and more freaked out and at this point he almost looks like Ryan at a demonic location.

“I know it’s weird that for some reason in this…” Ryan doesn’t know what to call it, “ here ,  we’re married with a kid and everything but--” Ryan had been so careful not to mention their apparent marriage after this morning because that’s a whole can of worms that he really doesn’t want to open but Shane interrupts him, shaking his head.

“It’s not that, although that part is certainly weird, but I’m more focused on the fact that this… wherever we are, there are no flaws. If it’s manufactured or contrived, it’s more well done than any sci-fi movie has ever portrayed a virtual or alternate reality. There are no cracks. If this was a prank, people would be confused and commenting on our instagrams, our family would be texting us, but none of that is happening. And no prank is well thought-out enough to prevent that.” Shane takes a breath and a moment to think. He continues, “Despite the fact that everything is different, nothing is out of place. My passwords are all the same. My glasses were in the same place I always leave them. This house,” he looks around, eyes settling on Charlie, “is full of your stuff and my stuff and baby stuff. It one hundred percent looks like we live here with a baby. But if that’s the case,” Shane looks at Ryan now, “Wherever we are is something not... normal.” Shane struggles through the last two words, and it takes a minute for Ryan to fully realize what Shane is saying. Despite their current circumstances, Ryan can’t help grinning.

“One might even say it’s” Ryan pauses for dramatic effect, “supernatural.”

“One might.” Shane says, and Ryan takes the win.

He doesn’t push it, letting Shane go back to scouring the internet for inconsistencies.  Ryan sits on the floor and goes to sit Charlie down next to him, but she refuses to bend her knees. Ryan keeps a good grip on her but lets her try to support some of her weight with her legs. He relaxes his hands around her more and more until eventually he’s not holding any of her weight, he’s just keeping her from tipping over. “Holy shit,” he says. He turns to look at Shane who’s watching with eyes wide.

“Charlie! You’re so strong!” Shane says.

Just a second later her legs give out and Ryan sets her down normally. “Just a little more practice and you’ll be walking in no time” Ryan says, kissing the top of her head.

The three of them sit in relative silence for a while; the news is still on and Charlie is strangely enthralled by the talking heads. Every once in a while she’ll start babbling and Ryan responds as if what she’s saying is the most interesting thing he’s ever heard. It earns him plenty of smiles.

She tries reaching for far away toys, and though she gets on her hands and knees, it doesn’t seem like she can crawl. Ryan inches the toys towards her slowly until she almost tries to crawl, but she ends up getting too frustrated and just sits back down with a huff. Ryan grabs the toy for her and then lays on his stomach next to her. Ryan finds her fascination with the most mundane things captivating.  

Ryan doesn’t know how long he lays there, his attention shifting between Charlie, his phone, and the tv. He’s amazed at how smoothly everything is going, considering he’s never spent this much time with an infant in his life.

Shane’s phone rings, startling all of them. “It’s my mom” Shane says, and then answers it.

They’re still sitting close enough that Ryan can hear everything Shane’s mom says. It’s not the type of conversation someone has with a family member they rarely see; it’s a quick back and forth that makes it obvious that Shane’s mom is up to date on their lives.

“You never texted me back about if you’re coming to brunch today.” Sherry says in a hurry. “We were planning on going early so you guys can get Charlie home in time for her nap.”

Shane flounders for a moment because he has no idea when Charlie is supposed to nap or that there had ever been brunch plans. “Yeah we’ve uh… we’ve had a pretty strange morning sorry.”

“Well that’s okay honey. We can skip this week if you like.”

“No!” Shane says a bit too eager, and Ryan look at him, questioning. “We wanna come but we’ll need some time.” Ryan angles his phone towards Shane to show him it’s almost 9am. Ryan can’t quite believe it’s still so early. It feels like he’s already been awake for 12 hours.

“How does noon sound? That way Charlie can nap first and she won’t be as cranky as last week.” Sherry chuckles at some memory they are supposed to be sharing.

“Sounds good. Text me where we’re supposed to meet?” Shane asks.

“It’s the same place as always, dear. Are you feeling alright?”

Shane makes a face that Ryan can’t read. “Yeah like I said just a weird day.”

Sherry makes a noise of agreement. “I know Charlie is getting to that age where she’s becoming a little harder to handle. And you guys have so much going on. I know you’ve always refused in the past but your father and I are here to help make life easier whenever we can. Just say the word.”

“Thanks mom, see you later.” Shane says, and hangs up. “Shit that was weird. Should I not have agreed to go?”

Ryan shakes his head, “It’s fine.” Then he thinks about it, “But why are we going?”

Shane shrugs, “Why not? I haven’t seen my parents in months.”

“We don’t know what’s going on at all, in general or in these lives we’re supposed to be living.”

“So it’ll be like improv, which is fun. Plus we can look for glitches in the matrix. Maybe find ourselves a way out of here.” Shane stands up and stretches.

From Ryan’s perspective on the floor, Shane looks even more gargantuan than normal. His shirt rides up and Ryan gets a view of his belly button and the thin trail of hair leading down to -- nope. Ryan stops that train of thought immediately.

Shane continues, “but that’s over 3 hours from now and I need to feed the beast before then. Let’s see what this fridge has to offer.”

Charlie has been occupying herself so well that Ryan feels slightly like he’s neglecting her even though she seems content.  She’s on her hands and knees again, rocking back and forth trying to get herself to crawl but she can’t quite do it yet. Ryan props himself up to copy her pose.

“You’re doing so good Charlie,” Ryan says, trying to be as enthusiastic as he can. “You almost got it!” Ryan crawls on his hands and knees as if she’ll learn by example. She finally lifts one of her hands trying to copy Ryan, but then she tips forward onto her head.

She instantly starts crying. Ryan knows she’s probably okay, she barely fell 2 inches, but he feels terrible. He picks her up and hugs her as fast as he can and cuddles her to his chest. He makes sure to keep his voice calm and says, “you’re okay baby. I know that scared you but you’re gonna be fine.” He leans back to look at her and her forehead isn’t even red where she bumped it. She’s still wailing, mouth wide open and Ryan notices little white things in her mouth.

“Seriously I leave you for 5 seconds” Shane starts as he comes back towards Ryan. Charlie is quieting down a little, burying her face into Ryan’s shirt.

“Dude, she’s got teeth.” Ryan says.

Shane is genuinely surprised by that. “She’s a baby how does she have teeth.”

Ryan shrugs.

“I found this on the fridge.” Shane says, holding a piece of paper out for Ryan to see. “Good thing you’re so anal or we’d be totally lost.”

It’s a piece of paper with a daily schedule written on it, listing times for when Charlie is supposed to nap and eat. At 9 is listed ‘snack - puree/oatmeal/puffs/soft foods’ and 9:30 is when she’s supposed to go down for a nap. It’s definitely written in Ryan’s handwriting.

“Shit, we need to feed her again” Ryan looks at Charlie, who’s now chewing on her fingers. “Isn’t that right?” he asks, to which Charlie responds with her nonsensical babbling.

Shane puts his arms out to take her, and Ryan hands her off so he can stand up. Shane lifts her high into the air and makes plane noises and she starts laughing like it’s the funniest thing ever. It’s the first time they’ve heard her laugh and while Ryan is slightly jealous that Shane is the one who got her to do it, he can’t deny how much it warms his heart.

While Shane is playing with her, Ryan tries to find food for her in the kitchen and yet again it’s like he knows exactly where everything is. In the same cupboard as the formula he finds all different types of pureed foods, different types of teething snacks, oatmeal mix, and bibs. It’s like he organized it all himself. Because you did. Just a different you . His mind says, and he shakes it off.

“Do we have a highchair?” Ryan asks, turning around to see the little dining table in the corner of the kitchen which does, in fact, have a highchair situated next to it. “Go ahead and put her in it.” Ryan says, grabbing various things and bringing them over to the table. Since she has been so interested in chewing on everything all morning, Ryan decides to give her some puffs and something called a teething wafer. It’s so weird to see such a small human crunching on things.

“Are you sure you’re not supposed to break that apart?” Shane says, eyeing the large wafer in Charlie’s hand.

“I don’t think so,” Ryan says, then breaks off a piece of one and tries it. He shrugs, “It just dissolves.”

“You sit with her while I get some food for the grown ups.” Shane says, peering into the fridge. “We have eggs, sandwich stuff, what looks like leftover chinese but who knows how old that is, lots of vegetables, fruit…”

“Coffee?” Ryan asks

“I started a pot before. Should be ready any minute.”

Ryan just nods. Charlie holds out her snack for Ryan and he pretends to take a bite. “Thank you for sharing! You’re such a good girl.” He can’t help using his cheery baby voice. She just looks so happy whenever he does. Ryan turns to Shane “Just make extra of whatever you want. You know I’m like a vacuum.”

Shane pulls a bunch of things out of the fridge. He starts to work on veggie omelettes (something Ryan knows he’d probably never make for himself) and Ryan is struck by how incredibly strange this all is. So he says so.

“This is really weird, isn’t it?”

“You know…” Shane stops pushing the omelette around the pan, lifting his spatula like he’s about to say something really important. He waits a beat too long and then just says, “Yeah. Pretty fucking weird.” And shakes his head.

Ryan bursts into laughter, partially because of Shane and partially because of the ridiculousness of everything, and he can’t help it, he wheezes. Charlie starts laughing along with him and Ryan is pained by how incredibly sweet it all is.

By the time they all finish eating it’s 9:30 and that means nap time. When Shane takes Charlie out of the high chair she immediately lays her head on his shoulder and relaxes into him.

“So I just put her in her crib?” Shane asks, quietly.

“Change her diaper, turn out the light, and then just put her down, I think?” They look at each other both equally clueless. “Oh and this” Ryan says, grabbing her pacifier out of the living room. She immediately sticks it in her mouth.

Shane doesn’t ask for any help, just goes into the nursery and comes out a few minutes later. Charlie is whining, not quite crying but making enough noise that it’s a little worrying.

“Do we just let her cry?” Ryan asks, peeking in and seeing Charlie laying down.

“Give it 10 minutes?” Shane proposes, and sure enough, only a few minutes later Charlie is sound asleep.

They both plop down on the couch, weirdly exhausted.

It’s all incredibly absurd. Yesterday they lived (separately) in LA, and neither had so much as a pet. Now here they are, with a baby in their care, and everyone in their lives is under the impression that they’re married with an adopted daughter. Even if they wanted to report what was going on to some sort of authority, they’d have no idea what to say without sounding insane.

“Who did we trick into giving us a baby?” Ryan says, still in disbelief.

“We could find out.” Shane says, pulling out his laptop.

Ryan pauses, “We should make sure we know some basics at least. If we’re going to have to spend a few hours with your parents. But are you sure you want to watch it?” Ryan himself is dreading it as he sees Shane pull up their youtube channel.

Shane nods and then his eyes go wide looking at the page. “Holy shit, 4 million subs.”

Their last video, which must have been scheduled because it went live just a few hours ago, is a thank you video. From the thumbnail it just looks like a simple iphone video, but it seems like that’s what good amount of their content is.

Ryan breathes in through his teeth. A couple videos back is an anniversary video, and the thumbnail shows them kissing. “We’re total clickbait hoes” is the only comment Ryan makes.

Shane sorts by most popular, and the top video is their wedding video which nope followed by their ‘why we left Buzzfeed’ video. Shane hovers over the second one. “Should I?”

Ryan just gives a terse nod. His eyes won’t focus on the screen but he hears his voice coming out of the speakers. Ryan forces himself to focus and yeah, that’s definitely him, but he’s never said these things. He knows about all the crazy face-replacing video editing programs that exist, but the video doesn’t have any hint of CGI and the audio matches perfectly. For a minute it’s a crazy out of body experience.  Like when you get blackout drunk and people tell you stories of all the things you did, but you can’t actually remember any of it. Except this is ten times worse because Ryan is watching himself on video, knowing that the person on the screen simultaneously is and isn’t him.

The Shane and Ryan in the video are explaining how buzzfeed wanted to go a different direction with unsolved, “one where I had to pretend to actually believe that the wind might be a ghost voice” on-screen Shane quips, and on-screen Ryan rolls his eyes fondly, exactly the same way Ryan has seen himself do it on video too many times to count.

“Basically, Shane was told to either tone down the skepticism or he would be pulled off the show. But I told them I wouldn’t do the show without Shane.”

“And why’s that?” On-screen Shane asks with a smile, his tone a familiar, sarcastic joking one.

“I’m getting to it” On-screen Ryan blushes and retorts, “the only reason you were so aggressive with your skepticism was ‘cause you were trying not to let on about us.”

“Who was the one who didn’t want the internet to know?”

On-screen Ryan sighs and shakes his head.  

“You know we’d get more views if we made our coming out a separate video.” On-screen Shane says.

Ryan can feel Shane tense beside him. This is getting incredibly uncomfortable, incredibly fast. Ryan doesn’t know if he should make a joke or run away.

“It shouldn’t be a big thing that we’re a thing.” On-screen Ryan says quietly, and it’s obvious all that wasn’t intended to make the final cut. He speaks up to address the audience again, “Most of you have probably guessed it already but yeah,” The look they give each other on screen is too intense and Ryan’s chest tightens. “We’re a thing,” On-Screen Ryan concludes.

“A thing? I ask you to marry me and we’re a thing ?” On-Screen Shane teases.

“What should I say? Fiancés?”

“Engaged. We’re engaged.” Their on-screen doppelgangers kiss each other and Ryan wishes he could melt into the couch.

“So Boogaras and Shaniacs unite.” On-Screen Ryan grins at the camera.

“Noo…”

“What? Can’t we finally call a truce?”

“I love you, but I’m never going to stop calling you out for believing in stuff that isn’t real.”

On-screen Ryan laughs. “If you keep this up no one is going to believe we’re actually together.”

“I’ll admit there is one supernatural thing that I’m starting to believe in.” On-screen Shane looks at his counterpart with more sincerity than Ryan has ever seen from his Shane.  

On-screen Ryan’s eyes light up, “go on.”

“Soulmates.”

Both on screen and real life Ryans scoff at that comment and say “ew.” The video ends right as on-screen Ryan is leaning in for a kiss.

Ryan tries to think about why this feels so strange.

Obviously seeing a video of himself kissing his best friend and talking about marrying him is weird since they’d never gone past a hug in real life, but Ryan had thought about Shane in a more than friendly context more times than he could count, so that part isn’t entirely unpleasant to watch.

Maybe it’s because it’s like the end of the story is being put right after the first chapter. You’re introduced to the important characters, informed about the conflict, and then suddenly it’s happily ever after and you have no idea how they got from point A to point Z. All the interesting important parts have been deleted, and nothing makes any sense.

Maybe it’s also because in Ryan’s mind, he and Shane had always been inevitable. But he’s already missed all his chances and this is some sort of evil karma. Ryan’s being shown all of the things that could be, could have been , if some different decisions were made. Imagining it is one thing, but seeing all of it so clearly fills him with guilt and regret.

“That was…” Ryan starts, not sure where Shane’s head is at.

“Not as weird as I expected, honestly. I ship it.” Shane shrugs and sets his laptop on the coffee table as he stands up. “I’m gonna take a shower,” Shane says. “Feel free to do more research.” Shane tiptoes past Charlie’s room and into the bathroom. Ryan’s dumbfounded. Then he just chuckles to himself.

Given his uncharacteristically brisk response, Ryan knows that Shane’s probably going to be having a mental breakdown in the shower, but if he wants to act like he’s suddenly okay with everything that’s happening, Ryan will let him. He knows Shane will need some time to try to  rationalize what’s happening.

Ryan’s equally as weirded out, but it’s becoming increasingly obvious that whatever is going on here is pretty unexplainable, in a distinctly supernatural way. Regardless of whether this is a dream, or a time travel mishap, or they’re actually visiting a different dimension, it was definitely caused by something outside of science’s comprehension. Which means Ryan was right; Supernatural phenomena do exist, and he’s currently living in the very proof of that.

Chapter Text

Ryan does end up doing more research. He watches a video titled “We moved to Chicago?!” where the thumbnail shows Ryan looking surprised and Shane looking ecstatic. The video was posted in August of 2017, less than a year ago. In it they talk about being burnt-out in LA, of wanting a change of scenery, though neither of them want to move to suburbia.

“Yet,” says on-screen Shane.

On-screen Ryan makes a disgusted face. “Don’t come at me with that bullshit. You know I’m a city boy.”  

“Just imagine sitting in your backyard, watching your sexy husband at the grill while your kids run around playing with their golden retriever.”

Ryan smiles at that (both in reality and on screen). “Good to know we agree on the dog thing. I’d prefer to have a bulldog or a rescued mutt than a golden retriever though. Or a saint bernard if we had enough room.”

“Well sorry for trying to come up with the most appealing cliche of suburban life.” On-screen Shane says it as if he’s offended, but Ryan recognizes the altogether too familiar sarcastic edge to his words . He’s joking and his amusement is written all over his face.

The fact that Ryan already has dog breeds in mind for what he’d want in their suburban home makes it apparent that he’d put a lot of thought into that future. Real life Ryan tries not to cringe at how eager his on-screen counterpart seems. He could never imagine saying something like that without fear that his partner would be scared off. But the other version of him says those things confidently, without a second thought. They’re so sure and comfortable in their relationship they don’t fear any judgement from each other.

On-screen Ryan continues, ignoring Shane’s jab. “It was great growing up in California, but I’ve always loved the idea of raising kids somewhere they can have the midwest seasons. Raking leaves into big piles and then jumping into them, making snowmen on Christmas day, cuddling by a fire…” On-screen Ryan trails off, just nodding to himself.

They don’t mention it in the video, but Ryan knows they were probably already pretty far into the adoption process. It’s obvious they were both looking forward to it from the way they were talking about how it would be when they have kids.

Ryan is about to click to a different video when on-screen Shane starts speaking again. He says that while all that other stuff is true, the real reason they moved was so that Shane could get his masters degree. He was able to transfer credits he had from online classes he’d done in his free time to a university in Chicago where they also had a program that looked at people’s experiences and accomplishments and awarded college credit for those things. Which meant that Shane only had to take a few classes on location to complete his degree, and the university had already extended a conditional offer to be an adjunct professor the following year.

When the video finishes, Ryan wants to keep watching but he also doesn’t know if his heart can handle it. He knows, obviously, that these people are copies of him and Shane. He’s still incredibly blown away by how they act almost exactly the same as they do in his reality, the one where they’re not in love. The expressions they make, the ways they tease each other, the nicknames they call each other. It’s all so incredibly familiar to Ryan. Too familiar.

Ryan decides not to watch anymore and instead goes to poke around in their bedroom. Ryan looks through the closet and the dressers, and notices that their clothes are all mixed together. He wonders if this gives him freedom to wear Shane’s clothes, and decides that since everyone in this reality already thinks they’re married, he’s allowed to wear whatever of Shane’s he wants. Ryan takes his shirt off and throws it towards the hamper. He sees himself shirtless in the mirror for the first time and has to do a bit of a double take because he looks...different. He doesn’t want to say he looks like he’s let himself go, but this reality’s version of him doesn’t have nearly as much definition. He shrugs and decides that it’s okay for him to be rocking a bit of a dad bod because he actually is a dad.

Ryan sits on his side of the bed and opens the drawer of his bedside table. Exactly as he had anticipated, there’s a journal inside. There’s also lube and a sex toy or two which he pointedly does not look at.  He pulls out the journal and shuts the drawer a little harder than necessary.

The journal starts in early 2018, sort of addressed to Charlie. Ryan just skims it, stopping at anything that could be informative. As it goes on, it becomes less a record of things that Charlie had done, and more of Ryan’s inner thoughts regarding Charlie.

February - You slept in our bed for the first time last night. I think you’re finally seeing us as your parents. You never want to be set down anymore, and you cry every time Daddy leaves the house.

April - You’re starting to call Shane dada and me baba, and even though you can’t say papá exactly right yet I want to cry every time I hear it. I know your biological father was mexican and it’s important that I get to share some of that heritage and language with you.

May - Daddy and I fall more in love every day thanks to you. I can’t imagine a world without either of you.

June - You’re really starting to develop a personality. Every time Daddy makes a funny face at you you try to copy it. I swear I even caught you and Daddy both flipping me off the other day. I would have scolded you for it if it wasn’t so cute

July - You’re so close to crawling I just know you’re going to do it any day now. You’re already getting teeth. I can’t believe how big you’ve gotten in such a short time. I can’t believe I can love someone so much after only a few months.

The emotions start balling up in Ryan’s stomach. He doesn’t know if it’s jealousy of this other Ryan’s life, or guilt for not being the person who wrote these words. Ryan is lost in thought, eyes fixed on a blank corner of the journal. He doesn’t hear the shower stop, and doesn’t notice Shane come into the room. It takes until Shane opens a drawer for Ryan to look up. Shane isn’t paying him any attention, just looking through the dresser.  He quickly pulls out some boxers and slips them on. If Ryan catches a glimpse of his ass when Shane accidentally drops the towel, they both decide to pretend he doesn’t.

Ryan’s too full of thoughts about their new reality to consider how odd the timing of his question might be. He just blurts, “Do you think we stole the bodies of some other versions of us? basically possessing them? Or did we switch places?” He can’t stop the theories from rushing out. “Or maybe this really is our world, but some weird time travel thing happened? Like Flashpoint? Because if I’m stealing this other Ryan’s life I am never going to forgive myself.”

Shane pauses digging through one of the drawers to think. “If it was time travel, more would probably be different. I don’t think we’re possessing other people, and I don’t think we’ve switched places. Out of all the possibilities I’ve thought of, those are the least scientifically plausible.”

Everything we’ve experienced in the past few hours is scientifically implausible.” Ryan says.

Shane shrugs, “I’m facing the reality of our situation.”

“So you probably have some really boring theory for what this place is, then.”

“It could be a computer simulation, but I think it’s likely just a dream. A vivid one, possibly due to something we came in contact with the past few days.”

Ryan considers it for a minute, “How are we having this dream together then? And why isn’t everyone from the crew here too?” Even though he’s mostly using it as a reason to disagree with Shane, Ryan makes a mental note that they really should check out the other crew members just in case. “Plus it doesn’t feel like a dream. It’s too realistic and we have free will. And, if it’s a dream then why are we here , in Chicago, with a baby, instead of somewhere cool and fun?” Ryan is curious but it’s also just fun to poke holes in Shane’s theories, like he always does to Ryan’s.

“I think it’s a dream but it seems like this place could have been real. Like it’s a forked off possibility of past decisions in our real lives. A sort of possibility pocket.”

Ryan coughs. “You think if we made different decisions we would have ended up here?”

“Sure, just like there’s a universe out there where you’re married to Helen.”

Ryan considers this, “And you think we were just randomly put in a dream of this alternate reality for no reason?”

Shane sighs, “I haven’t figured out a scenario that could cause this which doesn’t have some serious logical fallacies.”

“And by logical fallacies you mean supernatural elements.”

Shane opens his mouth as if to say something and then closes it, going back to looking through the dresser. He’s not looking at Ryan when he says, “Whatever this place is, I think we just need to let it play out for now. We haven’t been here long enough to have to worry about it yet.” Shane finally pulls on a shirt, and it’s like he’s putting on armor, masking all vulnerability; he suddenly reverts back to joking. “Right now this is our reality, even though it’s not real, so we might as well have some fun with it.”

“Fun how?”

“Play with the baby. See what independent youtube is like. Brunch with my parents. Explore Chicago. All that while looking for cracks in the matrix, or some sort of inconsistency that could be a clue.”

Ryan nods and sets the journal aside. “They apparently moved here so you could get your masters degree. It sounds like you start working as a professor this fall.” Ryan internally cringes at how obviously he’s trying to distance himself from the other versions of them by using ‘they’ instead of ‘we’.

If Shane notices Ryan’s pronoun choice he doesn’t give any indication. He does however react strongly to what Ryan says, eyes widening. “I’m going to be a professor? Where?”

Ryan shrugs, “The video didn’t say. Just that it was a university in Chicago.”

Shane runs off, presumably to get his laptop. Ryan throws a clean shirt on and trails behind Shane, stopping to peer into Charlie’s room. He can see her chest slowly rising and falling, still deep asleep.

Shane’s in the living room scouring his emails and after a minute he tells Ryan that he is, in fact, actually going to be a professor this fall.

It’s weird to have to study this reality in order to successfully pass for the Ryan from this world. He supposes they could probably get away without any research, because it’s not like anyone is going to assume that they’re imposters just because they forget certain recent details. But truthfully, Ryan wants to know. He’s curious as to what alternate Ryan’s life is like, who his friends in Chicago are, what his and Shane’s relationship is like, what it’s like to have a kid, whether or not he’s happy. He stalks his own facebook, twitter, instagram, email, text messages, everything he can think. Everything he finds reinforces the notion that Shane and Ryan are a happily married couple.

He doesn’t know how long the two of them stay sitting silently in the living room, but after a while they’re both shaken out of their stupor by Charlie’s yelling. She’s not crying, but she’s definitely awake.

Shane gets up first so Ryan lets him take care of her. They have to get ready soon if they want to get to the restaurant on time so Ryan gets a bottle together.

When Shane brings Charlie out Ryan asks, “Are you sure this is a good idea? Going out with your parents?”

“No, but we already committed to it and I’m really looking forward to seeing your improv skills. Or lack thereof.” Shane gives Charlie the bottle. She tries to grab onto it but she can’t keep her grip so Shane holds it for her.

Shane’s got a baby in one arm, bottle in the other hand, his hair still slightly wet and disheveled from his shower and Ryan is a little captivated by how precious a sight this is.  Though it’s the second time he’s seeing it today. He quickly snaps a photo of the scene and posts it to his instagram story. He’s not sure what they normally post there but he knows everyone will probably appreciate getting a look at this. As adorable as Shane is right now, Ryan doesn’t let that stop the annoyance from creeping into his voice,  “I know this is hilarious to you but I’ve never met your parents before.”

“We’re not actually married so there’s no need to impress them. They already love alternate-Ryan so you shouldn’t worry.” Shane pauses to look at Charlie in his arms. “What you should worry about is how we can make this child look presentable.”

Ryan wants to lecture Shane about how unhelpful it is to tell an anxious person not to worry, but when he looks at Charlie he discards that train of thought. Charlie’s hair, what little she has, is sticking in all different directions, her onesie getting increasingly wet in the front where formula is dripping from her chin, and Ryan can’t help that his expression goes soft looking at her.

Ryan goes to the nursery to find an outfit. Shane finds all the going-out essentials by the front door: wallet, house keys, car keys, shoes, and fortunately an already packed diaper bag.  

After Charlie finishes her bottle, they struggle to put her in a new outfit. While she’s not a fan of having things over her face and nearly cries when her dress gets stuck on her nose because Ryan forgot to undo the snaps, luckily she knows how to push her hands through the arm holes herself. It doesn’t take too long to get her ready and then Ryan has to worry about making himself look presentable.

It’s a bit after 11 and they need to leave soon. Ryan knows he doesn’t have time to agonize over an outfit, and he shouldn’t since this is just supposed to be a casual brunch with people he apparently sees every weekend. When he starts to think about it, it’s not really because of Shane’s parents that he’s nervous, though that plays into it. Ryan has no idea how to dress or act in public as a man who’s openly in a relationship with another man. It’s something he’d never truly considered doing even though his bisexuality had always been in the back of his mind. He doesn’t want to wear anything that will draw attention, or anything that’s trying to hard to look heterosexual. He tries on multiple things before he settles on a standard pairing of an old t-shirt under an unbuttoned flannel of Shane’s and some shorts.

When he comes back to the living room Shane notices Ryan is wearing his shirt and raises an eyebrow; Ryan shrugs in response. He really doesn't want to have to deal with talking about it. They’re supposed to be married, and the idea of being allowed to wear Shane’s clothes was just a little too appealing to pass up.  Shane’s dressed super casually, seemingly unbothered by going out with Ryan. He hates how Shane seems simultaneously freaked out and completely unphased.

After a final check that they’re all ready, Ryan picks up Charlie, Shane grabs the diaper bag and they’re off.

It’s mid July in Chicago, and though it’s not as hot as California Ryan’s still surprised when they go outside and the air is hot and thick from humidity. They finally find their car parked a block away after making it beep so many times they can’t count.  

Charlie doesn’t fuss when they buckle her in, just plays with some of the little toys they already had in the car for her.

Ryan lets Shane drive because he has no idea where they’re going. The drive is mostly quiet except for them going over their backstory and replying to Charlie whenever she starts talking in the backseat.

“So are we gonna have to act all couple-y or can we just act like normal?” Ryan asks as they’re approaching restaurant.

“Mostly normal just a little more touchy? I’ve never been very into PDA especially in front of my parents.”

Ryan nods, his anxieties only slightly assuaged.

“I’m sure they won’t notice anything.”

They really hadn’t realized how much effort it was to bring an infant to a public place. They were barely late, however since Shane’s parents arrived first they had already gotten a high chair set up at the table. As soon as they lay eyes on Ryan and Shane, Sherry jumps up to takes Charlie from Ryan’s arms and starts cooing at her.

They take their seats opposite the older couple, Shane’s arm easily curling around the back of Ryan’s chair, grazing his shoulders. Ryan knows it doesn’t mean anything but his skin still prickles with goosebumps.

Sherry remarks how much Charlie grows between each time they see her. “Is she crawling yet?” She asks, and looks at Ryan.

“Not yet. She was trying really hard this morning, though.” It comes out sounding much more casual than he feels.

“It’ll be any day now, and once she starts crawling around you’ll really have your hands full,” then she turns her attention to Charlie who’s sitting in her lap, “Isn’t that right? You’re just going to be speeding all around the house, getting into everything and making papa even more worried than he already is.”

It makes Ryan’s heart constrict a little, the combination of things she’s saying. The way she calls Ryan Charlie’s papa, the way he’s so effortlessly involved in the conversation, the way she obviously knows him closely enough to understand his anxieties - it should be weird considering that from his point of view they’ve just met today.  But it’s not weird at all. He feels like he belongs, and that’s harder to deal with than feeling strange would be.

Shane’s father, Mark, makes a comment about the weather and luckily the topic of conversation changes to something Ryan doesn’t feel obligated to talk about.

Sherry puts Charlie in the high chair and pulls it right next to her own chair, making it obvious that she’s going to be taking care of Charlie for the duration of their meal. She seems so elated to have a granddaughter and Ryan vaguely remembers Shane once mentioning how his mom always wanted a little girl but had ended up with two boys.

They order food and the conversation falls into a good rhythm. Ryan had known his anxiety was unfounded but now he actually believes it. He doesn’t talk much but he’s able to contribute to the discussion and it’s just easy . Everyone is having a good time, including Charlie, to whom Sherry is giving lots of attention and snacks. She responds with nonsensical words and adorable giggles.

Eventually their conversation rounds back to something that makes Shane and Ryan’s marital status evident again when Mark asks Shane if his teaching job is confirmed yet.

“Yeah. It’s official. 2 classes but 4 sections total.”

“You ready to be a house-husband, Ryan?” Sherry asks, playful look in her eye.

He waits a beat and then says, “I… I think it suits me, actually.” And he means it.

The conversation moves on and Ryan is relieved.  He lets himself take a moment to watch Shane talk; He looks happy and he’s more animated than Ryan has seen him all morning, so Ryan is glad he agreed to come, however odd the situation might be.

They’ve finished their meal and while the adults would be fine sitting and talking for a while longer, Charlie is getting frustrated from sitting in one place too long, and even holding her in their laps (everyone tries) doesn’t get her to stop fussing. They say quick goodbyes, and Ryan’s surprised when he gets a hug from Sherry.

“You have my number if there’s ever anything you need. Nothing’s too small.” She smiles and squeezes his shoulder before letting go.

Once they’re in the car and driving away Ryan asks, “Did they pass the test?”

“What?” Shane had been lost in thought so it takes him a moment to register what Ryan said. “Yeah, they seemed exactly like my parents.”

“Not like computer simulations or fantasy versions of themselves?”

“No. And I know before we left I said my mom loved you but I was lying. She’s never liked anyone I introduced her to. But she actually really loved you.”

Ryan fees annoyed and flattered at the same time and doesn’t know what to say, so he stays silent. He glances into the backseat and sees Charlie starting to nod off, and it’s so adorable he can’t help but smile fondly.

“How was it being the shortest one there?” Shane asks, effectively shocking the smile off of Ryan’s face.

“Fuck off.” Ryan says, trying to maintain a blank expression. As he looks out his window, away from Shane, he lets the smile creep back onto his face with a similar fondness for an altogether different person.

When they arrive home, Charlie is teetering on the edge of sleep as Ryan carries her into their apartment. Ryan sits in the recliner, holding Charlie, letting her her head rest on his chest.  He rocks back and forth slowly, and while his only intention is to not wake her up, within a few minutes he’s asleep too, holding her securely on top of him.

It was almost 2 when they arrived home, and it’s only 2:30 when Ryan is woken by Charlie wriggling around on top of him. It soon turns to cries and Ryan is up carrying her around by the time Shane makes it out into the living room.

Ryan tells Shane to make a small bottle while he takes Charlie into the nursery to change her diaper and put more comfortable clothes on her. It’s done quickly and then Ryan is back in the recliner, feeding her and hoping it calms her down enough to fall back asleep.

It doesn’t, and she barely finishes half the bottle before shes pushing it away and babbling in Ryan’s face.  He nods along, agreeing with everything she says. She reaches out and touches his face, and he thinks it’s adorable until it turns into her forcing her nails into his cheek. “Ow! That’s not nice.” He says, pulling her hand away, his voice still soft and playful even though he’s supposed to be scolding her.

After a bit more of him trying to calm her down and her completely resisting sleep, he gives up and sets her on the ground, placing a few toys out for her to play with.  After taking a moment to stretch he sits on the floor himself, tickling her and kissing her cheek. She erupts with giggles, and Ryan feels incredibly proud of himself.

The rest of the day unfolds much like the morning had, lazing around the house, playing with the baby. Their first attempt at feeding her puree ends with them all covered to some degree in orange goo. Charlie has it the worst though, as the food somehow even made it into her ear.

Their house doesn’t have a bathtub, so Ryan decides to just take her in the shower with him, and she’s fascinated by the falling water. He wonders if she always loves it or if he’s just doing something the other Ryan never did. He’s quick - just rinsing himself off and focusing on washing all of the orange stuff off of Charlie - but by the time they’re done his arms are straining and he keeps having to switch which side he’s holding Charlie on.

When he gets out he realizes the predicament he’s in and even though he doesn’t want to, he yells for Shane to come help him. Ryan is wearing boxers but they’ve been soaked through and Ryan’s sure they don’t leave much to the imagination. When Shane opens the door he freezes for a moment, blinking at Ryan’s soaking wet, mostly naked form before actually comprehending what Ryan is saying and grabbing a towel and then Charlie out of Ryan’s arms.

Shane quickly turns on his heel and Ryan doesn’t know whether he should be confused, or if he should let his brain assume the obvious route and feel a little smug. He ends up somewhere in the middle.

After he dresses, Ryan returns to what’s quickly becoming his favorite spot on the floor in the living room. Shane has put Charlie in clean clothes and is playing with her on the couch, letting her practice standing. They end up having a disney movie marathon, and they discover that Charlie really loves Moana.

Shane falls asleep on the couch, and Ryan occupies Charlie until it’s just after 7 when she starts to get crabby. He feeds her a bottle, rocking her in the recliner, and for a while he can’t believe how peaceful it is. She falls asleep on his chest again, and he somehow manages to transport her to her crib without her waking up.

Despite not having done much all day, Ryan is exhausted. Shane must have been too. He wonders if it has to do with whatever is causing this alternate world, or if it’s simply because babies are exhausting.

Ryan lays in bed on his phone, going through instagram and twitter. He was right about everyone loving the pic he’d taken of Shane with Charlie that morning, people are gushing about how cute and domestic it was. Ryan agrees, and likes a lot of their comments and tweets.

His eyes are starting to hurt so he puts his phone away and lets his mind wander. Ryan wonders if Shane fell asleep so early intentionally because he’s eager to get home and believes it will all go back to normal when they go to sleep. While Ryan would love to go home, he wouldn’t mind spending some more time in this fantasy. Ryan had gotten used to never getting to be alone with Shane anymore. He’s used to there always being other people around working on Unsolved with them, and he’s used to always being the third wheel now. Ryan can’t remember the last time they actually spent the day alone together. And even though spending so much time with him is starting to force open the box he keeps his feelings locked in, being trapped in this domestic bubble with Shane is bringing him more contentment than he’s felt in months.

Chapter Text

Ryan doesn’t know if he’s allowed to be happy when he wakes up to the same view of a window, surrounded by the same photos that he doesn’t remember taking, but that doesn’t stop him from being really happy.

He hadn’t realized he was in such a slump back home until he wound up in this alternate world. Not that he was unhappy in his normal life, his baseline of happiness had just dropped a bit, the mundanity of each day bringing him less enjoyment than it used to. This world brought such an interruption to his routine, and every mundane going-on here brings back a little of the joy his life had been lacking. And it seems that they won’t be able to escape this world anytime soon.

Ryan is happy to get up, quietly making his way into the living room. Charlie’s door is wide open and she’s not in her crib so he’s prepared for the sight he finds: Shane in the recliner, holding Charlie while he gives her a bottle, both of them giving their full attention to the cartoons which are playing on the tv.

Ryan gets coffee from the pot which is thankfully still warm and mostly full and then plops himself on the couch. “How long have you been up?” He asks Shane.

Shane glances at his watch. “It’s a little after 7 now… Almost two hours. Charlie just woke up though.”

Ryan nods and sips his coffee. “Sorry for making you sleep on the couch.” Their conversation feels a little stilted, uncomfortable. Ryan’s not sure how to act now that it’s getting more apparent they’re probably stuck here.   

Shane hums a noise that doesn’t exactly sound like an agreement. “It wasn’t too bad.” Shane looks at Ryan for the first time. “We’re gonna have to figure out the sleeping arrangement though since…” He trails off, and it looks like he was trying to gesture at the room but with Charlie in his arms he just ends up shrugging weirdly.

“We’re still here.” Ryan completes the sentence for him.

Shane nods. “We’re still here.”

“What should we do?” Ryan asks.

“What can we do?” Shane says. Ryan doesn’t reply so Shane continues. “I found our gold and silver play buttons. Charlie’s adoption papers. This is all legitimate. I don’t know how, or what this is, but it’s real. And it wasn’t just a one day thing. So we’d better just settle in.”

“That’s it?”

“What do you want me to say, Ryan? That this is insane and I wanna go home? This is fucking nuts, and I already looked at flights to LA.” Ryan has to suppress a grimace that threatens to show how much Shane’s words sting. “But there’s nothing waiting for me in LA. Sara doesn’t care about me. I don’t have any of my friends’ numbers. My family is here. My job is apparently with you, here.”

Ryan doesn’t know how Shane’s being so rational about all of this, and he says so.

“What, should we call up the FBI? Ask for the X-Files department?” There’s a little more bite to Shane’s words than normal.

Just as she keeps doing, Charlie chooses the perfect moment to speak up and break the tension between them, whining and kicking to get off of Shane’s lap.

“Okay, okay.” Shane mutters to her, his tone completely changing as he places Charlie on the floor and sits next to her.

“We could do that.” Ryan says. “We’d have to film it though.” That forces a small smile out of Shane.

“It might make a pretty funny video.” He agrees.

“I’d like to think that if the FBI really has an X-Files department they probably already have us bugged so they can use all our breakthroughs to solve their cases.”

He earns a chuckle and Shane says, “Oh I’m sure,” slipping into a sarcastic tone that Ryan is much more familiar with than the overly serious one. “There’s probably a bunch of men in black huddling around a computer listening to us, talking about what an interesting case study this will make.”

“Oh, and making bets about what the cause is.” Ryan chimes in.

Shane nods. “We should do that. Make a bet.”

Charlie babbles at Shane from where she’s sitting on the ground, and reaches out for him. He pulls her up so she’s standing, keeping his hands under her arms so he can support her.

“Yeah, you think that’s a good idea, don’t you Charlie?” Shane lets his baby voice come out again, and Ryan doesn’t think he’ll ever get used to it. “What do you think is going on, huh?” The question is directed at Charlie but Ryan knows it’s probably meant for him.

“I don’t know what is going on, but I’m almost positive it has something to do with New Mexico.” Ryan says, putting his nearly empty cup of coffee to the side and joining Shane on the floor with Charlie.

Shane shakes his head.

“No, hear me out okay? It was weird that nothing happened while we were there right?”

Shane opens his mouth to interrupt Ryan, but Ryan continues before he can jump in.

“I know you don’t think anything ever happens, but I normally do. But in New Mexico, I didn’t think anything happened, and that should mean something, right?”

Shane nods, apparently following Ryan’s logic. He lets Charlie sit back down on the ground, and she starts chewing on a foam block.

“It was totally calm the whole time we were there, and then when we were leaving I felt something weird, like we were being watched.”

“You felt like you were being watched.” Shane repeats, stressing the words ‘felt’ and ‘watched’ in a way obviously meant to imply skepticism.  

“Yes! What else could be the cause of this?”

Shane is quiet for a moment, contemplating. Then he says, “I don’t think we can bet on the cause. But when we wake up in our beds back home, you’ll owe me something.”

“I don’t disagree that this could be a dream, though.”

“Doesn’t matter. I already called it.” Shane says, mischievous smile playing on his lips.

“What’ll I owe you?”

“A favor, maybe.”

“A favor?”

“I dunno. To be determined.” Shane shrugs. His attention returns to Charlie. “For now we need to figure out what we’re supposed to be doing with a baby. I’m sure just letting her watch cartoons all day will probably fuck her up.”

“Her dads are youtubers. She’s going to be fucked up no matter what.” Ryan says, without thinking. Once he lets what he said sink in he feels weirdly offended.

“That’s…” Shane starts.

“Dark.” Ryan finishes. Then he picks up Charlie and sets her in his lap. She’s looking up at him with bright eyes, “You’re not gonna be fucked up, right?” Ryan asks her.

She mumbles, “Bababa” at him.

“Right, papa will make sure you’re not fucked up.” Ryan says, brushing the little hair she has away from her face.

“We should probably stop saying ‘fucked up’ around her, then.” Shane says. Ryan shoots him a judgemental look.

“You started it. But us swearing around her will probably be the least of her problems.” Ryan says. Charlie starts fussing on his lap, so Ryan puts her back on the ground, this time on her hands and knees. “Come on, crawl for us to prove you won’t be fucked up.”

They both watch with rapt attention as she extends one of her arms, as if listening to Ryan. Then she just grabs a toy and sits back normally.

“Good enough,” Ryan says, at the same time that Shane says, “Almost.”

Shane gets up, joints cracking a little.

“Old man.” Ryan smiles.

“Alright, little guy, I was gonna make us food but if you don’t want me to…” Shane teases.

Shane ends up preparing more than enough for both of them to eat, and the morning unfolds calmly like the day previous. They turn off the TV and put on music, bickering a bit about what would be appropriate for an infant, but they eventually agree on something.

It turns out no matter what they play Charlie is happy because, as they quickly discover, she loves music. She instantly starts wiggling along to the music as if she’s trying to dance. Ryan records a short video for his instagram story.

“So if we’re going to settle in..” Ryan tries to think of how to continue his sentence.

They’re sitting on the couch after putting Charlie down for a nap. Music is still playing, but it’s repeating the same playlist they’ve been listening to all morning, and it’s faded into the background. They’ve been perusing the internet, shooting little comments back and forth about random things.

“We’re gonna have to make some videos, right?”

“You haven’t looked at your calendar yet?” Shane asks.

Ryan shakes his head.

“Buzzfeed habits die hard, I guess. Because we already have a shooting schedule planned for the next few weeks.”

Ryan checks, and Shane is right. The schedule consists of plans for activities which are labeled as ‘FV’ (“Family Vlog, I think,” Shane supplies) and a few labeled ‘U’ which Ryan knows stands for Unsolved.

Apparently today is a free day, but later in the week they have plans to go to the aquarium. The schedule says that they’re supposed to post a vlog on Wednesday, and an Unsolved episode on Friday.

“Should we be editing something right now?” Ryan asks, now a bit anxious that he’s slacking off.

“Probably.” Shane shrugs.

Ryan frowns at him, and then gets off the couch and goes into the only room in the house he hasn’t looked through yet. He peers into Charlie’s nursery on his way, making sure she’s still asleep.

Ryan is amazed by how similar their filming room looks to the one they have back in LA. It’s incredibly similar, though it’s obvious the production budget is a little smaller, and a good amount of the props are different. The only real difference is that there’s a big desk that’s covered with stuff on the side of the room the camera doesn’t see.

Their play buttons are framed on the wall, as well as a bunch of pictures of the three of them that he hadn’t seen yet. The top of the desk looks ransacked, and Ryan sees the adoption paperwork that Shane mentioned before.

The computer springs to life when he clicks the mouse, a folder of raw footage open on the desktop. He sits down and puts headphones on. He decides not to tackle the new footage yet, instead pulling up their youtube channel and watching their last family vlog.

It’s what he expects, mostly Ryan talking to the camera with Shane interjecting here and there. Clips of Charlie eating new foods and trying to crawl. They took Charlie to a big mall in the suburbs and went on a rant about how there were no changing tables in the men’s bathroom. They still have their typical banter, but the content is different. At one point they disagree about whether Charlie really said her first word. Shane is adamant that she said ‘Hi’, but Ryan says she was probably just parroting them and not comprehending what she was saying, quoting some parenting book.  

It’s all really innocuous, so Ryan isn’t prepared when he opens up the raw footage.

The video starts totally blown out, but then it’s adjusted and Ryan recognizes the view from their bed. He’s confused until the camera gets flipped around and then it’s pointed at Ryan, in bed, shirtless, Shane’s hair visible behind him.

“You know you’re not going to use any of this.” Shane grumbles in the video.

The camera shakes as Ryan turns in bed to look at Shane. “I don't know that. People would go crazy over this.”

“Should we give them something to go crazy over?” Shane teases, an arm coming around Ryan, almost out of frame. Shane’s head finally raises from where it was hidden behind Ryan, and Shane starts pressing kisses to Ryan’s neck.

On camera Ryan laughs, “This is basically softcore porn.”

Shane’s eyebrows raise, “Only softcore huh? Maybe I should fix that.”

The video suddenly jerks around before showing a blurred view of their sheets. Real life Ryan can hear a muffled conversation but he can’t make it out. He swallows, mouth suddenly very dry and a heavy feeling in his gut. He glances around the room, as if he’s worried someone will be watching over his shoulder. But no one is there, and the door is still mostly closed. He wants to stop the video, and he knows he probably should, but he’s also perversely curious about what will happen next.

The camera starts moving and when it shows Ryan again, his hair is a bit more messed up and he and Shane are wearing matching smiles. The Ryan on camera slaps away Shane’s hand when he tries to mess with Ryan again, so Shane gives up and lays down, out of frame.

Ryan starts talking to the camera, “So originally, we were gonna go to the beach today, but it’s supposed to storm, so we’re probably going to have a lazy day at home.”

“Wow, so interesting. I’m sure people will love to watch us do nothing all day.” Shane says from behind Ryan, where only his hair can be seen.

Ryan adjusts the angle and then Shane is shown too, just laying there, phone held way too close to his face.  “What are you talking about? This is quality content” Ryan jokes.

The Ryan who’s watching all of this unfold knows that even though the other him had been joking, he’s kind of right. It’s a clip that their fans would love, at least they would if they were anything like their fans from his world.

The Ryan in the video lays next to Shane in bed, holding the camera above them. He pulls the sheet up so they’re mostly covered, though they’re both obviously shirtless.

“What time is it?” Ryan asks.

“Almost 8” Shane says, and then puts his phone down.

Ryan addresses the camera again, only partially, as he says “It’s a miracle Charlie’s still asleep this late. Yesterday she woke us up at 6.”

“I doubt she’s asleep, she’s probably just playing with one of the books in her crib.”

“Probably.” Ryan mumbles, camera jostling as he rubs his eyes.

“Are you still rolling?” Shane asks, incredulously.

On-camera Ryan laughs, “Yeah.” And then the video ends.

It was barely a 2 minute clip but Ryan is shaken more by those 2 minutes than he has been by anything else he’s seen in this new world.

It’s a combination of how they acted in the video as well as the fact that Ryan had even filmed them like that. How incredibly vulnerable they act with each other, and how in love they seem. And the fact that the other Ryan had entertained the idea of sharing that part of their lives with their audience.

He’s really not sure what to do. If there is another Ryan whose life he’s taken over, then there’s a possibility that he could put something out there that the other version of him wouldn’t want out there. He imports part of the video to the editing software but doesn’t think he’ll use it.

After the first video, he’s incredibly nervous to watch any more of the raw footage, but he does it anyway. He’s too curious not to.  

The rest of the videos aren’t nearly as dramatic as the first one, though some of the others still affect Ryan a little, especially one of them with Charlie, dancing and singing along to one of the songs from Moana, while thunder is booming from the storm outside. It’s stupid and cringey, but because of that it’s adorable.

Ryan is shocked out of his editing mode by someone touching his shoulder, jumping and nearly shouting. It’s good he doesn’t because when he turns around Shane is holding Charlie.

“Wow, jumpy.” Shane says through his laughs. “She just woke up and keeps asking for her papa so I just thought I’d see what you were doing.” Ryan tries not to let Shane calling him Charlie’s papa get to him. He fails.

“You were asking for me?” Ryan asks Charlie in a soft voice, getting up and holding his arms out to take her. She happily moves to him, head leaning on his chest.  “I wasn’t in here that long was I?” Ryan asks, looking back up at Shane, who has a strange look on his face. Shane blinks a few times, the expression disappearing before Ryan can figure out what it was.

“No, she just didn’t sleep long.”

Ryan nods, and leads the way out of the office.

They go grocery shopping, which is more difficult because they can’t agree on foods rather than because of the added complication of having a baby with them. They get more attention than they’re used to, people asking how old she is and telling them how cute she is, but otherwise it’s completely normal.

They stop and get Chipotle to go, and when they get home they eat in front of the tv while Charlie has some snacks with them. Ryan’s better at spoon-feeding her puree the second time, so she doesn’t need a bath after lunch.  Though she does need one after Shane tries to feed her dinner.

That night, Ryan is lying on the couch, Shane having retreated into the bedroom since they agreed he needs the bed more because of his insane height. It’s then that Ryan begins to think that it should be weird, how easily and quickly they’re settling into this life. It should be weird, but it really isn’t. It’s weird in the way that it’s new and different, but it doesn’t feel unnatural or uncomfortable.

Ryan is really struck by how not unnatural it feels when, the next day, they try to record an episode of Unsolved while Charlie is napping.

The episode has been completely planned out already, all the research compiled. In fact, it’s a case that Ryan had already researched in their world. Ryan watches some of their old Unsolved episodes from this world in preparation for filming and they don’t really act any different, just a little flirtier and a little touchier. So, they don’t have to put on any sort of act for the camera, they just do exactly what they’re used to doing. Ryan reads the details of the case, Shane cracks jokes, they bicker about which theories are viable.

Other than the fact that there’s no one behind the camera, it’s exactly like what they do back home.

They’re about to wrap up when Charlie starts crying. Ryan goes to get her, and Shane tells him to just bring her and they can finish the episode with her as a guest star.

As always, Charlie stops crying as soon as Ryan picks her up. He carries her back into the office and sits down, putting her on his lap. Almost immediately she starts saying “dadadada” and reaching for Shane, and that's when Shane refers to himself as daddy for the first time and it nearly breaks Ryan.

Shane just says, “You wanna come to daddy?” and takes Charlie from Ryan’s lap.

It’s so fond and soft and Shane says it with no hesitation whatsoever, and with no hint of a joke. It’s only their third day here but it’s already become normal to say things like that. It’s too easy, the way they’ve just slipped into this life, into these roles. Just like everything they’ve done, it’s happened naturally, without them having to force it at all. As weird as this entire situation should be, they make it work with no effort, and somehow it’s the ease of it all which makes Ryan uneasy.

Because Ryan knows that if they stay in this world and if things keep going like this, he’s not going to be able to stop himself from completely falling in love with Shane.

Chapter Text

Ryan has had a subtle interest in Shane for as long as he can remember, but it was always in the back of his mind, never able to surface. It wasn’t even intentional, the way Ryan suppressed any possible feelings he had for Shane, it was just done out of necessity. For most of the time they’ve known each other, Ryan had a girlfriend. And before Ryan became single again, Shane started dating Sara. It wasn’t that Ryan was intentionally trying to ignore anything, it was just that Shane had always been categorized in his head as off limits, and therefore it wasn’t worth addressing any way he might have felt.

But being here is bringing it all to the surface, and he’s finally realizing how serious the situation is.

When he watches their videos from this world, he recognizes the looks the other version of Ryan gives his Shane, because it’s painfully similar to the way he looks at his own Shane. Except now he knows exactly what emotions are behind those looks.

Of course he’d noticed these feelings a little bit before being in this world, but he was doing a good job of keeping it buried. After his break-up Ryan had to take a genuine look at his life and sort it out, and that's when he realized the only things he really couldn’t stand to lose were Unsolved and Shane.

The realization that Shane was that important to him, more important than his actual relationship had been, was too obvious of an indication of his feelings to fully ignore it any longer. He knew something was there, something big,  but he also knew that digging it up would change too much and he wasn’t ready to deal with the repercussions. So he kept it buried, for the sake of their series, and for the sake of Shane’s relationship.

He probably would have kept doing that indefinitely if they hadn’t been transported to this new world. But now they’re here living in a world where they’re married, where they have a child together, and it’s stirring up all these feelings he’d been keeping in check but they’re becoming increasingly impossible to deny.

It’s all made much more difficult when, a week into their reluctant vacation in this world, Charlie starts refusing to sleep at night.

Every night until now, they’ve been able to tire her out, and she’s been falling asleep within 30 minutes of being put in her crib. It’s Friday and they’ve had a pretty busy day: they went to the aquarium and went out to eat with Charlie on their own for the first time. She didn’t sleep during her normal nap times so they thought she would go down easily at night. They were wrong.

It’s almost 10pm, the latest she’s been awake since they arrived, and she’s crying at the top of her lungs. Ryan finally gives in and picks her up out of her crib and she quiets a little.

He feels her forehead. “Do you think she has a fever or something?”

Shane reaches out to test her forehead and then shakes his head, “She seems fine, just doesn’t want to sleep.”

Ryan carries her around for a while, and sits in the recliner when he gets tired. But the second he hits the seat, she starts whining again.

He’s too tired to keep holding her, so Shane takes her for a while, but when he too inevitably gets tired and tries to sit down himself, she starts crying again.

While, in their own world, they’d both prided themselves on being night owls, having Charlie has been forcing them to wake up incredibly early every day and now being up so late is starting to get to them.

Eventually they find themselves in their bedroom since that’s the only place she doesn’t cry when they sit down.

She’s laying on the bed between them, finally asleep, and then Ryan tries to peel himself off the bed, intending to go out to his spot on the couch. As soon as he moves away from Charlie, she starts crying again. He sighs and settles back on the bed beside her.

“Just stay here.” Shane says, sleepily.

Ryan knows that if he was more awake the entire situation would be making him feel a whole slew of emotions, but since he’s so exhausted he just nods and makes himself comfortable on the bed.

They fall asleep like that, laying on their sides facing each other, cocooning Charlie safely between them.   

As soon as Charlie makes noise, Ryan’s wide awake, and morning has come in the blink of an eye. His eyes meet Shane’s in the bright light of their bedroom, and Ryan avoids his gaze as quickly as possible, turning his attention to Charlie who’s pulling on Ryan’s shirt.

“Well, good morning,” Ryan says in a cheery voice. “Seems like you slept good.” Sarcasm creeps into his voice. But Charlie looks up at him with her big eyes and a smile on her face and all resentment is gone.  

After a few nights of cosleeping she finally falls asleep in her crib again. Ryan comes back into the bedroom after putting her down and collapses on the bed without thinking. Shane doesn’t say anything, and from that day on they sleep in the same bed, without Charlie. They don’t talk about it, even when they wake up tangled with each other.

Even when Ryan wakes up to Shane curled around him, face nuzzling into Ryan’s neck. Ryan has his arm around Shane, and while part of him wants to be mortified they ended up in this position, he can’t stop himself from closing his eyes again and pulling Shane closer. He’s half awake when a little while later he feels Shane pull away and get up.  Ryan waits a few minutes before following.

They don’t talk about it.

One day Ryan wakes up with Shane spooning him,  his arm around Ryan like that first day, but luckily he’s able to extricate himself before Shane can wake up and notice.

A few hours later Shane makes his way out into the living room while Ryan is playing on the floor with Charlie. As soon as Charlie sees Shane she gets a big smile on her face and starts crawling towards him.

No warning, no preamble, she just does it. Shane and Ryan share a stunned look before praising her like she just won an olympic medal.

“Has she been doing this all morning?” Shane asks, picking her up when she gets to him and starts pulling on his pant leg.

“No,” Ryan shakes his head, “That’s the first time.”

Shane lifts her high up and she laughs, “Someone really loves their daddy.”

Ryan’s gut tightens as he looks at them, and he breathes out a, “yeah” so quiet he’s pretty sure Shane doesn’t hear.

Now that she’s realized she can crawl, their whole apartment becomes dangerous. She spends a week basically trying to kill herself with everything she can find. She tries to pull lamps off tables by the cords, and when they stop her from doing that by removing all the lamps,  she tries to pull books off the shelves, nearly dropping them on her head multiple times.

She starts trying to get into the cabinets in the kitchen and after the second time she smashes a finger in the door they invest in more baby proofing.

Though it’s nice to not have to carry her everywhere, she starts just following them wherever they go, and it’s a bit more like having a puppy than a child.

“Our little puppy is growing so fast.” Ryan jokes one day when she starts trying to pull herself onto her feet using the coffee table.

“A month and she’s almost walking already.” Shane says.

“A month?” Ryan asks, confused.

Shane nods, “We’ve been here a month and she’s gone from not crawling to almost walking.” His expression is unreadable, but Ryan can feel the weighty implication behind his words.

They haven’t really talked about it since the first week or so; they just got so swept up in all of it. Ryan hadn’t been keeping track of time at all, and he doesn’t know how to feel about the fact that Shane is keeping track.  

They settled in so quickly, so easily to this new world, and they’ve already been here a month. Weekly brunches with Shane’s family, family vlogs, Unsolved, living together, raising Charlie; they’ve been so busy finding their routine and dealing with everything that goes along with this new normal that Ryan almost forgot it’s new. He almost forgot, for a while, that this isn’t real. He almost forgot they’re supposed to be trying to leave.

Ryan doesn’t know what to say, so he turns to old habits and tries to make a joke. “No glitches in the matrix yet? Any new theories?”

Shane adjusts his glasses and shrugs, “I still think the most likely possibility is a dream.”

“A month long dream? I better wake up well rested.” Ryan tries to make his tone joking, but he doesn’t quite succeed.

“But there’s no way to know, so I’m just treating this as reality until we know otherwise.”

Ryan nods and tries to quell the pain that fills his heart when he thinks about going back. It’s not that his old life was bad, and he still misses parts of it, but he doesn’t know how he could give up all of the things that come with this world, the biggest being Charlie.

Of course Ryan knows that she’s not really his. She’s probably just part of a computer simulation, or a figment of his imagination, or she belongs to another version of him, whose body he’s snatched. Because of that, he’d originally tried not to get too emotionally attached to her but he failed almost instantly. No matter the reality of the situation, it doesn’t change how he feels. And he already feels like she’s his daughter. Shane and Ryan are the only parents she’s ever known, and the way she clings to them is unlike how she acts with anyone else. It’s impossible to not feel incredibly connected to her. Watching her grow and learn every day, being with her almost 24/7, taking care of her: Ryan’s her dad, her papa. But Charlie doesn’t exist in his life before this world, and she probably doesn’t exist in their world at all, so going back would mean losing her completely.

He doesn’t know how he could give up this new dynamic he has with Shane, either. As good as Ryan had already thought their teamwork was, parenthood was proving to be the ultimate test, and so far they were passing with flying colors. When Ryan would have to spend hours researching and writing for unsolved, or when Shane was preparing for his classes, they were able to find a balance really quickly. They were able to seamlessly hand off tasks because the other was always there for them. They truly became partners in a way they never had been before.

In addition to that, of course, was living together, sleeping in the same bed, and keeping up the act of being a married couple in front of everyone. Ryan is living a life that, deep down, he’d probably always wanted to dream of, but he never let himself get anywhere close.  More often than not he woke up in Shane’s arms, or Shane would wake up in his. They would share their morning coffee while feeding Charlie before either of them had a chance to fix their hair or brush their teeth. Their home became their office, and they’d work side by side like always, but with an added layer of intimacy since many days they wouldn’t change out of pajamas. When they went out or filmed videos they would stick closer together, making sure to act as much like a married couple as they could. And they are truly almost identical to any normal married couple, save only for the lack of any actual physical intimacy.

A month simultaneously seems like it’s gone by in a flash and lasted a lifetime. Ryan feels like he’s been here forever, but the month went by so quickly he didn’t even realize time was passing.  While Ryan was starting to get lost in the fantasy of this world, Shane was counting the days because he has a girlfriend waiting for him back in their world. But Ryan can’t help getting lost in the fantasy as his love for both Shane and Charlie grows each day, and going back to their world is starting to seem less and less likely.

&

Before they realize it, it’s almost Charlie’s first birthday. Her actual birthday falls on a Tuesday, but they have the party the weekend before so more people can come. Ryan’s family wanted to come but since they only wanted a small get-together and he and Shane were planning to bring Charlie to California for Christmas, they decided not to. But Ryan had to promise to send lots of pictures and videos .  

Shane’s parents are the first to show up, over an hour before the party is supposed to start.  Shane’s mom brought the cake and decorations since she basically planned the whole thing herself. (Shane and Ryan offered, but she had insisted. She was a true homemaker type; a rare breed Ryan had thought was extinct.)

She goes straight to work decorating their apartment with pastel colored streamers and a set of pictures documenting each month of Charlie’s growth from when they adopted her until now. Ryan starts helping her and Shane goes to sit with his dad where he’s been doting on Charlie since they arrived.

Ryan is helping Sherry put a colorful table cover on their table when she says, “I don’t mean to be nosy,” she glances to where Shane and his dad are sitting in the living room, checking to make sure they aren’t paying attention, “Is everything alright between you two?”

Ryan blinks, anxiety starting to pool in his gut, “Yeah, uh, everything is okay. ” He nods a bit too enthusiastically.

She smooths the edge of the cover as she moves around the table to be able to lower her voice, “You sure? Everything seemed so perfect between you guys, but lately…” She expects Ryan to finish the thought.

He shakes his head, “We’re good, there’s just been a lot going on.”

She looks at him with such care and sincerity that for the first time he really starts to feel bad for lying to everyone. “If you guys ever need some time alone, to reconnect,  we can always take Charlie for a night, or a weekend, whatever you guys need.”

Her implication is impossible to miss, and Ryan has to remember the role he’s playing as he stops himself from showing his surprise at her suggestion.  He coughs, “I’ll, uh, I’ll keep that in mind.”

Once they finish decorating Sherry goes to play with Charlie and Ryan stays in the kitchen.  

They don’t have much time before people will start showing up, and now is really not the time to get lost in his head, but Ryan can’t help it as he looks around their now decorated house.

All of a sudden he’s realizing how fake it all is. He’s gotten lost in this fantasy world, he was even really excited for today, but what Shane’s mom said made him remember that they’re really just playing parts here. They’re playing house in a world that’s not theirs, and even though it feels like it sometimes, they’re not a real couple. And they’re not even doing a good enough job playing their parts to convince others.

Ryan doesn’t know how long he’s been standing there, but he’s shaken from his thoughts when Shane flashes his hand in front of Ryan’s face.  

“You ok?” Shane asks, “Decorations not your style?”

Ryan smiles a little at that, then shakes his head. “Just thinking.” He glances at Shane and then at his parents, safely out of earshot. “Your mom asked me if we were ok, and then offered to take Charlie so we can have some “alone time”” Ryan says, using air quotes.

Shane grimaces, “Did she really use that phrase?”

Ryan smiles at Shane’s reaction, “I embellished a little. The term she used was reconnect .”

Shane’s expression stays judgemental as he says, “That’s somehow worse.”

Ryan laughs lightly and nods. He stills when he feels Shane’s arm wrap around him, settling on his hip.

Shane leans in to whisper in his ear, “Guess we better ramp up the pda before she starts buying us condoms.”

Ryan swallows, suddenly a little uncomfortable, but not for the reasons he should be. Shane’s voice had slipped into a tone Ryan had never heard before, except in that one old clip of the other versions of them in bed. He can’t stop himself from leaning into Shane a little. “Would she really?”

“Absolutely. She gave me a box of condoms when she gave me the talk.” Shane holds Ryan closer when he notices her look at them.

“As if teenage Shane was getting any action.” Ryan teases, letting himself be pulled into a more familiar rhythm.

“Hey, I’ll have you know….” Shane starts, then pauses to consider, “Yeah it was very optimistic of her.”

Ryan laughs loudly, leaning more into Shane.

They part a little while later when the buzzer goes off, signaling the arrival of Shane’s brother. After that people keep coming; a few members of Shane’s extended family, Shane’s friends, a few friends Ryan has made since moving to Chicago, and suddenly their apartment is full of people Ryan barely knows.

They put out snacks, and Shane’s dad starts making hot dogs. Everyone is talking amongst themselves and fawning over Charlie in her cute birthday outfit, and no one will let Shane and Ryan do anything. So, they just sit next to each other on the couch near where Charlie is sitting on the floor babbling to a girl who Ryan thinks is one of Shane’s cousins.  Charlie keeps looking up at Shane and Ryan, excitedly saying incomprehensible things, then crawling over to new people and talking to them.

Everything is so peaceful and comfortable and Ryan sighs watching Charlie with Shane’s family, and then Shane has his arm around Ryan again and in a hushed tone asks, “Missing your family?”

Ryan has always been really close to his family, and he’d never realistically considered living so far from them. Especially while he has a child. His family are the type who really believe and commit to the old ‘it takes a village’ adage.  There were always aunts and uncles and cousins and people so far removed there’s no real word for how they’re related stopping by and helping out when he was growing up. There were always people around, and he’d always imagined that any children he had would inherit that village.

He remembers how the Ryan from this world talked about his decision to move. He seemed so sure of it all. But he had that certainty because he knew that his and Shane’s lives were becoming one, and they’d be sharing everything, including families. The other Ryan knew that Shane’s family was also his family.

Ryan knows that right now he’s in a room full of people who are all here to love his child. They’re being supportive and helpful; they’re a village. But they’re not Ryan’s village. They’re Shane’s. And Ryan doesn’t have the same foundation of a loving relationship that the other Ryan had which let him see Shane’s family as his too.

Ryan swallows, trying to force down the thoughts of how fake their relationship is that keep trying to reemerge. “Yeah. That’s probably the biggest adjustment.” He says.

Shane nods, then places a kiss on Ryan’s temple.

Ryan knows it’s just for show, it’s just a part of the act they’re putting on for everyone in this world, but his emotions don’t seem to get the message.  

They let Charlie try to open her presents, and she manages to rip a few pieces of paper off but Shane and Ryan spend a lot of time unwrapping then unboxing toys and letting her try out each one in succession. Ryan makes sure to take videos of her playing with the things his family sent, but in the end she has more fun playing with the boxes and bunched up wrapping paper.

Eventually it’s time for the cake and of course Shane’s mom made Charlie her own mini cake as is tradition for first birthdays. That’s why they opened presents early and why they waited until the very end of the party to bring it out because they all know she’s going to need a bath after she destroys her cake.

Shane’s mom makes them light candles and sing happy birthday, and has Shane and Ryan blow out the candles and make a wish together.

Ryan brings out their vlogging camera to record when they finally put the little cake in front of Charlie, and everyone watches as she smashes her cake and immediately covers herself in frosting. Ryan has a hard time keeping the camera steady because he’s laughing so hard. Charlie looks at him, scandalized, like she knows everyone is laughing at her, but then she remembers she has cake and goes back to eating. He puts the camera away once most of the damage is done.

She’s still eating when the first few people start to leave, and everyone seems to get the hint after that. They thank everyone for coming and for their gifts. Eventually it’s just the three of them and Shane’s parents left. Sherry is cleaning Charlie up the best she can, but there’s cake in her ear and frosting covering her hair and she’s definitely going to need a bath.

“You guys can go too.” Shane says, taking over for his mom wiping frosting off of Charlie’s face.

“I just don’t want to leave you with such a mess.” Sherry says.

Ryan chimes in, “It’s really okay. It’s getting late, Charlie’s getting cranky because she needs sleep, and we still have to give her a bath.”

“And this really isn’t that big of a mess.” Shane says, picking Charlie up out of the highchair. Charlie buries her face in Shane’s shirt, getting frosting all over it.

Ryan stands close to Shane, almost completely pressed against him, and tucks Charlie’s hair hair behind her ear. She’s watching her grandparents with her head still resting on Shane’s chest, either too tired or too lazy to move.

“You gonna say bye-bye to grandma and grandpa?” Ryan prompts her, waving his hand for her to copy. She just started to learn it, so it’s really hit or miss. Much to their surprise she raises her hand a little and tries to wave goodbye.

Her grandparents wave back enthusiastically, then leave with promises to see them next weekend.

Ryan lets out a big breath he hadn’t realized he was holding and leans on the kitchen counter.

“I thought you liked parties?” Shane says, picking little bits of cake from Charlie’s hair.

“I do just… not- not when I don’t know anyone. I was excited to meet your family and talk to other adults, but I didn’t get to talk to anyone except you and your parents. They were too busy focusing on Charlie. Which is good but…” Ryan doesn’t know what he’s trying to say so he lets his sentence trail off.

“But you’re starting to feel like my trophy husband?” Shane asks with that familiar mischievous look on his face.

“Trophy?” Ryan smiles but his tone is slightly challenging, giving Shane an out since if Ryan isn’t mistaken, Shane just called him hot. Though Ryan’s brain is still focusing on the my husband part of his remark, because Ryan doesn’t think they’ve ever addressed it so directly using those words.

Shane shrugs the best he can while holding Charlie.  He starts walking towards the bathroom saying, “I oughta get her in the shower before she falls asleep on me. Can you-”

“Grab you both a change of clothes? Yup.”

Shane pauses at the edge of the hallway and says, “You know…”

“The finishing each other’s sentences thing is getting weird? I know.” Ryan sighs.

“Weird but efficient.” Shane mutters as he walks down the hallway.

Ryan rubs his face and then surveys the mess that is their house. Shane hadn’t been lying when he said it wasn’t much of a mess. It’s not much worse than they’ve become accustomed to while taking care of an infant.  Just trash to round up, decorations to take down, cake to clean from the floor, Charlie’s highchair to wipe down, toys to find places for, and lots of alcohol to put away.

Ryan hadn’t been anticipating receiving any gifts himself, and he definitely hadn’t anticipated nearly everyone coming with a wrapped toy for Charlie and a six pack or a bottle of the hard stuff for the adults,  but that’s what happened. In the moment he hadn’t known whether to be appreciative or insulted, but after the emotional powder keg the day turned out to be he settles on appreciative.

He hears the water turn on in the bathroom and goes to pick out pajamas and comfy clothes for Charlie and Shane, setting them next to the sink in the bathroom on his way back to the kitchen to get started cleaning.

Ryan opens one of the newly gifted bottles of whiskey and downs a shot before getting to work gathering all the paper plates and throwing them out. He pulls down the streamers and the happy birthday banner, removes the table cover, and takes another shot.

He’s sweeping up bits of cake when he hears the familiar sound of Charlie’s babbling behind him. He turns around and sees such a mundane image that he sees nearly every day, yet it never fails to make his heart swell.  They’ve changed into the clothes Ryan left out; Shane’s holding Charlie, and she’s far from asleep now, saying “papapapa” over and over and reaching out for Ryan.

He smiles and sets the broom down, walking over to take Charlie from Shane. “What happened? You were so tired you couldn’t keep your head up.” Ryan says to her. She replies in her own way but Shane answers for her.

“She was almost falling asleep in the shower but when I was getting her dressed she seemed to think that meant it’s playtime.” Shane says, placing his hands on Ryan’s shoulders and gently maneuvering him out of the way so Shane can reach the broom Ryan put down. Maybe Shane forgot to turn off the act now that everyone’s gone, or maybe they’ve just gotten more comfortable with casual touches, but either way it’s not good for Ryan’s heart.

“Playtime huh? It’s probably just all that sugar hitting her.” Ryan smiles and takes her into the living room so she can play with her new toys. “I give it an hour max and she’ll be out.”

Shane makes a noise of agreement.

Charlie’s still more interested in the wrapping paper than the toys, and she’s content to just sit on Ryan’s lap ripping and crinkling up the paper. Ryan’s thankful to just get to hold her like this after the hectic day they’ve had.  He feels like he barely got to spend any time with her today since everyone else was taking up all her attention.

He turns the tv on and only half pays attention to the movie that’s playing. Mostly he just watches Charlie and wonders if they’re going to be in this world long enough for his family to meet her. He knows how much they would love her because she’s amazing and he’s already incredibly proud of her and wants to show her off. If he’s going to have to leave this world eventually, that’s a memory he’d really like to take with him.  

Charlie mumbles something at Ryan and holds up the ball of wrapping paper for him to see.

“Are you giving it to me?” He asks, holding his hand out. She puts it in his hand and claps, smiling. “Thank you that’s very sweet of you. But you can keep it if you want to.” He holds it out for her to take but she doesn’t have any interest, instead she just wriggles around in his lap until she’s got her head resting on his chest and she’s able to lean against him. Ryan slides down in his seat so she can rest more comfortably.

It doesn’t take long before she’s asleep in his arms. He’ll never get tired of how it feels when she does this. How much she loves him and how safe and comfortable she must feel that her preferred bed is his chest.

His position starts to get uncomfortable so eventually he has to get up and put her in her crib.

When he returns to the living room Shane has stolen his spot and set the whiskey bottle and shot glasses on the coffee table.

“You’re in a weird mood today so I thought we could finish what you started and get kinda drunk.”

“Only kinda?” Ryan says, plopping on the couch next to him.

“Or very. Dealer’s choice.” Shane watches as Ryan fills their shot glasses

Ryan quickly downs his and starts pouring another.

“More family stuff or just stress?”

Ryan shakes his head, “It’s not because I miss my family. It’s because this isn’t real.” Ryan knows how Shane will interpret his words, and he knows the real meaning behind them won’t even cross Shane’s mind.

“It sure feels real.” Shane says, taking a shot.

“But this isn’t our world. And in a month and half nothing has changed. Shouldn’t we be doing more to try to get home?”

“You wanna get home that bad?”  

Ryan pours another shot. He doesn’t want to answer because honestly, he’s not that eager to get home. But living here is starting to feel like he’s won the lottery, yet any day it could all be ripped away without any warning. He wants to commit fully to being in this new world, to being a part of Shane’s family, to setting down roots, but he’s got to at least try to keep one foot grounded in their old reality, where there’s no Charlie, and where Shane has a girlfriend. Ryan doesn’t know how much longer he can deal with being so close yet so far from what he’s starting to realize he really wants. So Ryan just asks,  “Don’t you?”

“Of course I’d like to go home, but this place isn’t so bad.”

“Not so bad.” Ryan nods and takes a shot. “What about Sara?”

“Sara…” Shane runs his hand through his hair. “It sucks, but in this reality it’s over, right? And depending on what this place is, we might get home and the same amount of time passed there. In which case, it’s probably over. If it’s just a long ass dream, which I’m still hoping it is,  and we get home and no time passed, then sweet, nothing to worry about. But the longer we stay here and the more I experience of this world, it’s starting to seem likely that it’s just a parallel universe we somehow got transported to, which means we’re stuck here. Indefinitely. Likely forever.”

Ryan doesn’t know how to feel, or how to respond. He wonders how long Shane has been thinking this place is forever. He figured the second Shane thought this world was permanent he’d be trying to find a way out of the weird situation he was in with Ryan. But here they are, getting drunk together at 7pm after their daughter’s first birthday party. Ryan hears himself saying,  “You’re okay with that?” but what he really means you’re okay with this, with me?

Shane shrugs. “It is what it is. I’ve made peace with it. You?”

“I’m…. okay. Yeah.” Ryan takes a deep breath and sits back in the couch, letting his head fall back, staring at the ceiling.

“Glad we’re on the same page again.” Shane chuckles.

Ryan doesn’t respond, but he almost wants to laugh at the absurdity of Shane’s statement.  They’re not on the same page. They’re probably not even in the same book.

Ryan wants to ask why Shane’s going along with this sham marriage if he thinks they’re going to be here forever. They’re not in love so the logical solution would be to ‘break up’. They could easily get a divorce and it wouldn’t be suspicious. Their incomes are tied together, but Shane’s going to have his own non-youtube income soon, so that wouldn’t be a problem for him. But Ryan doesn’t ask, because he doesn’t want to put those ideas in Shane’s head. Ryan wants them to keep living here,  together, with Charlie for as long as possible.

When they go to bed that night, Shane lays facing Ryan with his arm stretched across Ryan’s waist. Regardless of the positions they tend to wake up in, when they go to sleep they’re always separated, never touching. Ryan doesn’t know whether it’s because of the alcohol, or the conversation, or maybe Shane just doesn’t think anything of it, but Ryan’s very aware that it’s the first time he’s falling asleep in Shane’s arms. It settles something within him.