December 2013 - Seattle
Sam cursed the ringing doorbell. It had been one of those days. Lately, they all seemed to be. She shut the door to Jax' room behind her, staring down at the sleeping form of her son, his face still streaked with the tears he'd been crying nearly all day. His persistent screams were now silent, one hand tangled in Sam's hair as his chest rose and fell rhythmically. She placed him lightly in his crib, praying that the insistent ringing of the doorbell didn't wake him.
Walking back into the hallway she considered ignoring it. Freddie was at school, Marissa was at work and there was no one else she had any desire at all to see. It was probably just a delivery guy anyway. Her family and friends had gone way overboard on Jax for Christmas this year and with Christmas just days away, it seemed SendEx had set up permanent residence outside their apartment.
Screw it…they could leave the box in the hallway.
She turned into her bedroom, nearly crying with relief as she fell, face down, onto the bed. She'd been up since five this morning. Jax had an ear infection and he was miserable. And if Jax was miserable, she was miserable. It didn't help that things with Freddie had been…tense the last few weeks, and with Carly all the way across the country she'd never felt so completely alone. She bit her bottom lip against the tears that threatened to fall. She knew that motherhood would be hard, that building a family at so young an age would be hard…but she didn't know it would be this hard.
The doorbell rang again, this time joined by the chiming of her cell phone. Why was it on the days she just wanted to be left alone the world made it impossible? She groaned, burying her face in a pillow while reaching into her pocket for her cell phone. From the ring tone alone she knew who it was.
"You know I love you Carly, but this had better be important. I'm talking life, death or deportation."
"Well, aren't you just a ray of sunshine! Is that any way to talk to your best friend in the world who you haven't seen in four months and you miss like crazy?" Carly laughed.
"Sorry Carls, I just…" Sam tapered off as the doorbell ringer started up again.
"You should probably get that…"
"And someone should probably get a paramedic for whoever's out here ringing this damn bell." She grumbled as she stood from the bed, storming out of her room and heading for the door. "I swear if they wake Jax up …" she stopped, her previous thought forgotten as she opened the door to reveal her best friend leaning against the wall opposite her open door, a smile beaming on her face.
"Carly! What the hell are you doing here?" she screamed, her words muffled as Carly pulled her into a hug.
"Is that any way to greet you son's favorite aunt?" Carly laughed
"You'd better not let Melanie hear you say that!" Sam smiled for what felt like the first time in weeks as she pulled Carly into the apartment.
"Everyone will know the truth when Jax says my name first."
Sam stood back to get a good look at Carly. Georgetown had been good to her friend. Carly had always been pretty, but there was a look of contentment on her face that Sam hadn't seen in a long time, and the freshman fifteen everyone complained about looked good on her, adding curves and softness to her normally slim frame.
"Lookin' good Shay!"
"Feeling good Puckett!" Carly reached out and hugged her again. "It's so good to see you! Feels like it's been forever."
Sam pulled away and raised an eyebrow. "That's because it has been forever. Maybe if you actually came home once in a while you wouldn't miss me so much."
Carly had been home all summer and it had almost felt like old times. She'd spent nearly every day with Sam and Jax, hanging out and catching up on each other lives. It was strange at first. Carly had to adjust to Sam as a mom and Sam had to work to suppress the jealousy she felt when Carly talked about her new friends, her new life. But by the end of summer they'd fallen back into a routine and their friendship was even stronger. When Carly left in August, it had been even harder than the first time.
At Thanksgiving Carly's dad had been able to come stateside and it'd been easier for him to visit her in D.C., so Spencer and their grandfather had made the trip out east to join them. She and Carly had talked on the phone and tried to be good sports about it, but it seemed no matter how long Carly had been gone, Sam couldn't quite get used to it.
"I'm sorry Sam, schools just been so crazy this year." Carly took of her jacket and tossed it over the back of the couch, patting the seat on the sofa beside her. "I'm trying to get into this internship program for the summer and my courses are so hard! And I wanted to come for Thanksgiving but then Dad…"
"It's cool Carly, I was only joking…sort of." She laughed. "But I missed you kid." She tried to keep a smile on her face but Carly had known her long enough to see through it.
"Hey… what's going on?"
Sam shook her head. Having Carly here made it difficult to maintain the mask of strength she'd forced herself to wear.
"Sam?" Carly reached out and took her hand. "Talk to me…what's the matter?"
"It's just…hard, Carly. Really hard."
"What's hard? Is it Jax? Motherhood?"
"No! I mean, yes, being a mom is serious chizz, but I'm crazy about Jax and he's older now so it's easier than it was. Well, at least when he's not sick and screaming his head off."
"So then, what is it? Freddie?"
Sam was silent, staring down at her hands.
"Oh my God, what's going on? Are you two okay? You can't break up, Sam! You love him and he loves you and what about Jax?"
"Calm down, Carly!" Sam shook her head. How could she explain the problem to Carly, she barely understood it herself. "We're not breaking up. We're just not…moving forward." she offered, the end of her sentence a whisper.
"Moving forward? What are you talking about Sam? I thought you liked it this way?"
Sam had no answer for that. Carly was right, she had liked it that way. Those were almost the exact words she'd used the first time Freddie had asked her to marry him. He'd been so sweet, holding her hand, telling her how much he loved her and how he was ready to be with her forever. She'd told him that being together forever wasn't based on a piece of paper and a ring. That she didn't want to rock the boat, that she loved him and loved their life just the way it was. And she'd meant it…then.
She'd still meant it the next time he'd asked her, just after Jax's first birthday. It had been the most wonderful, stressful day of her life. She'd been running around all day, preparing for the party, greeting guests, trying to keep the newly walking Jax clean and out of trouble. The apartment had been filled with all the people she loved most: Freddie, Marissa, Carly and Spencer. Melanie had made the trip to Seattle to celebrate and after months of awkward meetings she and her mother had reached an almost comfortable place in their relationship and Pam had shown up…with a gift no less. At the end of the day after she'd bathed Jax, who was covered in frosting from head to toe, and put him to bed, she'd lain next to Freddie with her head on his chest, thinking she couldn't possibly ever be happier than she was in that moment.
Freddie had been quiet that night, watching from the door as she put Jax to bed, smiling but still silent as she changed into her pajamas and crawled in bed beside him.
"What's on your mind?"
He shook his head, saying nothing.
"Come on Benson, I've known you forever. Something's up." She rose up on one elbow to look at him. "Spill."
Freddie looked into her eyes with a steady intensity that made her want to look away. When she started to do just that, he reached out and held her chin with his hand.
"I love you, Sam."
"I know Freddie. I love you too."
She pulled herself to a seated position. "Yes, you dork, of course I do. What's this about?"
Freddie sat with his back against the headboard, crossing his arms over his chest.
"Today was so amazing, Sam. Just watching Jax and you, it just…it felt so right, so completely right. I kept thinking 'This is mine. My family, our family'." He turned to look at Sam. "And I thought this is it. This is all I'll ever want. You and Jax, Sam. That's what I want…forever."
Sam smiled and laid her head on his chest, closing her eyes as his arm wrapped around her. She didn't really have words to respond. After a lifetime of feeling like there was nowhere she fit, she'd finally found her place. Hearing his words only made her surer of it. As hard as parenthood was, as difficult as it had been to get here, she was happy to have come to a place where she could be content. Happy to have a life she loved. She prayed it didn't change.
"Marry me, Sam." His words were a whisper that echoed in the silence and brought her contended thoughts to a screeching halt.
It had been months since the last time he'd mentioned this. Months where she thought he'd let it go, that he was as happy as her to leave things as they were. In their unmarried state they were happier and better adjusted than most of the married (and divorced) couples she knew. In her experience marriage didn't make things better. It was just a piece of paper that might as well be an invitation to divorce court.
"Freddie, we've talked about this…"
"No, you've talked, and I've listened. But I want you to listen to me now." He sat up so that he was looking down into her face even as she tried to avoid his eyes. "I've heard all your reasons for not marrying me and I get it, I really do. People in your life have given marriage a bad rap."
"Not just people in my life… People everywhere! The divorce rate is…"
"Okay…so people get divorced, lots of people. But we're not them Sam. We're us, and I know that nothing in this world would ever make me not want to be with you…nothing." He sat back and sighed. "I'm sorry, this isn't the way I wanted to do this." He reached over to the nightstand and Sam held her breath. She knew in the back of her mind what he was doing; what he was reaching for. It was an out of body experience. She hovered over them, watching her own face fill with fear as the reality of what was happening registered, watching Freddie's hand shake as he sat up, a small velvet box in his hand.
"I love you Sam. I want to love you forever. That's all I want to do." He closed his eyes, the box still in his hand. "Please don't say no."
Sam tried to swallow past the fear blocking her throat, her heart breaking at the look on his face. The silence extended the time until a century had passed with neither of them speaking. Freddie's breath was shallow as he dared to look up, into her face.
She knew she had to answer him. Had to say something but no words would come. Why did he have to make this so hard? Why wasn't being with her, the way they were now, enough for him? Loving Freddie had been the single bravest thing she'd ever done. Trusting him to love her back had required a courage that was hard won and even now seemed to be a daily decision. So taking this step wasn't about how much she loved him. It was about the tiny slivers of her past that still pierced her heart. She didn't know how to make him see.
She slid across the space between them, settling on his lap and wrapping her arms around his neck.
"I love you more than you can possibly know," she whispered into his ear, "and I know that you're it for me…forever. I just…" she paused, trying to find the right words.
Freddie sat up and Sam's arms dropped to her sides. The pain in his face tore at her.
"You're saying no…again."
She placed a hand to his chest, preventing him from moving.
"Freddie please, please don't take it like that." She looked into his eyes, pleading, "this has nothing to do with whether or not I want to spend the rest of my life with you. I've spent the last year showing you how much you mean to me. I do want to marry you..." She smiled as he looked up at her, hopeful. "...Someday… I'm not saying no. I'm just saying, not yet. Just…just give me time." She tried to read his face, hoping, praying that he'd understand.
Freddie sighed, wrapping his arms around her waist as he pulled her to him. They sat still together for a while, the sound of his heart beating in her ears as she pressed her face to his chest.
"Do you want to see it?" he asked, holding the box out to the side.
"What…and ruin the surprise?" she smiled.
"Oh…so now it needs to be a surprise?"
"Absolutely. And I expect you to pull out all the stops."
"Is that so?"
"Mmm Hmm. And none of this proposing in bed…I expect you to be on one knee Benson."
"And can you give me a hint on when this big, bended knee, surprise should be?"
"Nope." She said, smiling into his chest, happy to be them again. "But when it's time, you'll know."
"Hello…Earth to Sam!" Carly waved a hand in front of Sam's face. "Where did you go just now?" Carly laughed as Sam shook her head, trying to dispel the memories.
Sam sighed. "Just thinking of the colossal mess I've made…of everything."
"You are really confusing me here. I thought things with you and Freddie were good? The last time we talked you said you were happy."
"I was. I mean I am. I mean…oh, I don't know what the hell I mean. That's the problem." Sam raised her hands in frustration.
"So let me get this straight. You and Freddie are still together." Sam nodded. "And you were happy?" another nod, "But now you're not, because…?"
"Argh! Don't make me say it out loud Carly!"
"Iwanttogetmarried!" Sam screamed, then buried her face in her hands.
Carly stopped mid-sentence, her mouth still open. Of all the things she thought Sam would say, this was nowhere on the list. She'd been talking to Sam about this off and on since the first time Freddie had asked Sam to marry him. And every time they talked Sam's answer was still the same; she loved Freddie but she wasn't ready for marriage. Carly had even had a few conversations with Freddie about it. She'd helped him work up the courage to ask Sam, given him advice on picking a ring, and consoled him when Sam said no…twice. After a while she'd sort of given up thinking it would happen anytime soon. She thought that Freddie had too. Now to see her friend so upset, hear her say the words no one thought she'd ever say; Carly was beyond shocked.
"Wow." It was all Carly could think to say.
"Go ahead and say it."
"I told you so. Go ahead. Tell me I was an idiot to say no all the other times. Tell me it's too late and I ruined everything and he's never gonna ask me." Sam's words were muffled against her hands.
"Sam…Sam look at me." Carly reached out, peeling Sam's hands away from her face, smiling at how adorable it was for Sam to be sitting here, worrying she'd never had the very thing she'd been resisting for so long. "I'm not going to say that, because it's not true."
"Yes it is Carly. The last time he asked me was almost 6 months ago, and since then – not a single word about it!"
"You told him to give you time and to stop talking about it!" she laughed.
"It's not funny Carly! His crazy mother doesn't even bring it up anymore and you know she used to talk about it all the time!" Sam flopped back against the arm of the sofa, throwing her arm across her eyes.
"Sam. You're freaking out for nothing. Freddie loves you. He's only giving you what you said you wanted. And when did that change anyway…what you wanted I mean."
Sam pulled her arm away and looked over at her friend. As hard as this was to talk about it, it felt sort of good to get it off her chest. She'd been carrying this around for months, since the last time he'd asked; since she realized what a terrible mistake she'd made.
The morning after Jax' birthday she'd woken up in Freddie's arms and immediately thought about the night before, and everything Freddie had said. That day something started tickling at the back of her mind. A small voice she really didn't want to hear.
Freddie woke up and she waited for him to mention it, but he never did. He kissed her the same way he always did, got dressed and left for school. All day the little voice refused to let her rest and after she'd put Jax down for a nap she went into their bedroom, sat on the edge of the bed and opened the nightstand drawer. The small velvet box was gone and as much as she wanted to ignore the voice in her head, there was no denying the feeling of disappointment as she looked into the empty drawer.
In need of a distraction she'd called her mother and asked if she and Jax could come over to visit. She and her mother had made great strides in healing their relationship but it was still a rare occasion for her to go to her mother's house. But the nagging doubts and lingering disappointment in her heart couldn't be drowned out in the Benson's quiet apartment. She needed distraction, she needed noise. If her mother's voice couldn't drown it all out, nothing would.
She arrived at her mom's, Jax and all his swag in tow and they'd spent an hour catching up, talking about Jax and her mother's new boyfriend (who could remember his name?). Finally Pam turned to her with a trademark smirk.
"So why are you really here? Trouble in paradise?"
Leave it to Pam to cut right to the chase.
"What? No, everything's fine. Jax just wanted to see his Grandma, that's all."
"Cut the crap Sammy. Jax is one…he can't even say my name. And don't call me Grandma…makes me feel old." Sam rolled her eyes. "Now are you gonna tell me what's going on?"
Sam sighed. Things were still relatively new with her mom. They hadn't quite gotten to the 'bare your soul' portion of the mother/daughter thing yet. But she supposed there was a first time for everything.
"Freddie asked me to marry him." She looked at her mother, waiting for the smart remark. "Crazy, huh? I mean, we're only 19 and marriage is for chumps, isn't that what you always said?"
Pam shook her head and stood up, walking toward the back of the house. A moment later she re-appeared, holding a small picture frame. "I've said a lot of things." She said, wiping dust off the pictures glass, before handing it to Sam.
Sam looked down and her breath caught.
"This is you and dad."
"Yep." Pam's voice was quiet. "We went downtown to the courthouse. Your grandmother almost died when I told her I was gonna wear white." Pam laughed. "You and Mellie are in that picture too. I looked pretty good for a lady 4 months pregnant with twins."
Sam ran a hand over the photo, taking note of how much she looked like her father. When her dad left, her mom had removed nearly every trace of him from the house. The few pictures she'd left were tucked away and Sam had always felt like a traitor when she tried to look at them. Seeing his face was bittersweet.
"So why are you showing me this?" she asked, "Trying to show me just how bad an idea marriage is? How crazy I'd be to do it?"
"Sammy, for a smart girl, sometimes you're dumb as a box of rocks." She took the photo from Sam's hands. "The people in this picture were happy." She paused. "I was happy. I wanted to marry your dad…and he wanted to marry me. The people in this picture…made a good decision."
"What! How in the world can you say that? He left you! He left us! He made a promise to be there and then…he broke it! If you'd never gotten married maybe none of that would have happened. So what part of that was a good decision?"
"That's the thing Sammy. On this day Brian and I made a decision, to be together, to love each other, to make it work. But marriage isn't about making one decision on one day; it's committing to making that same decision, every day for the rest of your life. Your dad and I…we stopped making that decision."
"I still don't get it. I mean…if that happened to you, then what's to stop it from happening to me too?"
"You're to stop it Sam. You and that man of yours." She reached out and grabbed Sam's hand, the feeling was at once strange and comforting. "You aren't me, and Freddie sure as hell ain't Brian. You can make the choice to have the life you want but first you have to stop being scared you'll end up with the life I had. Is marriage hard? Yes! Is it a risk? Hell yes! This ain't Vegas Sammy, nothing in life is a sure thing. But if there is anything you can learn from the crap heap I made of my life, learn that it's worth the risk to be happy. It's worth whatever hell you might have to go through to be with someone who really loves you. And that boy loves you, Sammy. So you need to pull that pretty little head of yours out of your ass and marry him. Marry him and squeeze every piece of happiness that you can out of every damn day for as long as you have him."
Her mother went silent, staring down at the picture. As backwards as her reasoning was, her mother made sense. The nagging voice was shouting now, encouraged by Pam's words. Her mother stood and walked back into her room, putting the picture back in its hiding place. When she returned, she changed the subject, and after that day had never mentioned it again. But her words returned to Sam over and over from then on, stoking a desire in her she'd denied.
She wanted to marry Freddie. She wanted to be the other Mrs. Benson.
Since then every quiet moment with Freddie she held her breath wondering if this would be it, would this be the day he asked again. She already knew what she'd say, she'd practiced looking surprised, thought of how she'd call Carly and scream her happiness into the phone. But the moments always passed and the small velvet box never re-appeared.
After two months she'd taken to dropping hints. When he came home she'd turned the television to 'Say Yes to the Dress' or 'Bridezillas'. He'd sit beside her, make the appropriate comments when she pointed out this dress or that dress, and laugh with her at how horrible some of the brides were. 'I hope I'm not like that' she'd said one day, looking to see if her comment registered on his face. He'd just laughed and said, 'You'll probably be worse', then went into their bedroom to study, placing a kiss on her head as he walked by.
She'd considered enlisting Carly's help, but that would mean admitting to Carly how she felt and after a solid year of rattling off all the reasons marriage wasn't a good idea, she was a little embarrassed to be so desperate for it suddenly. So she'd suffered in silence, growing increasingly depressed when it seemed that her window of opportunity might never come again.
Freddie wasn't acting any differently. He was as affectionate as ever and their sex life…well, there was nothing at all to complain about there. But gone were the hints, subtle and not so subtle, that she'd taken for granted. He seemed to have forgotten about it entirely. And that was driving her insane.
She looked over at Carly and took a deep breath.
"About 6 months ago. Right after he asked me the last time. Since then…I don't know, I guess I just understand now. I know what I want now."
"And you want Freddie?"
"So much, Carly." She rolled her eyes at the Cheshire grin on Carly's face. "Please don't go all girly on me. I feel like enough of a sap as it is."
"Awww…but it's so sweet!"
"Carly…" Sam warned, standing to go get Jax, whose cries reached the living room.
"Sam loves Freddie…Sam loves Freddie…Sam loves Freddie!" she heard Carly calling behind her.
She smiled to herself as she walked down the hall. Carly was a dork but she was right. Sam did love Freddie. She was ready to show him just how much.
But was that still what he wanted?
"The examination will conclude at five o'clock sharp, that is, in forty-five minutes. You will give me your papers no later than then. I am not moved by tears or emotional displays." His professor peered up at the students in the lecture hall, filled to capacity for the first time since the first day of class. Freddie stifled his laughter as the professor surveyed all of them with a look of disdain.
'What a putz', Freddie thought, flipping backwards through the fifteen pages of his math exam, focused on the mathematical modeling of chaos theory. While not delighted with his work, he hoped it would not cost him the A he had maintained in the rest of the course. At the very least, he was happy that with this final exam, another semester was over, and he could look forward to four weeks off that he could devote to Sam and Jax before the spring semester began.
Finishing a full thirty minutes before the end of the exam period, he placed his paper on the professor's table and sighed in relief, happy to be free from his most difficult and boring class. Gathering his books, he stashed them in his bag and prepared to leave the lecture hall. All around him students gathered in clusters, laughing and talking about their plans for the Christmas break. This was his second year at UW, and he still didn't know very many people. The few students he had met were either inappropriately curious or completely weirded out by his situation. He was nineteen with a baby and a live-in girlfriend. Not exactly a typical student. He didn't mind really. In high school his social circle had been small. He didn't really go to parties, unless Carly was throwing them, and wasn't exactly voted most popular. Back then he'd been focused on his studies, iCarly, and the two best friends that meant everything to him. Now he had even more of a reason not to care what people thought. He had Jax, and Sam and a life that he loved…mostly.
Shaking his head he exited the building and set off for the parking lot. He did love his life-most of the time. Having Jax had been hard, but he felt like he'd found his stride as a father and things were much easier now than they'd been in the beginning. On most days he had a long enough break between classes that he could sneak home to see Sam and the baby. Sometimes Sam would meet him on campus for lunch. It wasn't perfect but he thought they were doing a pretty good job, all things considered. He was doing well in school and with the money he was making with his side job doing building websites, he was able at least to provide the basics for his little family.
Family. That's what they'd become. Despite the odds that were stacked against them and a history that had more lows than highs, they'd become a family. At least that's what he liked to think, but over the last year one issue had been eating away at his mind and disrupting the peace he'd found.
It had been 'the word that must not be spoken' in their house for the past year. Not that he was against it; it was the exact opposite. He already wanted to marry Sam the day he brought her back from Willacoochee. He knew they were young, but in his mind a life with Sam and Jax was a foregone conclusion. Marriage made sense. Even his mother, formerly a card-carrying member of the 'I Hate Sam club,' had come around and frequently asked him when he intended to 'make an honest woman of her grandson's mother.' He suspected it had more to do with her reservations about premarital sex, but he was glad to have her on his side, regardless of her reasons for being there.
His current marital status wasn't for lack of trying on his part. He'd asked her, more than once. He even had a ring. He'd appealed to her emotions, told her how much he loved her, how he wanted to spend his life with her. No dice. He'd appealed to her sensible side, not the best idea in hindsight; sensible wasn't exactly Sam's style. He talked about health insurance and how, if they were married, they could move into their own place on campus in the married student apartments. Still nothing. At least the last time she hadn't said no. Not exactly. She'd said, 'not now,' which really meant the same thing as far as he was concerned. He'd been so angry. He didn't understand how she could say she loved him in one breath and then deny him the chance to spend forever with her in the next. Then he looked into her eyes. That night he saw something there that was rare to see in someone as strong as Sam. He saw fear. When she'd wrapped her arms around him and pleaded with him to just give her time he finally got it. Beneath all her bravado it was clear. She was scared.
From that day on he vowed to step back. It was hard. There were days when he'd come home and find her playing with Jax, her face lit in a smile and he could hardly contain himself. Seeing her like that, taking care of their son, learning to be happy after so many years of hardship and trouble, he had to bite his tongue to keep from screaming out 'Just marry me for God's sake!' But he'd done it. It had been six months since he'd mentioned marriage. He'd taken the ring he bought for her and put it in the farthest corner of the highest shelf in their bedroom closet, waiting for the right time.
He figured it would be years before she was ready. His mother told him to be patient, that when it was time he would know. It's the same thing Sam had said and at the time he thought she was crazy. As well as he knew her, there were still parts of Sam that were a mystery to him. Figuring out what she wanted, and when she wanted it was like a Sudoku puzzle where none of the numbers added up – seemingly impossible. But over the last few weeks, to his surprise, he'd had to admit that his mom-and Sam-were right.
It had started last month, right before Thanksgiving. Sam seemed to be acting differently. He thought he was imagining things at first. When commercials about weddings came on he thought he saw a strange look in her eyes, but as quickly as it came it was gone and he'd shrugged it off to hormones. Then she'd started watching this horrible show on TV, 'Bridezillas'. It followed women who were the devil incarnate as they screamed, bullied and sometimes physically fought their way to the altar. He figured she liked it because of all the cursing and violence, but then she'd asked him if he thought she'd be like that 'you know, one day, when we get married.' When. Not if. It was the first glimmer of hope that one day he'd be able to call her something besides his girlfriend or his son's mother. He was almost scared to answer her. Like spooking a horse, if he said the wrong thing, too fast or too slow she'd run off. He racked his mind then, trying to determine if this was it. Was she telling him she was ready? Should he ask her, right now, her in sweats stained with strained peas, him in Galaxy Wars pajama bottoms? 'No', he thought, this wasn't it. She deserved better than that.
He'd laughed it off, told her she'd probably be worse and promptly left the room. He told Sam he needed to study when really he'd had to leave or risk blurting out a shotgun proposal and ruining everything. But once in their room he quietly went to the closet, reached up on the shelf, and pulled down the tiny velvet box he thought he'd never see again. Sam was right. Everything in his body told him that this was it. She was ready.
Putting his car into drive he pulled out into the Seattle traffic and headed for home. Wednesday nights were his longest at school. No breaks, no time to go home and see Sam and Jax. By the time he got out of his last class he could never get home fast enough. In those moments he sometimes thought about Brian, Sam's father. He'd never understand how a man could walk out on his children. The idea of not being with Sam and Jax was unthinkable; they were his whole life. That's why tomorrow night was such a big deal. It would be the biggest moment of their lives together so far.
He smiled to himself as he pulled into the parking garage of Bushwell Plaza and looked at his watch. It was almost eight o'clock. Sam would probably be giving Jax a bath right now; if he hurried he'd be able to sit with her while she read to him. She'd been doing it since Jax was born – something Freddie had been silently shocked by. Every night she held Jax in the rocking chair or they put him in the bed between them and she'd read. If his mother had been as expressive as Sam when he was a kid, he might have enjoyed story time a little more. Sam did all the characters' voices. Freddie's personal favorite was when she did the Three Little Pigs, even though he'd had to convince her that it wasn't a good idea to change the ending so that the Big Bad Wolf was sitting down to a tasty ham sandwich. The girl was nothing if not creative.
He laughed to himself, grabbed his bag from the passenger's seat and slammed the door behind him, hurrying into the building. His phone vibrated in his pocket and he answered it without looking at the screen.
"I'm on my way up sexy." He murmured into the phone, "How about after Jax goes to bed, you and I…"
"Carly!" He almost dropped the phone in embarrassment. "Oh my God, I thought you were Sam."
"Obviously," Carly laughed, "And no offense…but I really don't want to know what the two of you do after my godson goes to bed."
"Yeah. Sorry about that." He pushed the button to the elevator, "So what's up? How's Georgetown?"
"It's great! I love it. I mean, this year is much harder than last year."
"You don't have to tell me."
"I swear it's like some of my professors want me to fail. I feel like all I do is study."
"Well, according to Sam, you're making time to be social. I saw a picture of you and some dude on Splashface. Andrew..Allan…"
"Alastair. And we're not together anymore."
"Still playing musical boyfriends, huh?" he laughed.
"Wow…Sam is really rubbing off on you. And no, I'm not playing musical boyfriends. I'm just looking for Mr. Right. We can't all be like you and Sam and find our one true love in kindergarten."
Freddie laughed, silently grateful to know Carly was right. He was lucky. Lucky not to be out searching for his soul mate; she was right upstairs, waiting for him.
"Speaking of her, I'm on my way in to see her now." He loved talking to Carly. She was the only person in his life right now that understood how difficult college was. Unless you counted Gibby, who was in California at school and, from the sound of it, much more interested in hitting on girls than hitting the books. But right now what he really wanted to do was see Sam.
"Wait, can you come by first?"
"Uh…unless you've got a private jet waiting for me on the roof I don't think that's gonna happen. Wait…are you home?"
"Yes, genius. Did you think I was asking you to come to D.C.? And you're supposed to be the smart one." She laughed, "I'm at home and I need to talk to you for a minute before you see Sam."
"Why? Is something wrong with Sam?" He said, exiting the elevator on the eighth floor.
"No. Not exactly." Carly stuttered in frustration, "Please don't be difficult, Freddie. I need to talk to you, it will only take a minute…and it might save your life."
Freddie stopped in his tracks. Save his life?
"What the heck are you talking about Carly."
The Shay apartment door opened to reveal a visibly nervous Carly. She glanced worriedly across the hall toward his apartment before motioning him into her own.
"Just shut up and get in here!" she whispered.
He followed her inside and sat down on the sofa as she shut the door behind him.
"Where's Spencer?" he asked.
"Oh, he's on a date. Some chick he met from Troubled Waters."
"That's what she says, but I'm not so sure."
Freddie laughed. A mental patient might be an improvement over Spencer's last girlfriend.
"So what did you want to talk about?"
"Great to see you too, Freddie. I'm fine, thanks for asking."
"Carly, it is great to see you and I'd love to catch up but I haven't seen Sam or Jax all day and I really need to get home. So can you please tell me what this is about?"
"Okay, okay." She sat down beside Freddie, and the look on her face told him he was in for a Carly-style lecture.
"Uh, oh what?"
"I know that look!"
"The 'you've done something wrong and I'm about to tell you about it even though it's none of my business'. That look."
"I'm not going to tell you that you did something wrong."
"That's a relief."
"This is about what you didn't do. I mean, what you didn't do yet. I mean, what you haven't done again."
"You're making even less sense than normal Carly."
"You need to ask Sam to marry you…again!" she blurted out. Freddie sat still with his mouth open.
"You need to ask her Freddie. Like now!"
"Where is all this coming from?" he asked.
"I went to see her today and she's a mess, Freddie. She's all upset and thinks you don't want to marry her and she kept talking about how she ruined everything and you're never gonna ask her again and she's scared to bring it up because she turned you down all those other times."
"No, listen to me. Sam is my best friend and I've known her forever so I think I know what she wants and I know you think you know her better than me but you must not because if you did then you'd have asked her again already and it's just crazy Freddie, absolutely crazy for you to give up on marrying Sam." Carly stood and began pacing in front of the sofa, wringing her hands with nervous energy.
"I mean, I know she turned you down before and that was probably pretty hard. And I know she's probably not the easiest person to live with and everything but she loves you so much, and you can't just give up and if you don't ask her again it'll just kill her. So you need to man up, go over there and ask her to be your wife. Because if you don't Freddie, so help me God…"
"Carly! Shut up!"
Carly stopped mid-sentence, hands still flailing mid-air.
"Sorry…but you were just…"
"Rambling." She said, taking a seat beside Freddie.
"Yeah." He sat up and looked at her. "Listen Carly, I know Sam's been your best friend forever and I know you think you know her best, but I know her pretty well too."
"I know that Freddie, but…"
"You, quiet. Me, talking." Carly sat back, quiet. "All I'm trying to tell you is that you don't have to worry. I haven't given up on marrying Sam."
"Of course not Carly! Marrying Sam is the thing I want most in the world! When she said no before it almost killed me. I haven't said anything because she asked me to give her time and wait until the moment was right. And now…"
Freddie smiled, "Now, the moment is right. Or at least it will be tomorrow."
"Oh my God! You're going to propose tomorrow?" Freddie nodded and grunted at the loss of air as Carly pulled him into a tight hug.
"Carly. Need to breathe."
"Sorry." She said, releasing him, a smile stretched wide across her face. "Oh, Freddie! I'm so happy for you! So how are you going to do it? Is there anything I can do?"
"Well, now that you mention it," he said, "I might be able to use your help."
Sam squinted against the bright light creeping through the blinds. As she did every morning, she held her breath and waited. The house was silent, the only sound Freddie's slow steady breathing as he slept beside her. Turning over, she peered at the clock: six a.m. Shifting in bed she attempted to find a comfortable spot, hoping she'd be able to go back to sleep. It was a useless effort. 'Things have really changed' she thought. In high school on a Saturday the world never found her a willing participant earlier than noon. Since she'd had Jax, she was lucky to sleep past seven, her internal clock never allowing that luxury. Sometimes, if he hadn't been up late working, Freddie would get up with Jax in the morning, telling Sam to sleep in. But try as she might, once she was up there was no going back to sleep and usually she'd just lay there listening as Freddie made a valiant attempt at what had become a daily routine for her.
Sighing, she threw the blankets off of her and started to leave the warmth of her bed. Before she could sit up an arm snaked tightly around her waist and Freddie pulled her back down, curling himself around her.
"Good morning, Princess Puckett." He murmured into her neck, his eyes still heavy lidded with sleep.
Princess Puckett. It had been a long time since he called her that. Yet another reminder of the issue they'd yet to re-visit. She swallowed hard against the disappointment rising in her throat and relaxed into Freddie's side.
"Good morning yourself."
"What time is it?" Freddie asked, his hand running down her side, sending shivers up her spine.
"Early. Go back to sleep."
"Not sleepy." His voice was husky in her ear. She loved his morning voice, still laced with sleep, filled with the promises of what their time alone could hold. His lips were soft as they began to trail down her neck, stopping at her shoulder as he hooked a finger under the strap of her tank top, tugging it down. His lips continued their trail as his hands, warm against her skin traced lightly over her hip bone. "I missed you." He said, reaching up a hand to tangle in her hair, pulling her mouth to his.
Yesterday he'd left early and when he came home she'd already been asleep. Spending a full day apart didn't happen often and she felt her body answer him without words. She'd missed him too. Grabbing onto the front of his shirt she pulled herself closer to him still, giving in to the kiss. She reveled in the sensation of his body close to hers, his hands exploring familiar places, exciting her like the first time.
His movements were urgent now, her response stirring him. Suddenly he was tugging at her shorts, sliding a hand down her thigh as he wrapped her leg around him, his lips hard against hers. It was a parenthood thing. Mornings were not the time to move slow, draw out the moment. Time was as limited as their need was insistent. If they didn't hurry…
Sam and Freddie groaned, as the baby monitor lit up on the night stand, Jax cries like ice water on the heat of their moment. Freddie buried his face in Sam's chest.
"That kid has impeccable timing," he moaned.
Sam laughed and kissed the top of Freddie's head. Pushing him off of her she adjusted her clothes, preparing to get Jax. He was just like her; ignoring his cries only made them louder.
"I'd better go get him. He's probably hungry." She stretched and looked down at Freddie who was regarding her with a look that said he hadn't entirely given up on making good use of their morning. Sam laughed. "Forget about it lover boy. Your son is hungry, and so is your…" the word caught in her throat, "girlfriend." She turned away quickly, trying to control the irritation that was sure to be evident on her face. Girlfriend, a title she seemed stuck with indefinitely.
"Fine." He grumbled, rolling over. "You go get Jax. I'll fix you both breakfast."
"Music to my ears," she said, exiting their room and heading for Jax's. "Meet you in the kitchen in five."
No matter how she felt, walking into Jax's room always made her feel better. It wasn't just how beautiful it was. The blue of the walls, covered in paintings of fluffy white clouds, was soothing, but what really calmed her was the moment when she peeked over the edge of the crib and into the face of her son.
Today Jax was already awake. Sitting up he rubbed at his eyes, his hair tousled from sleep.
"Good morning little man." Jax looked up at her, his face breaking into a wide grin, two teeth peeking out from his bottom gums.
"Ma!" he said, reaching his chubby hands toward her. She'd been so excited that his first word was Ma, but now, in his excitement to make himself understood, he often used the word for anything. Hearing it the first few times was exciting. Hearing it three thousand times a day was less so.
"Yeah, yeah, yeah." She laughed, kissing the top of his deep brown curls as she carried him to the changing table. Yet another glamorous part of motherhood; diapers and long distance peeing.
As she changed Jax she thought of the million things she needed to do today. It was Christmas Eve but, as usual, she'd waited until the last minute to wrap her gifts. Growing up, Christmas had never been a big deal in their house, at least not after her dad left. Her mom spent Christmas Eve getting tanked, had a headache most of Christmas Day and she'd never been very good in the gift giving department. Carly was usually at her grandfather's in Yakima on Christmas Day so until recently, Sam was used to spending the holiday virtually alone.
Her first Christmas with the Bensons, she found out what an all-out Christmas celebration looked like. Marissa spread decorations to every corner of the apartment until it shone so bright with tinsel and lights it could put all the Who's in Whoville to shame. Sure, the decorations were flame retardant and for over a month there were fire extinguishers in every room, but it was still the closest she'd come to a normal Christmas, complete with presents and traditions. She'd agonized over what to get Freddie this year. She'd ended up with mostly practical things-a new messenger bag for school, some geeky software he'd been drooling over, and something sentimental: a digital keychain filled with pictures of her and Jax.
Picking up Jax, she headed for the kitchen. Ignoring the annoying voice at the back of her mind, she put Jax in his high chair and watched as Freddie cooked breakfast, plastering a smile on her face that she hoped looked genuine.
She sat through breakfast with her family, grateful to be with them, telling herself that being together was all that mattered. She listened as Freddie laid out his plans for the day. He had something to do with Spencer and some work to do for a few clients. He reminded her of the tradition they'd started last year. At midnight, just the two of them would meet under the Christmas tree and open one present each. She nodded and smiled, told him how much she was looking forward to it. Freddie kissed her and headed to their bedroom to get dressed, leaving her alone in the kitchen with the thoughts she wanted to silence.
She tried not to think about what Freddie might have gotten her this year. He was always really good with presents, managing to get her things she liked even without her telling him what she wanted. Usually she looked forward to exchanging gifts, but this year her heart was heavy. There was only one thing she really wanted, and she was pretty sure she wasn't getting it.
"Yo, Spence!" Freddie called out into the seemingly empty Shay apartment. Carly was over at his apartment with Sam who was, as usual, wrapping Christmas presents at the last minute. One year, before they were a couple, she actually gave him a present six days after Christmas, wrapped with newspaper and duct tape. The present had been a CD, already opened because, as Sam put it, 'did you think I'd give it to you without making a copy for myself first?' He still had the CD, hidden in his closet, along with the newspaper it had come it. It was the first present she'd ever given him.
Sitting in the middle of the room was a giant box sitting on a low wooden platform. The box was wrapped up like a Christmas present, complete with enormous red bow.
"Hey Freddio!" Spencer's voice echoed in the room and Freddie looked around, unable to find him.
"Where are you?"
From under the box a set of feet peeked out, followed by Spencer's long legs as he slid out on what resembled a long metal skateboard. Freddie shook his head; he knew better than to ask what Spencer was doing. Whatever it was, it was probably too ridiculous to comprehend – and possibly flammable.
Spencer stood and cracked his back, standing beside the giant box with a goofy grin.
"So…aren't you gonna ask me what this is?"
"Yeah it is!" Spencer said, patting the box's side proudly, "It's my newest sculpture. I call it 'Go Big or Go Ho-Ho-Home'!"
"Uh…yeah. It's really…nice Spence. Who's it for?"
"I made it for my girlfriend to take down to Troubled Waters to bring Christmas joy to all the crazies and loons!" Spencer smiled wide at Freddie who was, at the moment, rendered speechless. "So, you ready for your big night?"
"Yeah, that's actually what I came by for. Is it ready?"
"Of course! Would I let you down? Hold on, I'll go grab it." Spencer headed for his bedroom returning a second later with Freddie's future in his hands. "Here you go kid."
"Thanks Spence. Seriously, you have no idea how much I appreciate it."
"Anytime. Now if you'll excuse me, I've still got some work to do on my awesome giant box."
Freddie waved at Spencer over his shoulder and headed out the door shaking his head. Spencer was truly certifiable, but he'd really come through for Freddie. Thanks to him, Sam was going to have the best Christmas ever, he hoped.
Entering the hallway he ran directly into Carly who'd just exited his apartment.
"Hey Freddie!" She looked down at Freddie's hands and smiled. The package Spencer had given him was wrapped in plain brown paper, but she knew what it was. "So, you're all set for tonight?"
"Yeah, but I was hoping you were going to keep Sam occupied so I could get this wrapped."
"No worries, just give it to me…I'll wrap it for you."
"Really? Thanks Carly. And you remember what to do right?"
Carly rolled her eyes. In the last 12 hours, Freddie had sent her three million text messages, mapping out the plan. She was well aware of her part in it, however small.
"Yes Freddie, I think I can handle knocking on a door."
"Yes, I know. You might have mentioned it like a thousand times already."
"You have to be on time Carly or…"
"Freddie!" she reached out and grabbed his shoulders. "You need to calm down. Okay?"
"Sorry Carls, just nervous I guess."
"Well you don't need to be. I just spent the last hour with your girlfriend who is seriously about to lose it. Trust me, you have nothing to worry about."
Freddie handed Carly the package and said goodbye, heading toward the parking garage. He had a few errands to run and needed some time to get his head together. He'd never been so nervous in his life. He had big plans for tonight. And they were going to change everything.
"Jax asleep?" Freddie said, opening the door to their bedroom where Sam lay on the bed, reading a magazine. She looked up at him as he entered and smiled. She was stretched out, a short silk robe in a deep blue hugging every curve. He almost didn't hear her answer him.
"Yeah. Went down about two hours ago. Where have you been?"
"Oh, just doing some last minute Christmas stuff." He walked over to the bed and stood over her.
"Stuff like buying me an awesome present?" she asked, raising up on her knees and wrapping her arms around his waist.
"Maybe. Have you been good this year?"
"I don't know," she said, running her hands underneath his shirt, "you tell me."
Freddie looked over at the clock before lowering his face to meet hers. It was 11:45. As Sam's lips moved against his, he forced himself to remember.
'You have plans Freddie' he told himself.
Her lips tasted like cherries, her hair smelled like vanilla as it fell around her shoulders still damp from a shower. And she was whispering things in his ear – really great things. Distracting things. His brain was slowly losing its fight for dibs on the blood supply.
'You have plans Freddie'. His brain was less and less willing to listen.
"So…" Sam whispered, "I was thinking that maybe you wanted to finish what you started this morning." Her lips were warm and soft against his neck and it took every ounce of will power he possessed to pull away from her. But he did it, his breath coming fast as he attempted to calm himself.
"Nothing. It's just that it's almost midnight and we're supposed to open presents." His voice trembled.
Sam smiled up at him wickedly she reached down to undo the knot holding the front of her robe together and wound her hands around his neck.
"Mama's got a present for you." She pulled herself close to him, moving back to his ear, "I hear you've been a very, very good boy." She punctuated each word with open mouthed kisses along his neck.
Good lord. This woman was going to be the death of him. He pulled away again and Sam groaned in frustration.
"Seriously Benson! Jax is asleep, your mom's not home and I'm wearing this." She opened her robe to reveal a set of underwear so skimpy she might as well not have been wearing it at all.
'You've got plans Freddie'. His mind screamed but his body insisted in no uncertain terms that it had plans of its own and he wrapped on arm around Sam's waist and pushed her back on the bed. 'What the hell," he thought, 'change in plans.'
The sound of the ringing doorbell was followed by a stream of expletives muttered into Freddie's shoulder. Sam pushed him off of her with a force that rolled him to the ground and wrapped her robe around her. Rising from the bed she stepped over Freddie's body, jerked the bedroom door open and stomped into the hallway.
"It had better freakin' be Santa himself or someone's gonna get hurt!"
Freddie laughed, swallowed against the nerves bubbling in his chest and walked to the messenger bag he'd discarded at the bedroom door. Finding what he needed inside, he slid it into his pocket, took a deep breath, and followed Sam into the living room. As she stalked in the dark toward the door he turned on the Christmas tree, allowing its soft light to illuminate the room. He took a seat under the tree and waited trying not to let his nerves end the surprise before it started.
"What the hell?" Sam looked both ways down the hallway before leaning down to pick up a package outside the door. Holding it in her hands she walked over to where Freddie sat, lowering herself beside him.
"What is it?" he asked, trying to keep his voice from shaking.
"Don't know." Sam turned the wide, flat package over in her hands. "But it's got my name on it."
"Then you should open it."
Sam raised an eyebrow. "Freddie…is this from you?"
"Just open it…" he said, impatiently.
Shaking her head she peeled back the paper, raising her eyes to him in confusion.
"It's a book. Like a kid's book." She ran a hand over the cover. "'The Princess in the Tower' by F. Benson." Looking up at Freddie again her eyes were wide. "You wrote this?"
Freddie nodded his head, his heart drilling a hole in his chest. The front cover illustration was a beautiful watercolor painting, exactly the way he'd pictured in his head. He had to admit, Spencer had really outdone himself.
"That's really sweet, Freddie." She leaned down to kiss him, setting the book aside. "I'll read it with Jax tomorrow."
"No!" he said, much louder than he intended to. "I mean…you should read it to me…now."
Sam shook her head and picked the book back up "I swear Freddie, the longer I'm with you, the weirder you get. I guess it's story time, then." She laughed, "Gather round children, gather round mama."
Freddie moved closer to her, wrapping an arm around her waist. Sam opened the book to the first page and began to read.
"Once upon a time, in a land not that far away, there lived a princess. The princess had hair of spun gold and eyes as blue as the deep blue sea. Of all the princesses in all the kingdoms in all the land, she was the most beautiful - but she was sad.
When the princess was very small, an evil wizard placed her high in an enchanted tower behind a great wall in a deep, dark forest. He cast a spell on the tower; only someone whose love for the princess was pure would be able to reach her. The beautiful princess was sad and spent years in the high tower behind the great wall in the deep, dark forest, sure that she'd always be alone. Many princes and valiant knights attempted to reach her. Many were brave, but none had a love for the princess pure enough to reach her. The years went by and still, the beautiful princess was alone.
Way down in the village lived a humble servant boy. He wasn't a valiant knight. He wasn't a wealthy prince, but all of his life he'd seen the beautiful princess from afar, trapped in her high tower, and he loved her. The humble boy wanted very much to save the princess but he was afraid he wasn't brave enough or strong enough to reach her.
The boy grew and, as he did, so did his love for the princess until one day, when he could take it no more, he decided that he had to try to reach her. The humble boy set off on his quest, eventually reaching the forest. As he looked into the darkness, he was afraid but he said to himself 'I will cross this dark forest for I have loved her all my life. Nothing will keep me from saving her. And so he entered the forest, his love the princess making him brave. Some time later he reached the great wall and he was afraid, for the wall was taller than any he'd ever seen, but the boy looked up into the tower and saw the princess and said to himself 'I will climb this great wall for I have loved her all my life; nothing will keep me from saving her'. And so he climbed the great wall; his love for the princess gave him strength.
About this time the princess looked down from her tower and noticed the humble boy. Of all the valiant knights and wealthy princes that had come for her, none had been strong enough to climb the great wall she was trapped behind. Seeing the princess looking down at him from her tower the boy called out to her.
"Princess...I've come to save you."
The Princess, who knew just how high the tower was, called back to him.
"Turn back humble boy, the tower is too high. You'll never be able to reach me."
He answered her saying, "I shall climb this high tower, for I have loved you all my life. Nothing can keep me from saving you."
The princess wanted to believe him, but she was scared.
Sam's hand trembled as she turned the page. Freddie tightened his arm around her waist, encouraging her.
"Freddie…" her voice shook.
Sam turned her head back to the book and continued.
She'd been alone in her tower for a long time. She was frightened of what the world might hold and scared that the humble boy might not be able to save her. But she wanted the humble boy to succeed so, reaching into her pocket, she pulled out a golden, magical seed. Tossing it down to him she said,
"Plant this seed beside the high tower. If your love for me is pure, this seed will bring you to me."
The servant boy caught the seed and placed it into the ground beside the tower. Nothing happened right away and soon the humble servant boy and the beautiful princess were afraid. Maybe his love was not pure enough to save her.
Then, suddenly the ground began to move and right before their eyes a tall thick vine, just as golden as the seed it came from, sprung to life, reaching from the ground all the way to the top of the tower. The humble boy climbed the vine and entered the princess' tower. She was even more beautiful than he'd imagined and finally, the princess was no longer alone.
Sam turned the page, finding the next page blank. She looked up from the book and into Freddie's eyes, her own shining with tears. Her voice was a whisper when she finally spoke.
"So…how does it end?"
Freddie smiled up at her, "Well…I was hoping you could help me with the ending." Reaching across her, he turned the final page in the book.
Sam's breath caught. Swirls of color twirled around each other, filling the page like a kaleidoscope. In the corner of the page was a picture of the princess, standing in her tower. In front of her the servant boy, on one knee. Across the page in artful lettering were the words she'd been waiting to hear.
'Princess, will you marry me?'
Sam's shoulders shook as tears she was powerless to hold back racked her body. Feeling the weight of Freddie's arm leave, she turned and found him, a smile lighting his face as he balanced on one knee, a small velvet box in his hand.
She couldn't move. She couldn't speak. She had to remind herself to breathe. Freddie opened the box lid slowly, revealing a small twinkling diamond set in a platinum band. She stared at it, mesmerized. Looking up at him, she was overcome. She'd spent her life with a longing at the center of her being that was never fully satisfied. Until now. In this moment, everything she wanted was right in front of her.
Freddie cleared his throat.
"So…you ready to tell me?"
"Tell you?" she whispered. He pulled the ring from the box and reached out for her hand.
"How the story ends," he said.
She extended her hand, and watched as Freddie's face lit up, sliding the ring into place on her finger.
Sam looked down at her hand and then threw her arms around him, burying her head in his neck.
"I know exactly how it ends," she said, "they lived happily ever after."