A/N: Well, here it finally is, the last chapter of "Fatherhood." I'm pretty pleased with it, and with myself for finding the time to write it in the midst of everything going on at school right now. Credit for the idea for the second part goes to anonymous reviewer 'mauretania08.'
"Ben, get out!" Abigail ordered sharply, blocking her husband's view through the cracked-open door of their daughter's bedroom. "You can't see Charlotte yet. She isn't ready."
"I thought it was only bad luck for the groom to see the bride before the wedding," Ben complained. "What about her father?"
Abigail didn't budge. "I want it to be a surprise. Go back to Riley and your father. Or, if you're finished getting ready, call the caterers and make sure they know where to go for the reception. Oh – and the limousine should be here soon. Let the driver know we'll be down in twenty minutes." And she shut the door in his face.
Ben rolled his eyes. He could hear his daughter and her bridesmaids giggling inside the room, and was sure he heard his own mother trying to get things under control. Turning, he shuffled to the stairs and descended to the first floor.
Weddings. He remembered his and Abigail's, nearly twenty-seven years earlier. They had been married in New York City, at Trinity Church, the same place they had shared their first kiss. Riley had been best man; he had also walked Abigail down the aisle, since her own parents couldn't make it from Germany. At least Charlotte's was a local wedding – the National City Christian Church was an impressive building right in the middle of downtown D.C.
"Ben – the car is here!" Riley called from the front porch.
Ben followed his friend's voice down the hall. His father, clad in full tuxedo, was seated on a chair in the foyer. Riley stood with the door wide open, staring out at the long black limousine that was to take Ben and his family to the church.
"Tell him the girls'll be down in fifteen minutes," Ben directed, pulling out his phone and fishing in his pocket for the catering company's business card. Finding it, he at last got on the line with the head chef and gave him directions to the reception hall, also in D.C.
He sighed and replaced his phone, running a hand through his thinning hair.
Riley gave him a sympathetic smile. "Nervous?"
Ben was. He'd had nearly a year to get used to the idea of Charlotte belonging to someone else (both she and Sam had desired a spring wedding, and so they had now been engaged eleven months – it was mid-April), but ten more years still wouldn't be enough time.
"She's ready," he said finally.
"But you, my friend, clearly are not."
Ben shrugged. "I have to be, don't I?" His eyes narrowed. "And anyway, where's your family while you're here pretending to be the region's resident philosopher?"
Riley shrugged. "Liz and Bella are upstairs. And last I saw of Zack, he was watching television in the rec room."
The Poole family had come over an hour before so Liz and seventeen-year-old Bella could help Charlotte get ready. Bella was also going to be the youngest bridesmaid in the wedding; she was to drive to the church with the other members of the bridal party, while Riley and his wife and son would take their own car. The others, Sam included, were already at the church.
Ben glanced at his watch and groaned.
"The wedding is supposed to start in less than an hour! What's taking them so long?"
"They're women, son," Patrick said, chuckling dryly.
At that moment, Abigail leaned over the banister. "We're ready!"
"Great!" Ben called up. "Get Zack," he directed Riley.
Just a few minutes later, everyone was in the foyer, with the exception of Charlotte.
"Charlotte, honey, you can come down now!" Abigail called. She turned to the others. "Boys, make sure you tell her how pretty she is. She's feeling a little jittery. Completely normal, but encouragement would help."
A door opened upstairs...and Charlotte stepped into view. Ben froze; a proud smile spread across his face.
She looked stunning. Her blonde hair fell over her dress in carefully curled waves. The dress itself was lovely – long and white, fashioned in a very modern way, yet with a classic touch. Her veil, shoes, and jewelry (the necklace she wore had been worn by both Emily and Abigail on their wedding days as well) complemented it well. And the smile she wore made her face glow.
"Dad?" she asked, and he noticed her nervous eyes were fixed on him.
"You look beautiful, sweetie," he managed to say, taking her hands. "Absolutely gorgeous."
"You do," Patrick agreed, and Riley nodded.
"She looks hot!" Zack blurted.
"Zack!" Liz gasped in astonishment.
Everyone else laughed, the sound calming them all somewhat. Ben put his arm through Charlotte's.
"Shall we get this show on the road?"
The ride to the church seemed to take no time at all for Ben. Each passing minute marked less and less time he would have in which he could pretend his daughter was still a little girl. Charlotte sat between him and Abigail, and her grandparents sat across from them. No one said much.
When the building came into view in front of them, Charlotte grabbed her parents' hands and squeezed them tightly.
"Mom…" she whispered.
Abigail rubbed her daughter on the back with her free hand.
"You're ready, sweetie."
Charlotte let out a breath and tried to smile.
The front hall of the church was empty except for Riley and the bridal party.
"I thought I'd take Abigail and your parents to their seats," he explained.
"Thanks," Ben said tightly, his stomach suddenly queasy.
Abigail turned to Charlotte and hugged her tightly.
"I love you," she whispered, her eyes shining with tears.
Charlotte returned the embrace. "I love you, too, Mom. Thanks for…well, everything."
"Good luck, kiddo," Patrick said, hugging his granddaughter. His wife followed suit.
"Thanks," Charlotte murmured as Riley gave her a quick peck on the cheek.
Then the four of them disappeared through a side door into the chapel.
Ben turned to Charlotte, struggling to find the words he wanted, but music from the room behind the doors cut him off.
Charlotte's eyes widened.
The flower girl, Sam's six-year-old niece, skipped through the doors with her basket of petals to a chorus of "awwwws" from within. The six bridesmaids followed slowly in pairs. Charlotte's best friend, Laura, the maid of honor, gave her friend's hand a tight squeeze before bringing up the rear.
Ben and Charlotte were left alone.
"Charlotte, I…" he spoke quickly, the words tumbling out. "I'm so proud of you. I love you, and I-"
Charlotte smiled tremulously, her face still pale in anticipation. "I know, Dad. And I'll still be your little girl, even when I'm Sam's wife."
The bridal music started.
Ben swallowed, hooking his arm through Charlotte's. Taking a deep breath, he led her through the doors.
The pews were filled with family and friends. It wasn't a gigantic wedding, but there were a fair amount of people. And at the end of the aisle, Sam was waiting, smiling the same way he had at Ben the night of the proposal – except even bigger.
Ben chanced a glance out of the corner of his eye, and saw with relief that Charlotte's frightened expression was gone; the glowing smile was firmly back on her face, and her eyes were fixed on her soon-to-be husband.
They reached the end of the aisle quickly, and Ben turned to his daughter, ignoring the wetness in his eyes. He lifted her veil and leaned forward, kissing her on the cheek.
"Good luck. I love you," he told her so only she could hear. Then he replaced the veil and took his seat in the first row next to Abigail, whose hand found his.
"We are gathered here today…"
Two years later…
The institutional lighting overhead was garishly bright and the harsh smell of ammonia filled the air. Perched on the edge of a plastic chair, Ben tapped his fingers impatiently on his knee and struggled to concentrate on his magazine.
"Julie, sit down!"
Ben started and glanced up.
Clark Carrish, Sam's father, was sitting next to Ben. He, too, had been hunched over a magazine but was currently staring at his wife, who was pacing back and forth, running her fingers through her thick red hair. Her normally good-natured face was currently puckered in an expression of agitation.
"They've been in there for a really long time…you don't think anything has gone wrong, do you?" she asked.
It was Ben who answered.
"I'm sure everything's fine. Abigail and Sam are both with her."
"I remember my first," Julie continued, pacing. "It was…more painful than I thought it would be. Do you remember, Clark?"
Clark had turned slightly red. "Yes, I do, unfortunately. Dear, do we really have to-"
"Sam wasn't nearly as bad. I-"
But she was interrupted as the door to the waiting room swung open. A doctor clad in full scrubs beamed at them.
"She's ready for you."
Ben and Clark exchanged relieved grins. Julie gasped and clutched her husband's hand, all fond recollections quickly forgotten.
The three followed the doctor through the doors and down a hall into the Recovery Ward. Ben's heart was beating rapidly against his ribcage. He tried to ignore it, but it was impossible to ignore the excitement he was feeling.
The doctor stopped before a room and pushed the door open, standing back.
"Go on in."
Inside, Sam sat in a chair next to the bed, a rapturous grin on his face, while Abigail stood opposite him, beaming. Both were clad in scrubs. Charlotte was propped up in the bed, sweaty and exhausted. Her smile, however, was blissful. And in her arms, wrapped in a pink blanket, was…
"Hey, guys," she said quietly. "Would you like to meet your granddaughter?"
A/N: Thanks to everyone who reviewed! Your responses to the chapters were much appreciated. I hope now to have some time to devote to my other "National Treasure" fic, where the characters go back in time to the Titanic. Yeah, remember the trailer I put up back in October? :) Hopefully that can now come to fruition. (And if anyone can think of a good title for it, let me know. "Back in Time" is just a working title until something better surfaces.)
Review one more time?