A/N: Here it is. The epilogue. Thank you guys so, so much for reading and all those great reviews!!
Peyton stands at the counter in the kitchen of a house that feels far too big half the time. It's beautiful, and she loves it, but at least once a day, on most days, she feels like it's just huge and empty. It feels like a home, her home, but there are times when she knows there's something missing, and she knows exactly what it is.
She licks the chocolate from her finger as she listens to the DJ on the radio announce a song that she loves, and she smiles. She can remember the first time she forced Nathan to listen to that song. They were in her bedroom at her dad's place and he admitted to never really liking The Police. She had felt personally offended, and he'd laughed at the look on her face, and she told him she was going to give him a crash course in 'Sting's awesomeness'. And she did. By the end of the day, he was smiling as she insisted she make a mix of her favourite Police songs. Can't Stand Losing You was the first song on that CD. She doesn't know how she remembers it, but she does.
Her thoughts are interrupted, but she's still smiling when she turns around.
"Can I see daddy today?" her five-year-old son asks.
"No baby, you can't see daddy today," she says, she starts moving around the kitchen, trying to get his lunch prepared and bake some treats.
"How come?" he asks.
"Because daddy's not around right now, is he?" she asks, and he scowls at her in that way he always does when someone tells him no.
Nathan has the same scowl.
"When can I see him?"
"Ben, you know the answer. The calendar is on the fridge," she says, trying not to get upset with his constant questioning. It's just hard for her to talk about. She knows how hard it must be for him.
"I just miss him, mommy," he tells her.
She stops what she's doing and walks over to where he sits at the counter with his cup of juice in front of him. She runs her hand through his hair and leans down so she's eye level with him, and she smiles at the sight of those blue eyes that are so much like his father's.
"I know, Bean," she says softly, and they both smirk a little at that nickname she has for him. "Two more days, then you can spend time with your daddy. Can you come help me with this? I need you to stir, OK?"
"I hate stirring."
"Well, if you don't stir the brownies, you can't eat the brownies," she says with a raised eyebrow, and he smiles and clamors off his stool.
"You think daddy likes brownies?" he asks. "I've never seen him eat one."
"Yes, he does," she says simply. "You really miss him today, huh?"
"I always miss him," he tells her, standing on his little kitchen stool and reaching for the wooden spoon.
She never says it, but she always misses him, too.
Nathan proposed the Christmas of their senior year at Duke. His proposal was essentially a carbon copy of the way he gave her that other ring. He moved the emerald to her right hand and slipped on the perfect princess cut diamond. And yes, that was just a little bit of an inside joke, since he'd taken to calling her 'princess' more and more often, every time she got her way with him (which was pretty often). It was always sarcastic and generally playful, and she didn't hate that name so much anymore. But the ring was beautiful and perfect, and she told him later - he hadn't known - that her mom's ring was similar. They were married in a little ceremony in the backyard of her father's house the summer after they graduated. It was just his family and her dad, and their closest group of friends. That group of friends hadn't changed since high school.
They all joked with Nathan - he really did receive an inordinate amount of teasing on his own wedding day - about how long he waited to pop the question to the girl they'd all known for years he was going to marry. He just took it all in stride and said that he just wanted to make sure he could give her everything she ever wanted.
They found out she was pregnant only six months after they were married, and while it wasn't exactly planned, they'd been talking about it more and more. They figured it was kind of serendipitous when they realized she was pregnant. When they found out it was a boy, Nathan beamed, and Peyton cried. Larry was thrilled, and Dan and Deb (oddly reunited and remarried) thought it was fantastic.
Ben was born in the middle of August in the middle of a heatwave after just under 10 hours of labour. He had a whole lot of jet black hair, bright blue eyes, and came out screaming. Nathan insisted that the first two traits were all him and the last one was all Peyton.
The truth of it is that Ben is so much like Nathan that it hurts her heart sometimes. Not because he's not like her - he is, in his own little ways - but because those little pieces of Nathan are always around her, even if he's not.
She really doesn't want to cry, and she hates that she has to. She just misses him so damn much sometimes. It's hard without him. It's too hard. She misses the little things the most. Like him resting his hand on her thigh as they'd sleep, or laughing at his silly innuendos. She always loved that. She still does.
But she hears his voice in a message he left, a very short one, and she starts tearing up. It's just been too long since they were really together. She doesn't want to blame him for it. She can't, really. She can't at all.
She just wants him back with her and their son.
"Mommy?" Ben says softly from the doorway.
"Hey Bean," she says, wiping her eyes.
"How come you're sad?" he asks.
"Just tired, baby," she says, dismissing his question. "What's wrong?"
"Can I sleep in here with you? My room's too quiet," he says, taking a few little steps towards the bed.
"Of course," she says.
She pulls back the covers and Ben climbs up onto the bed, and she smiles when he snuggles in next to her. She loves this. She absolutely adores this little boy, and she'd do anything for him. Of course she would. She's his mom.
Nathan always insisted that it wasn't healthy for a boy his age to share his parent's bed, but Peyton doesn't care. She loves cuddling in with her son, and if she's being honest, her bedroom was too quiet, too. And Nathan isn't there to say anything about it, so she'll let Ben sleep next to her, and she'll run her hands through his dark hair until she falls asleep, too.
"Mommy?" Ben whispers, like he doesn't want to disturb anyone or anything.
"I love you."
She closes her eyes and kisses his hair. No three words will ever mean as much to her as those three words from that little person.
"I love you, too, Ben."
She's used to saying those words to someone else at night too. It's still, even after all this time, hard every time she doesn't get to do it.
He comes home to a quiet house, and it's too quiet. It's his own fault, but still. He doesn't like it. He likes to be home, he just wishes it wasn't like this; quiet and cold in the middle of the night. He locks the door behind him and drops his bag, and he runs his hand through his hair and smiles. There are night lights all around, and the house is never really dark. He kind of likes that.
He heads to the kitchen for a bottle of water, and he sees a stack of mail on the counter that he promptly ignores. There's a drawing posted on the front door of the fridge, and Nathan notices when he's taking a sip of his drink.
Three stick figures, a blonde and two brunettes, with a house on one side and a big yellow sun in the sky. There are little patches of grass and birds he knows his son didn't draw - they're too perfect to be Ben's. There's a dog, well, what Nathan assumes is a dog, standing next to the little brown-haired stick figure and Nathan has to laugh. Ben's been asking for a dog for the past six months.
He makes his way upstairs and down the hall, and he hates that everything's so still. Even after all this time, coming home to such a silent house bothers him more than he'll ever let on. He passes Ben's empty room, and he sighs. It kills him that the boy hardly ever sleeps in there.
He walks to the last door on the left, his bedroom, and he stops before he walks through. He knows what's waiting for him on the other side. When he pushes the door open, he leans against the door frame for a moment.
There are his wife and his son, Ben asleep in Peyton's arms with her holding him close to her as they lay in the center of that big king sized bed.
He's missed them so damn much.
He loves every second of being a pro ball player. Loves it. Denver is an amazing city and a great organization and his teammates are an awesome group of guys. It doesn't hurt that his old high school teammate, Aaron, plays for the team as well. How that happened, they still don't really know. Nathan went third overall in the draft, and Aaron was chosen in the second round. Denver just reminds him of all those years ago when he and Peyton had quiet little conversations and she said she could see herself living in Colorado. It's not like it was really planned, but he's so glad he can give her this.
But he's just gotten back from a 10-day road trip, and 10 days without his wife and son is just torture. It's his longest trip of the year - he's poured over the schedule to be sure - and he's glad it's over. He hates to be without them. Hates it.
He walks over to the bed and reaches out for Ben, pulling his son into his arms. The boy stirs a little bit, and Nathan holds his finger to his lips when he sees Ben's eyes open. He walks back to Ben's bedroom and lays him in his bed.
"Hey buddy," Nathan says softly.
"You're tired. Go back to sleep," Nathan insists. It's two in the morning, since Nathan and his teammates decided to fly home directly after the game instead of waiting until the next day.
"I'm 'wake," Ben mumbles sleepily.
"Sure you are," Nathan chuckles. He runs his hand over Ben's hair, the same colour as his own, but the boy's eyes stay open. "What is it?"
"We missed you lots."
Nathan's sure his heart breaks. Or maybe gets all full again, just like it does every time he hears something like that. He loves those words. He hates that they have to miss him.
"I missed you too," Nathan says quietly.
"I took care of mommy," Ben says. Nathan smiles. That's his boy.
"Thanks, Ben." He leans over and kisses the boy's forehead right before his eyes close again, and Nathan stands and pulls the door closed most of the way, just like Ben likes it.
He walks back to his bedroom and laughs to himself. She sleeps like a log; always has. He kind of loves that. It's easier to surprise her this way. And damn, does she look beautiful laying there in her flannel pajamas (she's got a whole drawer full). She's still right in the middle of the bed, but that's alright because they probably would have ended up there anyway. He unzips his sweatshirt and pulls his tee shirt up over his head, and he steps out of his jeans. It's cold in Denver in January, but he doesn't mind it, he finds. He gets into bed and curls up beneath the heavy duvet, and Peyton doesn't stir until he brushes the hair from her face and rests his hand on her cheek.
Her eyes open and she blinks the sleep away, and they smile at each other and she looks like she might just cry.
"Hi," she says quietly.
She smiles a little wider and moves into his arms, and they kiss the same way they always do after he's been away. It's sweet and gentle but full of all kinds of want and longing, and it lingers just a little bit.
"I missed you," she says, her eyes still closed and her lips just millimeters from his. He kisses her again, because he finally can, and she tangles her legs all up with his.
"He told on me?" she asks, smiling a little bit.
"Yeah," Nathan says as he pulls her as close as he can.
She never tells him she misses him over the phone. She used to, in their college days when his away games only took him from Durham for a couple days at a time. His first year playing pro, she realized it just made them both feel worse. It only reminded her how much she missed him, and it only reminded him how much he hated to leave her. It didn't help that she was pregnant and alone in a huge house in a new city at the time.
"You won all your games though," she reminds him.
"I don't want to talk about basketball," he tells her. She grins at him and he kisses her as he runs his hand along the waistband of her pajama pants.
"What do you want to talk about?" she asks, her tone cheeky. She's getting the impression that he doesn't want to talk at all.
He really hates leaving her.
He really loves coming home to her.
Peyton wakes up in the morning and she's alone in bed, and she's momentarily not impressed by that at all. She's had enough of waking up alone, and she doesn't want to do it anymore.
Well, at least not for the next eight days while Nathan is home.
But then she hears her son's laughter echoing through the house, and Nathan says something in that deep tone of his that makes Ben laugh even harder. She can't be upset anymore. How could she be?
She steps out of bed, straightens out her dark burgundy pajamas, pulls her hair up off her face, and makes her way downstairs. She can't stop smiling. The first morning after Nathan is home is always a good one. They usually sleep in, then he'll make her breakfast with Ben's 'help' and they'll talk, sitting far closer to one another than they usually do. Ben will climb up onto Nathan's lap, and Peyton's heart will melt at the sight.
They hear her coming down the stairs, she suspects, because she hears Nathan saying, "hurry up, buddy!" She doesn't know what's going on, but then Nathan starts laughing and she smiles when she walks into the kitchen. Ben is sitting on top of the counter as Nathan finishes cooking breakfast, and they've both got their backs to Peyton.
"'Morning," she says. She walks over to where they are, and Ben covers his mouth with his little hand. "What are you up to?"
"Nothing," Nathan answers quickly. "Making you breakfast. Want some coffee?"
"What's he eating?" Peyton asks, raising her brow. She can't help but smile though, because Ben has his mouth full and he's trying not to laugh, which is kind of funny to watch.
"Oh, just...nothing," Nathan says. Peyton narrows her eyes at him and turns to Ben. She reaches out and starts tickling the boy's stomach. "No!" Nathan shouts.
Too late. Ben starts laughing, and when he opens his mouth, it's full of what's left of a brownie. It's clear Nathan wanted him to eat it before mommy got up. Peyton's jaw drops and she turns to Nathan as Ben giggles in that adorable way of his.
"You!" she says, pushing at Nathan's chest. He laughs and takes her hands in his. "Brownies at 7:30?"
"Oh, it's fine," Nathan insists. He winks at Ben over his shoulder, and the boy starts laughing again.
"And you," Peyton says, turning to Ben. He kicks his little legs out and she reaches for him, pulling him into her arms. "You're taking advantage of daddy."
"What's that mean?" Ben asks.
"It's...nothing," she says. She doesn't feel like explaining it, and it's not like he'll really comprehend it anyway. She glares at Nathan when he laughs. She takes Ben over to the table and sets him down in his place, then walks back over to the coffee maker to pour a couple cups.
Nathan walks up behind her and presses himself against her, gripping her hip with his large hand. "Feel free to take advantage of me whenever you want," he says, his voice low.
"Nathan," she whispers pleadingly.
"Just a reminder," he tells her. He kisses that place on her neck, pushing aside the collar of the shirt she wears.
"Mommy?" Ben calls from the table. She's never been more thankful for the interruption. Nathan lets out a breath on her neck, one she knows is meant solely to make her crazy. "How come eggs are yellow and white?"
She just laughs, and Nathan joins in. She casts a glance his way, and the look he gives her says, 'the hell if I know.'
"I'm not sure," she answers honestly. "We'll have to remember to ask Catherine when we see her next."
Aaron and Catherine married the same summer as Nathan and Peyton, just a month and a half later. Peyton was maid of honour and in her speech, she said, 'I told you so.' Catherine and Aaron live just a few neighbourhoods away from Nathan and Peyton.
It's hard with all the girls split up so harshly, having followed their respective men to whatever cities they were drafted to. Brooke and Robbie wound up in L.A., where Robbie plays for the Clippers and Brooke has her own very successful fashion line. Together, they have a very adorable three-year-old little girl, Blake. Ginny and Matt are in San Antonio with their sons, William and Caleb, and Claire and Duncan ended up in Boston full time, settling there after she graduated from Harvard. Everyone's married to their high school sweethearts and they all realize how rare that is.
"What are we doing today?" Ben asks as he swings his legs back and forth, sitting there at the table.
"What do you want to do today?" Nathan asks, tearing his eyes away from his wife, no matter how difficult it is to do when she's standing right next to him, her hip brushing against his each time she moves.
"Can we go to the park?" the boy asks eagerly. Peyton takes a plate of breakfast over to him, though she knows he probably won't eat much, since Nathan let him feast on brownies. "Mommy didn't take me to the park the whole time you were gone."
"Hey!" Peyton cries.
"You didn't take him to the park?" Nathan asks, faking shock. He winks at her, but keeps up the act. "In 10 days, you didn't take him once?"
"There's snow on the ground," she says in her defense.
"You like snow," Nathan points out. He says it at the same time that Ben says, "I like snow."
"You guys always gang up on me," she mumbles, pouting as she takes her plate from Nathan. He reaches out and brushes his hand along the small of her back when she's walking away. She has so missed those little touches.
And really, every time he comes home, she wonders how she could ever feel so disconnected from him. Sure, when he's on the road, he's not physically around, but they talk every day, usually more than once, and he always, always makes sure everything's in order before he goes. Silly things too, like making sure there are extra light-bulbs in the drawer and the company knows to come plow the driveway. He takes care of them, even when he's away.
It's just so much nicer when he's home. They spend their off-seasons in Tree Hill at that beach house so that they're close to their family. And their friends usually come in for weeks at a time or go back to Oak Lake, so they're usually close by when they weather turns nice. Peyton can - and does - work on her art from anywhere, and it's sold in an upscale gallery in Denver.
She's made a name for herself over the years. She started out doing portraits of families or athletes or politicians (she knew all the right people to be able to do so). That gave her the freedom and the reputation to be able to paint or sketch whatever she wanted to. And she does. She's got trademarks, signatures to let people know that a piece is hers. She's very well known in both her home state and her adopted one. She's successful, though everyone knows that she could just sit back and do nothing with the amount Nathan gets paid. Everyone who knows her knows that there's no way she'd ever do that.
It's really not such a bad life they have.
Nathan has Ben all bundled up in his little snow suit when Peyton comes down the stairs after getting ready. She pulls on her heavy jacket, scarf and mittens, and Nathan does the same. He sticks his hands in the pockets of his jacket as they walk, and Peyton reaches over and links her arm through his. Ben runs ahead, sliding on little patches of ice on the sidewalk, which makes Peyton cringe and worry every single time, and Nathan just chuckles and shakes his head. Ben is so much like him, it's crazy.
It's a rare day they go without anyone recognizing him. He's an NBA all-star, and Peyton does a lot of work in the community as a player's wife. She co-chairs the team's charity with Catherine, and she's attended countless events and had her photo taken so much since their days at Duke, that pretty regularly, someonewill recognize her too.
Ben plays in the park and throws snowballs at his parents every so often, and Peyton tucks herself into Nathan's side as they sit on a park bench and watch their son run around and laugh at silly things.
"He missed you," she says quietly, resting her head on his shoulder. "Maybe more than I did." He doesn't say anything, because he really doesn't know what to say. "How are you?"
He looks at her like she's crazy, and then they're both distracted when Ben slips and falls, then gets right back up and starts running again. "What do you mean?"
"Well...we didn't exactly talk last night," she reminds him, rolling her eyes when he grins wolfishly. "So, how are you?"
"So glad to be home," he says quietly. "I hate being away from you."
"I know. But you love the game."
"Of course," he's quick to insist. "It just gets harder and harder."
"I know," she whispers. "He was very worried you didn't like brownies."
"I proved that I do before you even woke up," he says with a laugh. "He said you were crying."
She looks over at him and he's got one eyebrow raised, as if he's just challenging her to deny it. "I was just...it was last night, and I honestly couldn't remember the last time we were apart that long and..."
He kisses her and cuts her off, because he doesn't need to hear her explanation, really, and she doesn't want to explain it any further. He's home now, and she's going to focus on that instead of the way she felt laying in a king size bed alone.
"Know what I think?" he says, smirking at her.
"What's that?" she asks absently, her attention stolen by Ben as he lays down in the snow and looks up at the sky.
"I think we should have another one." He laughs when her eyes snap over to meet his, and she looks shocked, though he thinks that's crazy. They always talked about having two. "Why are you surprised?"
"I just...we haven't talked about this recently and...Are you serious?"
"Mhmm. And if you got pregnant like...now, then the baby would be born right when the next season starts," he explains.
"You're serious," she states.
He laughs again and she shakes her head. "Are you resisting?" he asks, grinning at her when her jaw drops.
"No!" she insists. "No. I just didn't know you wanted to do this now."
He kisses her instead of saying that he does, because all that's pretty clear. Nathan pulls away and reaches to the ground, forming a big snowball in his hands and tossing it towards where Ben is. The snowball hits Ben right in the stomach, and Nathan laughs at how the boy seems to be amused and offended at the same time. He picks up some snow and throws it as hard as he can, and they all laugh when it lands at Nathan's feet.
"A girl," Nathan says, pulling Peyton against him.
"You always did want a daughter," she says softly.
Ben calls for Nathan to come play, and Peyton just kisses her husband before he gets up and runs towards their little boy. If she's being honest, she's been wanting another baby for a while now, she just didn't know if it was the right time. And timing is everything. She honestly can't wait to have another baby, and lately, Ben has been dropping subtle hints that he wants a sibling.
She stops thinking about it all when Nathan throws a snowball that hits her leg. Then she's off and running towards her boys, tackling Nathan as Ben laughs that perfect little laugh. Peyton can't wrestle Nathan to the ground, and he simply holds her up as Ben pelts her with little snowballs. When Nathan puts her back on her feet, they share a look, and they both go after Ben.
All three of them end up laying in the snow in the park just a few blocks from their house. Ben's laying between Nathan and Peyton, and she's almost certain they're all freezing, but none of them are complaining. It's moments like these that make his being away seem so worth it. He's got an amazing career that lets them live so comfortably. Of course, she'd take him being around full time over all the material things any day, but she realizes just how good she's got it.
Ben takes both their hands as they're walking home, and the look Peyton sends Nathan lets him know that they're definitely on the same page about wanting another baby.
Peyton stands in the kitchen, listening to Nathan and Ben laughing in the other room as she prepares hot cocoa to warm them up. Nathan has lit a fire. She smiles and shakes her head when she hears Ben tell Nathan that 'mommy let me sleep in her bed every night'. She knows Nathan will never let her live that down. But he also knows that she hates sleeping alone, so he's stopped mentioning it in any serious tone of voice.
He'd love to be upset with her for letting Ben share her bed - their bed - but there's a big part of him that actually finds it adorable. After seeing the two of them curled up together beneath the duvet last night, how could he not? He absolutely loves how amazing a mother she is. She's been a natural since the moment the nurse placed Ben in Peyton's arms. She's fun and creative, and she's far more patient than she admits she thought she'd be. She can even make disciplining their son seem like the sweetest thing in the world. Nathan really doesn't know how she does it. She's so strong and so supportive, and it's such a cliché, such a lame thing to say, but he really has fallen more and more in love with her over the years.
He walks into the kitchen after leaving Ben in charge of finding something to watch on television, and Nathan can't help but smile as he watches her. She's always been fairly adept in the kitchen, and he's always loved to watch her cook. And yet watching her, right now, making the simplest thing in the world, he thinks she's never looked sexier.
"This looks seriously delicious," Nathan notes, watching as she bends her leg at the knee while she stirs boiling milk into three mugs.
"Me, or the hot chocolate?" she asks, kinking an eyebrow. She always manages to catch him when he's checking her out.
"Wait till you taste it," she says seductively.
"You, or the hot chocolate?" he asks, his tone husky.
He takes a deep breath and ignores the little laugh she lets out. Some would argue that it's just because they spend so much time apart, but they still act like teenagers when they're together. He likes it that way. She's playful and sexy, and being a wife and mother certainly hasn't changed that. Not at all.
"You're just lucky Ben's in the next room," he tells her.
She laughs as he places his hands on her hips and stands behind her before bending down to kiss her neck. She turns in his arms because she just can't help herself, and she kisses him full on the lips. Sure, their son is in the next room, but...
"Ew!" Ben cries in disgust, scrunching his little nose. "You always kiss."
Nathan chuckles and looks over to where Ben is standing in the doorway. "Someday you'll meet a girl you'll want to kiss."
"Nope. Girls are gross."
"You say that now," Peyton laughs. "If you're anything like you're daddy, you'll..."
"You'll meet a gorgeous cheerleader and fall in love," Nathan says, interrupting Peyton as he looks into her eyes.
Ben seems to mull it over, then he looks up at his mother. "Can I have cocoa?"
"Go on in, Bean, I'll bring it to you in a minute." Peyton elbows Nathan lightly when he runs his hand over the back of her jeans. Ben walks out of the kitchen and Peyton glowers at her husband. "Stop it!" she hisses.
"I don't want to."
"Well," she says seductively, pulling him closer, her hands gripping the fabric of his sweater. "It's not a game day, right?"
He grins. There are times he curses his game day rule. He's not superstitious, but that's the one thing he refuses to change. It's his 'ritual', and she doesn't question it. "No," he says softly, leaning in for a kiss.
"And Ben goes to bed at 7:30, so..."
"So we have all night," he finishes.
She doesn't say it and neither does he, but they share a look and then a kiss that says that they definitely have a lot more than just one night, too. She tries to move away to reach for the mugs of cocoa that are almost cool enough to drink, but Nathan stops her, placing his hands on the counter on either side of her. She doesn't say anything or shove him out of the way, and she's just standing there, completely at his mercy. She likes it. He tells her he loves her, not that she needs him to say it. She says it back, not that he needs her to say it either.
They walk into the living room and sit on the sofa with their son nestled between them, some children's show playing on the television, snow falling outside, and a fire burning next to them. Nathan idly runs his hand over the back of her neck as they all sip hot cocoa. The two of them smile at one another when Ben laughs at something on the screen.
They're living the life he always promised her they'd have. She never doubted they would. Not once.