Oh boy, so the epilogue was longer than expected, but I think you'll like it! Thanks to everyone who's been reading along the way, and ESPECIALLY those who have been reviewing. Your reviews let me know that there's someone out there who likes what I do, and that I should keep going! I'm going to take a break for a bit after this, but as long as there's enough interest, I'll start my next Sam story soon. It'll be sad, but cute/sad like the later chapters of this story, not scary/sad like the early chapters, with lots of happy woven in. I think that one will be attract a wider audience, too. Anyway, in my initial plan for this story, Sam was going to die, so it's entirely due to reader/reviewer participation that this story lasted past seven or eight chapters. Evidence that your comments really do make a difference to me. Applause all around! Thanks again, and I hope you enjoy the last installment of Coming Home Again.

Edit 8/17: I see from my traffic stats that people are still reading this story. I still appreciate the reviews even though it's complete, so when you finish, please drop a note. Thanks!

Epilogue

It was a gray, misty day in late December, and Dwight Evans wished he were home getting ready for the holidays with his family. Actually, he would prefer being just about anywhere but on this filthy, worn down bus, clunking along the highway on its way to Indiana. He questioned the morality of executing people so close to Christmas, but apparently such things were of little concern to the government. He supposed it should be of little concern to him, too. At least the weather was cooperating and matched the occasion, even if the season didn't.

Dwight gazed across the narrow aisle at his seventeen-year-old son. His forehead was pressed to the glass window as he stared absentmindedly out into the misty rain. The condensation on the glass wet his hair, and blond clumps stuck to the window in disarray. His knees were huddled close to his chest, and his broad shoulders were slumped. Even from the other side of the bus, Dwight could see the angst in his son's eyes. They had argued earlier that morning about whether or not it was the best idea to come today at all. But the kid hadn't budged from his convictions—he was nothing if not strong willed—and eventually Dwight had conceded. Though everyone told him that he had done his best for his children and had done what any parent would have done under the circumstances, he couldn't shake the feeling that he had failed as a father once, and he wasn't going to let it happen again. If this is what his son needed for closure, to move on, then that's what they would do.

Things had definitely brightened up for the Evans family. Six months after they had moved into the one bedroom apartment in Lima Heights, Dwight had found a job managing a construction site. While it wasn't quite the structural engineering work he was trained to do, he was qualified, and they were paying. The pay wasn't great, and there wasn't a ton of security, but he was doing well enough that they were able to move out of the apartment and into a small rental home. The house they rented had three bedrooms—one for him and Mary, one for Stacy, and one for the boys—and a little garden out back. It wasn't glamorous, but it was much closer to the first house they had owned in Tennessee, if not the nice place with a yard they had purchased in Ohio.

Looking back, it was hard for him to pinpoint the moment when things had gotten so bad. Sure, the day he had been laid off was terrifying, but as with anything in life, there was a before and an after. Before, there had been the decision to spend almost the entirety of their life's savings on a down payment and moving. There had been the promise of an excellent new job in a receding economy. Maybe that was the red herring he should have seen, and maybe that's when it all went wrong. After, there had been the days when he realized there weren't many other engineering firms in this part of Ohio, and that he wouldn't be able to walk into them and walk out with a job. There was the day they sold everything they owned. There was the day he had to explain to Sam that they were moving into a motel room because all the money was gone. Any one of those days could have been the breaking point; it was all too blurred to be sure.

But Dwight knew for a fact that his weakness as a parent, their weakness as a family, was finally exposed the day Sam went missing. They had been new to this place, had no one to rely on, no one to even watch the kids while he and his wife tried to find their oldest son. If it hadn't been for two friends of Sam's, two friends Dwight hadn't even known existed until that day, they couldn't have even both been at the hospital while the doctors tried to save him. Or worse, they would have had to bring Stevie and Stacy to that awful place to suffer through the wait with them.

Then they had finally gotten Sam back, and what could they do for him? What could they possibly offer him? A dirty motel room to come home to, where he couldn't even be miserable in peace. He should have had a bed to sleep in and blankets to feel safe under, not that shabby sleeping bag on the floor where the draft from the door hit him square in the face. When he woke up screaming in terror, Dwight should have been able to sit next to him in bed and rub his back until he calmed. Hell, even those animals who had kidnapped him had given him the basic comfort of a bed to sleep on after they . . . No. Dwight stopped himself. No. I did my best. I did the best I could.

Still, he had cried the day he shook Judy Fabray's hand and sent Sam into her mansion of a home with a backpack and two pairs of jeans. Nobody had seen him. He had waited until after Sam had gone inside and he was alone in the pickup. But sitting there alone in the truck watching his son walk away cemented every feeling that had been lurking and growing since he lost his job—he couldn't take care of his family. He was a failure. He was a bad father. He leaned his forehead against the steering wheel and allowed the tears to slide down his cheeks before it was time to regroup and be the best man he could be for what was left of his family.

He knew deep down that what had happened to Sam would have happened whether they lived in a motel room or a mansion. It had taken soul searching, but he had come to terms with that fact. There was nothing he could have done to save Sam from the agony he suffered through. What he still struggled with daily, though, was the fact that he couldn't take care of Sam on his own, the way he deserved to be cared for. He was a good kid. He tried so hard, struggling in silence most of the time for the benefit of everyone around him, and he didn't deserve to be handed off to someone else like some rescue dog they couldn't afford to look after.

Sam had told him over and over and over again, almost every night before he left to head back to Quinn's, that he didn't feel abandoned. He promised that it was helping him sleep better and that he understood why it had to be this way. But he was fifteen, how much could he really understand? How could he not feel abandoned? Every night, Dwight prayed that Sam would never look back on this ordeal and wonder why his family hadn't done more for him. The child he loved was simple and genuine with bright eyes and an innocent smile who would do anything for his family; God forbid he ever became hard and resentful and sneering. Just like the people who abused him, Dwight thought. Please, God, never.

And still, still the only reason he was able to iron things out at all was because of the charity of strangers. Strangers, once again, had taken care of his children better than he had been able to on his own.

After Dwight had taken the new job and things had stabilized, he tried to return the remainder of the money to Mrs. Meyers to distribute to the other families. She, of course, had refused. "Hopefully you'll never need it, but who knows," she had said over the phone. "Put it in the bank. Help Sam go to college, if that's what he wants to do. Or your other two babies. It was a gift, and it's yours. Make good use of it."

Dwight felt guilty holding that much money that he hadn't earned, but he reminded himself that really, the money was a gift to Sam, and he was only managing it on his behalf. He was meant to make the right decisions and use the money in a way that would benefit his son, and if he deprived him of that, it would just be another instance of him not being able to provide for him . . . Stop, just stop. Just. Stop. This isn't helping, and it hasn't helped. It was just another way to punish himself.

The bus rolled to a squeaking halt in front of a squat structure in a remote corner of Indiana. So this is what federal prison looks like, Dwight thought. He had never been to one, never imagined in his life that he would have to, and hoped he would never have to again. Sam had never expressed any desire to see his attackers before, and Dwight had been relieved, prematurely as it turns out, that he would never have to make this trip. So much for that thought. He knew he needed to be strong for his son, and he would be, but this was unsettling for him, too. It was amazing how even just being at a prison could make you feel like a criminal.

When the bus doors opened, Dwight stood slowly, stretching his creaking thighs. When did he get so old? He turned to the side to usher his son out, but he was already gone, like a blond flash up the aisle. So it was going to be like that, he supposed. He had hoped that the long, bumpy bus ride would have given him a chance to calm down, but it seemed like he was going to need at least a little more time to get over the huff he was in. He was a teenager, Dwight reminded himself, and he had more than ample reason to be upset. No child should have to deal with these issues. Hopefully this visit today, as ill advised as Dwight believed it was, would help put his mind at ease and calm the rage that was slowly burning inside him.

"Jared Engles?" the prison guard called. "You've got some visitors."

Dwight stood behind his son with his hands on his shoulders, trying unsuccessfully to smooth the shock of blond hair that stuck out in wet clumps from the rain. He looked like he had stuck his finger in an electrical socket. But true to form, he ducked and dodged with annoyance, huffing and trying to avoid his father's touch. He reminded Dwight a bit of a wild colt, hot and snorting and adverse to touch. He shifted from one foot to another uneasily, waiting to see the man who was at the root of this aggression, the subject of his nightmares.

The man was tall and painfully thin with emaciated, sunken cheeks and hollow eyes. His once longer, shaggy hair had been shaved short, and if Dwight didn't know better, he would have said this man was a Holocaust survivor rather than the criminal he knew him to be. But time had passed, and there was no longer any reason to hate. This man was paying for his crimes, more psychologically than physically, and the evidence was in the way his jumpsuit hung from his shoulders like a newly pressed shirt hanging on the back of a chair.

The boy tensed under his father's hands, and Dwight looked over his shoulder to catch the look of shock in his blue-green eyes. He could tell that Jared no longer looked anything like what he had been expecting.

Jared floated into the visiting room like a reed in a strong wind. His eyes scanned the room, looking for a familiar face. He hadn't been expecting any visitors. No one had been in a while. When he spotted that distinctive blond head, his eyes filled with confusion and a hint of wonder and joy.

"Sammy?" he asked timidly, not believing it was true.

"No." the young man answered. "Steve."

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Stevie Evans sat at the visiting room table with his father at his side and a real life monster across from him. He wasn't really sure what he wanted to accomplish on this trip to the prison, or what he wanted to say to this man, he just knew he had to see him. He had to meet Jared, and he had to watch Tyler die.

Sam, just two months away from turning twenty-two, had come home from Ohio State a few weekends ago when he didn't have practice to visit his family. Unlike the other students, for the football team, winter break was bowl season, and Sam didn't get a lot of time, other than a few days around Christmas, to be away from campus. Stevie was always excited when his brother came home—he liked his stories about college parties and football and school—but something had been stewing in him for a while. When his mom and Stacy had gone to the mall Christmas shopping, he cornered Sam in the kitchen.

"Sam, I want you to tell me now," he said, his face still and serious, his voice commanding rather than requesting.

"Tell you what, kiddo?" Sam laughed, ruffling Stevie's hair. Sam knew that Stevie hated having his hair played with about as much as Sam loved it. Since he hit puberty and turned into a little monster, he always complained that being blond was not a free pass for people to touch you all the time. As expected, he ducked away, glaring. Sam knew this, of course, but saw it as part of his brotherly duty to annoy his baby brother.

"In the hospital, you told me you'd explain it to me when I was old enough to understand. Well I'm old enough to understand things now, don't you think?" the sarcasm was palpable in his tone.

He could see the color changing in his brother's eyes and the smile falling from his lips. Sam was always smiling, and sometimes it really annoyed Stevie. The world didn't always deserve a smile, but Sam kept giving them anyway, and Sam's ability to keep smiling even when he was sad rubbed Stevie the wrong way. He never intentionally hurt his brother, but he'd be lying if he said he didn't enjoy watching Sam's big happy balloon deflate a bit every once in a while.

Stevie loved his big brother, but they had grown up differently. Sam was gentle and sensitive; he wore his heart on his sleeve and gave it away freely without fear of it being crushed. He was perceptive and thoughtful, and almost always sacrificed his own needs for everyone else's. Stevie, on the other hand, was outspoken and aggressive, yet extremely guarded with his emotions. He was keenly intelligent, with impeccable grades, yet his teachers still hesitated to call on him in class because he often possessed highly provocative views that he vehemently defended. He was stubborn, but had a strict sense of right and wrong and was almost always in the right. When he was wrong, he wouldn't admit it. Everyone who knew Stevie thought he was a nice boy, too intelligent for his own good, perhaps, but saw a rage in him smoldering just beneath the surface, waiting to explode.

Stevie attributed their differences in personality to the difference in age and perspective. Sam had grown up happy, at a time when everything was right in the world. He had spent almost his entire childhood in Tennessee, in their cozy little house, with the security of financial stability. He had grown up surrounded by his friends and people who loved him. Hell had struck when Sam had already lived fifteen good years, and he had a good enough grounding to know that fear and poverty and evil were deviations from what was normal, not the way the world was naturally. Stevie had only been ten when everything had changed. He had grown up in the constant shadow of poverty and in the never-ending wake of Sam's nightmare. He had grown up knowing that the world was full of fear and hunger and pain.

"Ok, buddy," Sam said, sighing. "Sit down."

Stevie was shocked. He had asked a few times over the years, and each time, Sam had either said he was too young, avoided the question, or flat out said no. For him to agree with no further argument was, well, completely unexpected. Stevie pulled out his chair and sat down stiffly, watching Sam collapse into his. Sam's right hand ran through his hair, a sign he was uncomfortable.

"So, um, what do you want to know?" he asked, trying to meet his brother's gaze. Sam was shy, didn't like being the center of attention, and not even being a star quarterback at Ohio State had changed that about him. Stevie, on the other hand, was intense. His version of eye contact was steady, burning, and unbreakable. He often made people feel like they were the subject of an intense inquisition; he made them uncomfortable. Sam was no exception, despite their close relationship.

"Start at the beginning, and tell me everything," Stevie demanded. "Don't leave anything out to protect me. And don't leave it out to protect yourself, either. You owe me the truth."

Sam nodded, his eyes pressed tightly closed. He hoped his brother would go to law school someday, because he was freakishly smart and completely unrelenting—basically everything that would make an amazing lawyer. Sam breathed deeply and opened his eyes. Just be straight with him, he's a big kid now, you don't need to protect him anymore, he told himself. He pressed his palms flat against the table, steadying himself.

"You tell me if you get upset and need me to stop, ok?"

Stevie nodded tersely.

Sam drew in a deep breath. He spoke quietly, but his voice was steadier than he expected it to be. This wasn't something he had to talk about often, and not to someone he loved so much.

"Every day after practice, I used to go for a jog. Mostly just around campus and down some back roads in town. There was one road in particular I liked to run to clear my head. It was perfect because there were never any cars, and I could just run without thinking. That day I was thinking a lot about Quinn, how distant she used to be. How I told her I loved her but she would never let me get anywhere near her heart. Anyway, this SUV pulled over and rolled down the window and they asked me for directions . . ."

Stevie was tense. He sat on the edge of his chair, his back perfectly straight, his neck and shoulders tight. For six years, his dreams had been plagued by shadowy, faceless figures, knives, guns, and Sam's tortured screams. There were even nights when the roles reversed and Stevie woke up shaking and sobbing from a nightmare and Sam had to hold him and rock him until he calmed. For him, the worst part was not knowing. The men in his dreams had no faces, they slashed at him from within impenetrable shadows. Now, he would know everything, and all those faces would be forced into the light.

Slowly, steadily, Sam led him through it, detail by excruciating detail. The kidnapping, the beatings, the rapes, the video. He even told him about the time he spent alone with Jared, kissing and nuzzling him and trying to convince Jared he was in love with him in order to save his life. This was something he told no one but his therapist, not even his dad or Quinn. But he didn't flinch or waver. He made a promise to his baby brother all those years ago, and he was determined to stand by his word. He would treat Stevie like an adult.

Enough time had passed that, although he still struggled with certain situations or emotions, Sam was able to state the facts of what happened without panicking or crying or shutting down. But he could see the emotions playing out in Stevie. He was normally so guarded with his feelings, choosing to release only little sparks when it suited him; but right now, Sam could read him like a book. His lips were pressed into a tight line, the muscles in his shoulders were twitching, and his fingers were wrapping around a glass of water so tightly that his nails were turning white. He was getting angry, Sam could tell. Very, very angry.

"Are you ok Stevie?" Sam asked gently.

"Keep going." His voice was cold and dead.

Sam navigated carefully through his attempt to escape with Jared, through the ride back to Ohio in the back of the SUV, and through the cold blades plunging into his body. He described how scared and weak he felt as he tried desperately to come to terms with his impending death. How heartbroken he was that he would never get to sit in the audience at Stevie's graduation or listen to him talk about his girlfriends. How he prayed that their mom and dad would recover from losing him fast enough to be good parents to the two little ones.

Sam was dry-eyed and steady. Stevie was on the verge of explosion. Sam watched, unsurprised, as Stevie's hand tightened against the glass, pulled back, then sent it flying across the room. The glass crashed against the kitchen wall and shattered, sending a spray of water and glass shards in all directions. Before he knew it, Stevie was on him, standing inches from his face, jabbing an accusing finger into Sam's chest.

"Why didn't you tell me?" Stevie demanded. "Why didn't any of you tell me?"

"Stevie, you were ten years old. You were too young to understand. I was too young to understand," Sam offered calmly, trying to soothe him.

"No!" Stevie shrieked. Sam looked up at Stevie, straight into his eyes, ignoring the finger jabbing into his chest, punctuating each scathing word. "No! I could have helped you! I could have been there for you! All those nights you woke up screaming, shaking in a cold sweat, I had no idea what was happening to you! I had to just sit there and watch my big brother, who I idolized, suffering and I couldn't do a thing about it! Do you have any idea how scared I was Sam? Of what was happening to you? I spent all those nights watching something in you die, and I had to just let you go because you and dad didn't have the balls to tell me!"

Sam knew that any apology he could offer his brother now would fall on deaf ears, so he waited quietly. The tears were hot in Stevie's eyes, and he was too angry to prevent a few of them from falling. He didn't even try to wipe them away. Stevie felt betrayed. He felt guilty. And more than anything, he felt enraged at being forced to feel guilty. His family had kept him in the dark this whole time, and he had done nothing to ease his brother's pain. Pain stemming from an attack that was far worse than anything Stevie could have ever imagined. There had been times he had been flat out rude to Sam, times when he had been short with him over a bad night's sleep. How could he take it all back now? How could he, as an adult, undo all the things he had said or done as a child? He hated feeling like this. Despised it. The utterly debilitating feeling that he was wrong, very wrong, and that something needed to be done to fix it. His carefully held control was breaking. A strangled, guttural cry escaped his lips as he reared back and slammed his fist into Sam's chest.

Sam flinched, heavily, but the force wasn't enough to knock him from the chair. He sat silently watching as Stevie stumbled back against the wall, then slid down until he was seated on the floor, his knees wrapped to his chest. The tears slid down his cheeks, but they were tears of rage, and he did his best to sniffle them away. After ten minutes passed, Stevie seemed to calm.

"Feel better?" Sam asked.

Stevie looked up at him, only making eye contact long enough for Sam to catch the shame in his eyes, and nodded. Sam stood and extended a hand out to Stevie to help him up.

"Good. Let's get this cleaned up before mom gets home."

In the days that followed, he patched things over with Sam, who had already forgiven him without being asked to. But he needed to see those men. He had heard his dad and Sam talking about Tyler's upcoming execution and whether or not they would attend. Sam felt strongly that it was inhumane to watch the life drain out of someone for your own sense of pleasure and revenge. Even his attackers had driven off and left him alone to die in peace. And that was that, they wouldn't go. But Sam had mostly healed; this wound was still fresh and new for Stevie, and he needed to see the people who did this suffer. Suffer like Sam did. Suffer like he did. He and his dad had fought about it, but Stevie won, and now here he was at a prison in Indiana, making small talk with a man who looked too emaciated to be a monster.

"I've been taking my medication," the man, Jared, offered quietly, looking at his hands. "I know it doesn't change anything for you or your family, but I don't have the delusions anymore. I know I hurt those boys . . . I-I know Sammy, Sam, didn't love me. I know he was scared."

"He's forgiven you, ya know," Stevie said, his eyes burning. Jared looked at him, confused. "Sam's forgiven you," Stevie filled in. "He says that you were sick and that you genuinely thought you loved him and that you tried to help him." A small smile crept across Jared's lips. It wasn't that insane smile he used to wear when he thought about his precious, golden lover, though. It was a smile of relief.

"I'll never forgive you though," Stevie stated coldly.

Jared paused to consider this for a moment. "I know," he started. "And you shouldn't. You're the people who love him most, and it's always easier to forgive harm done to yourself than harm done to the people you love."

The guard placed a hand under Jared's elbow, helping him stand to lead him away. Stevie and his father turned away to leave as well. When they were almost to the door, Jared's voice stopped them.

"Steve?" he called. "Please tell Sam I said thank you."

Stevie paused, thinking, then nodded. He watched Jared retreat into the prison ward, the place where he would spend the rest of his life.

"Dad?" he asked, his voice small and childlike, "Can we go home now?" An arm crept around his shoulders.

"Of course we can, kiddo."

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Cindy Meyers curled herself into the corner of the couch, a fleece blanket wrapped around her knees. Christmas and New Year's had passed, but one of her favorite holidays was just about to start.

"Is it on yet, Dave?" she called excitedly. It was about the hundredth time she'd asked that day, let alone the week dragging along slowly between Christmas and New Year's.

She didn't really care much for football—her children had always been more interested in soccer—and she didn't know any of the rules, but she became a rabid, roaring Buckeyes fan the minute Sam had signed his letter of intent and accepted the full scholarship to play for The Ohio State University. The OSU flag flying on her porch was a betrayal to the hometown team in Ann Arbor, but Cindy could care less; Sam was family, and she was so proud of him.

She was amazed at how Sam had grown, both physically and emotionally, since she first met him six years ago. Then, he had been a shy, shaggy teenager, his clothes too big and his ribs sticking out. He was so blond that he would probably glow in the dark. And he was scared, so so scared, while he tried to hold everything together for the infinite number of people relying on him. Cindy would be the first to admit that, at the time, she had been one of those people relying on him. An adult, putting the burden of her sorrow on the shoulders of a child. But even then, Sam had been impossibly strong.

Now, he had grown a few inches taller, towering at 6'3, and had gained quite a bit of muscle weight. He finally looked like he was healthy, like he was filling out his frame the way the creator had intended him to. His hair was still that silly golden blond, but he had cut it much shorter, and his face had lost some of its soft roundness, transforming him into a man. By his sophomore year, though he was still shy and soft-spoken in front of cameras, on the field he drove the Buckeyes to win after win, like he was born to lead. Jeremy would have been twenty-seven now, and Cindy couldn't help but wonder if that's what he would have been like.

She opened the Christmas card in her lap to read it again. Every year, she and the parents of all the other boys each got a Christmas card from Sam, thanking them again and updating them on how he and his family were doing. The first few had been a bit bleak—describing the move to the new apartment, detailing his progress in therapy. Now, they were almost all cheerful. Sam was twenty-one, nearly twenty-two, and he was clearly looking forward to the rest of his life. The card also always contained a picture. One year it was a picture of Sam holding his little brother in one arm and his little sister in the other like rag dolls. Another it was a picture of him goofing around at the prom with his friends. This year, it was a picture of the beautiful blonde girl, Quinn, smiling radiantly into the camera with Sam's lips pressed to her cheek.

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Meyers, it read

Happy holidays! I hope everything is going well for you and your family up in Wolverine-land. We're doing well down here. Stevie is a junior, and he's taking his SATs again in a few months. He took them the first time in the fall, and his score was almost perfect (I didn't even know they went that high!) but he said if he wants to get into Harvard, he's going to have to do a little bit better. If not, he said he'd be fine at Georgetown because they're political like him. We all know who inherited my parents' brains! Stacy is doing well, too. She's a freshman this year, and she's on the cheerleading squad and in the glee club. I guess those two will help keep her balanced, so she doesn't get too cool for her big brother : )

Quinn is perfect as always. She graduated from Yale last year and got her degree in English and Psychology. She loves to write, and the psychology part she said was just for fun, since she thinks the two of us were basket cases in high school. Maybe we were, but I spent too much time staring at her to notice. She got a job with a publisher in New York City, and she loves it there. I'll be heading out there with her after graduation in the spring.

I'm sure you saw on the press conference, but I decided not to enter the NFL draft. I know I disappointed a lot of people, and everyone keeps telling me I should do it for the money, but it just isn't for me. I love playing, but I just want a normal, quiet life somewhere with Quinn and someday, our family. I never wanted to be famous or anything. Anyway, after the press conference, a bunch of consulting and investment firms in New York offered me jobs. I was honest with them about my limitations, but they said that they would want me as a face for the firm, to get clients in the door and go to networking events and that kind of stuff. It all sounded pretty weird to me, but they said I'm famous from football and I have a good face. I don't know why anyone would pay me to be charming, but apparently that's a big deal in New York, and they said I'd learn as I go. And finally I get to be with Quinn!

Well, this is barely fitting in the card, so I better stop. Thank you again for always being there to support me and for changing our lives forever. I know the new year will have lots of good things in store for you!

Love always,

Sam

PS: I know you'll be watching us play Florida in the bowl game, but make sure you stay tuned all the way to the end, even if we're knocking them out!

Cindy sighed, closing the card as her husband flicked on the game just in time to see Sam and the other Ohio State seniors run the team out onto the field for warm ups. She wouldn't miss a second of it for the world.

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The balmy Florida sun was a nice reprieve from the frigid northeast winter, and Quinn sat in the stands, delighted to be in a light dress and sunglasses well before the season called for it. She looked out of place among the Ohio State fans—all scarlet and gray with jersey numbers and buckeyes painted on their faces—but Quinn's days of slicked ponytails and school colors were long past her. She was a Yale graduate, and a New Yorker now, and she looked the part.

She cheered along as she watched her boyfriend play the game he loved for the last time. They had talked over the phone about his decision over whether or not to enter the draft. He was essentially guaranteed to be a first round pick, probably even the first pick of the first round, and there were huge signing bonuses at stake. No one at Ohio State, in fact, no one representing the pro teams with the first few picks, even knew that he was considering not playing professionally. Quinn had tried to talk some reason into him. Wherever he got drafted—it was looking like Indianapolis or Miami at the moment—they would just have to do the long distance thing a little bit longer until she got a job in the city where he played. Sam agreed that she was way too smart, too talented, and too ambitious to be the trophy wife of some football player.

But by the end of the conversation, Quinn was convinced that it just wasn't what Sam wanted out of his life. She had pushed him to play because she didn't want him to resent her, didn't want him to give up on a dream of playing professional football to come live with her in New York so that she could pursue her publishing career. But the more she thought about it, the more she realized that he had never mentioned a dream of playing professional football. He had talked about a little house somewhere, and children. Singing their babies lullabies. Going to PTA meetings after work. Teaching their son to throw a football. Helping their daughter ride a bike. Maybe being a police officer or an elementary school teacher. The world consisting of just them. These are the things Quinn remembered Sam talking about, not being rich or famous or adored. So when he asked for her approval of a decision he had really already made in his heart, she gave it freely. And soon, they would be together, finally.

It hadn't been a perfectly smooth journey. After the hellish year they had Quinn's junior year, they had matured into a deep and loving relationship that had extended through the rest of Quinn's time in high school. Her senior year had been perfect—she won a national championship with the Cheerios, placed third at nationals with the New Directions, got accepted early decision to Yale, and even won prom queen with Sam by her side. Sam had quickly outperformed Finn for the starting quarterback job, and he and Quinn were the "it" couple. But after everything they had been through the year before, being "it" was just a nice confirmation that everyone else saw in their love what she saw.

They had tried to make things work when Quinn had gone off to Yale, but there were major growing pains. Quinn quickly realized that she was a bit out of place at her new school. She was rich, sure, but she was from some hick town in Ohio. These kids were worldly travelers from New York and Paris with professor parents and violin concertos already to their names. What she didn't know was that they all felt as insecure as she did. So they all played the game. They formed groups and tried to act enlightened. And in this new world of art galleries and symphonies and wine and cheese, having a boyfriend from home who was still in high school just didn't fit.

So she broke up with Sam. She went on dates with boys who took her to Shakespeare readings. She tried her hand at bantering over coffee, though Quinn wasn't sure if she really understood what they were doing. They laughed and debated flirtatiously over their opinions of Kant and Spinoza, even if they weren't getting the philosophy quite right. She tried a cigarette and had a one night stand or two, because it seemed like romance and true love were beneath them in the world of poets and philosophers and great ideas. But by the time Quinn realized that she and the rest of her freshman class were all just trying to impress each other with their coolness, she had gotten average grades, done average things, and had denied herself the one person who truly made her feel loved.

Sam had spent his senior year single. He wasn't waiting for Quinn to come back necessarily, and he could have been with any girl he wanted, but after her, none of the other girls compared. It wasn't that they weren't pretty or that they wouldn't have treated him well, it was the fact that Quinn had been through his life with him and grown into an adult with him. She was his first love and his first time. She knew things about him no one else would ever know. She was part of him that he could never give up, whether they ever got back together or not. He understood that they were in different worlds now, with her out in the world being Miss Ivy League and him still a small town high school kid with no idea what his future would hold. So he went at it alone, focusing on himself, his family, and his friends.

That summer, when Quinn came home, it took one look at Sam to know she had made a terrible mistake. It wasn't just that he was even more gorgeous than she remembered him being. It was that he was the one person who had loved her unconditionally, always, no matter what. He had never been anything but open and honest with her; he had given himself to her completely, unlike those boys at school who were just as fake as she was pretending to be. She was shy, fearing that she had broken his heart and his trust. But he had opened his arms up to her, drawing her into him. Their bodies melted together, just like they had always done. She made love to him, and she knew then that she would never leave him again.

This time, they made long distance work. For the next three years, they spent every night on the phone and made frequent trips back and forth. Flights to Ohio were cheap, and they saw each other at least once a month. Quinn often made little weekend trips with her friends out of Sam's football games, and when she couldn't get out to the actual game, she would throw a little party in her dorm and watch it on TV. She was so immensely proud of him . . . almost as proud as he was of her.

The guys on the football team always teased Sam about his unbreakable loyalty to his far away girlfriend. Between his looks, his starting quarterback spot, and the Buckeyes' success, he had become quite the celebrity in college sports. He had been nominated for a Heisman, though he didn't win, and drunk girls across the country threw themselves at him at parties. Sometimes less than fully dressed. But Sam would just find somewhere safe to deposit them and laugh it off. "Have you seen my girlfriend?" he would always ask in response to his offensive line's teasing. When they nodded appreciatively, he would always tag on "And, my girlfriend is smarter than all of ya'll put together."

Now, as the final minutes ticked off the clock of Sam's last game as a Buckeye, Quinn knew that they had made it through the worst part. In a few short months, Sam would be in New York with her. He wouldn't just be that cute guy on the TV, he would be the guy she loved, in her home, in her bed.

Quinn had been too lost in her own thoughts to notice that, after the boys celebrated their victory, the entire stadium had gone quiet, focusing their attention away from the field.

"Shut up Finn, this is a great idea . . . Wait is this thing on? Oh, ok."

In response to the booming voice, every pair of eyes in the stadium turned to the jumbo screen, and Quinn felt a deep, penetrating blush crawling up her cheeks.

"Hey Quinn!" Sam's bright, cheery voice called from the screen. But it wasn't popular, heartthrob, Ohio State quarterback Sam. It was fifteen-year-old dorky Sam, in that ridiculous blue target t-shirt she still slept in, with strands of blond hair falling into those pretty blue-green eyes no matter how hard he tried to push them away. Some of the fans were laughing at seeing their star as a kid, others cooing over his cuteness, but everyone was paying acute attention, waiting to see what this was going to be about.

"It's been exactly six days since I told you I wanted to marry you someday, and you said you would think about it. Wellllllllllllll, you've probably had a realllllllllly long time to think about it, and we're probably reallllllllllly old by now . . . God, I hope we're not like, thirty! . . . Anyway, I hope you've made your mind up, because I'm going to ask you again. Right now."

Oh God. Oh God. Quinn's heart began to race, her eyes, along with the eyes of eighty thousand of her best friends in the stadium, glued to the screen.

On the screen, teenaged Sam got down on one knee, the voices of Finn Hudson and Mike Chang clearly laughing behind the camera.

"Quinn Fabray, I'm pretty sure I've waited a long time to ask you this. Will you marry me?"

Quinn felt the tears welling in her eyes, and she dabbed at them delicately, trying not to let her makeup run. Keep it at a pretty cry, Quinn, she told herself. She was annoyed with the lumpy woman sitting next to her in the stands who, for the last minute, had been poking her in the shoulder incessantly. When she finally pulled her eyes away from the screen to look, the woman was pointing over Quinn's shoulder.

Quinn turned and gasped. While everyone had been watching the screen, adult Sam—still in his grass-stained uniform and pads, sweaty and disgusting and panting a bit from the game and his racing adrenaline—had snuck in beside her. He was sitting on the bleacher next to her, his wet, blond hair clumped in every direction, his eyes shining. An open ring box perched in his long fingers, and his eyes shone in the dwindling evening sunlight. The corners of his mouth twitched as he did his very best to hold off on his paralytic smile.

"I hate you, Sam Evans! I hate you!" she wailed at him, letting the makeup run down her face and her nose drip. Oprah calls this ugly crying.

"Does that mean yes?" Sam asked cautiously, his eyes lighting up and the smile beginning to break across his face.

"Of course that means yes!"

As the stadium erupted into cheers, Quinn threw herself into Sam's arms, and for the first moment of the rest of their lives, they felt like they had come home.