A/N: Happy Valentine's Day. :P
It's early August and the county fair is in town and they go one afternoon, all of them, as a last hurrah for the summer before they all head back to their respective corners of the country for their sophomore year of college. For a while they stick together, ooh-ing and ahh-ing over the sheep and cows and pigs (Sam claims she knows exactly how much bacon you could get from each pig and proceeds to rattle off numbers while Carly presses her palms over her ears and sings loudly). There's a big barn set up where you can taste every type of jam you could possibly imagine, and Sam tries every one twice but gets bored on her third go-around and starts flicking the samples at Gibby instead. Freddie and Carly drag her out when a glob of rhubarb jelly just misses an old lady.
They finally lose Sam and Freddie at the food vendors; the last Melanie sees of them is Sam ordering three elephant ears and a thirty-two ounce strawberry lemonade and Freddie saying "I'm not paying for that" even as he's pulling out his wallet. Carly, Gibby, and Carly's summer boyfriend Alex stop somewhere amongst the game booths when Alex and Gibby get into a competition to see who can win Carly a stuffed prize of some sort first.
"I can't tell if Gibby really likes Carly or if he just really doesn't like Alex," Brad says, shaking his head as they leave the three of them.
"He wouldn't be the only one, if he doesn't."
It's just the two of them after that, and while they've been "together" for months they're still getting used to the idea of being together, a unit, recognized by other people as such. It's easier this way, easier to be able to cling tightly to each other's hands when Sam and Freddie kiss in front of them, easier to be able to explain their "relationship" in a way their friends can understand. Still, it doesn't quite come naturally yet, especially when there's no one around to remind them how they should be acting. Five minutes pass before Melanie feels Brad take her hand, interlacing his fingers with hers. Like a normal boyfriend.
They spend the rest of the day on the rides, stopping only to grab corndogs when they get hungry. Melanie admits that she's always been too scared to go on the Gravitron because when she was little Sam told her it would spin her so fast her brain would turn to goo and come out her ears. Brad laughs at this until he's crying, and once he calms down he promises that nothing will come out of her ears and pulls her gently into the line. She has so much fun they go twice more and only stop because Brad notices that she's looking a little green. They ride some of the tamer rides for a while after that so that Melanie's stomach can settle and she doesn't "meet her corndog again," as Brad puts it. By the time they reach the Ferris wheel, dusk is starting to fall. Melanie's phone rings while they're in line. It's Sam, wondering where they are, since it's getting late and Carly wants to leave before the fair closes and the rush of people leaving makes it impossible to get out of the parking lot.
"Tell her we're about to get on the Ferris wheel and if they meet us there we can leave as soon as we get off," Brad says.
Melanie relays the message and hangs up just as they're ushered onto the ride and up, up, rising into the slowly darkening sky. The wheel stops when they're near the top, their seat creaking as it rocks back and forth, and Melanie isn't really scared of heights but she still clutches Brad's hand a little bit more tightly than usual.
There's a single star visible in the night, a pinprick of white against deepening blue. Melanie points it out, tells Brad to make a wish. He lets out a long breath, leaning his head against hers, giving her hand a soft squeeze as the Ferris wheel jolts into motion again. They stop at the top this time, the entire fair stretched out beneath them. From here the people look almost as small as the star.
"I wish I loved you."
It's said simply, softly, without any hint of the bitterness or anger or frustration that usually taints the conversations they have about their relationship. Melanie looks at him quizzically, and he presses his forehead to hers, a purely affectionate gesture.
"You know, you're not supposed to say your wish out loud," she chides him, gently. "It won't come true."
He kisses her then, a long, lingering kiss as the Ferris wheel begins its descent. When it's over it leaves her breathless, lightheaded, crashing back to earth. She feels herself flush, the color starting at her nose and catching, setting her face aflame. Brad's eyes meet hers, and instead of the cool blue putting out the fire in her face it just makes it burn brighter. He laughs. Bringing her hand up, he presses her knuckles first to his lips, then to his cheek.
"I'm not worried," he tells her.
It's Melanie's twenty-second birthday and she has class from nine to six, with only an hour break for her to run to the campus cafeteria and gulp down a quick lunch. Senior year is brutal, she reflects grimly as she spoons lukewarm tomato soup into her mouth with one hand and holds a textbook open with the other, trying to block out the din of the crowds around her so she can focus on the words. By the time she catches the bus back to her apartment, she's exhausted, and she's still facing the prospect of finishing a twenty-page paper for her American Realism class by the end of the week. The thought is enough to make her want to just pass out in her bed the minute she gets home, birthday or no birthday. It's not like she has birthday plans, anyway.
This also happens to be the day when Brad has a late seminar and doesn't get home until at least an hour after she does, so she's half-surprised and half-annoyed when she sees as she approaches their building that the lights are on in the living room and the kitchen. They're on a budget and they can't afford to be leaving lights on all day; they've talked about this. Is it that hard to just flip the switch before you walk out the door? She stomps grumpily up the stairs to the second floor where their apartment is, ready to take out her frustration on the wall or the couch or whatever else will listen to her until Brad gets home.
Brad's standing by the table, wearing a batter-spattered apron, with a grin on his face that quickly changes to a look of concern. Likely it's because she's just thrown the door open as if it offended her in some way, though she also admits that she probably looks like she's just dragged herself out of the seventh circle of hell (she certainly feels that way). The whole apartment smells like warmth and chocolate. There's red and white streamers hung throughout the living room and dining area and balloons in the same colors tied to the backs of the chairs. The tiny table is set, complete with a single candle and a couple of wine glasses (probably plastic, as they don't actually own any wine glasses). Melanie lets her bookbag fall to the floor with a thud as she takes everything in.
"I, uh, I know that we agreed we weren't going to celebrate until the weekend, you know, since you're so busy and you have that paper and everything," Brad begins, sticking his hands in his pockets, "but I just thought it might be kind of nice for you to come home to something on your birthday. So, uh, I skipped seminar today and came home early. I didn't have time to make dinner, but I- whoa, whoa, Mel, what's wrong?"
Melanie starts to cry, silently at first and then more obviously, because she's so tired and she was so mad at Brad and then he does this for her, this incredibly thoughtful thing that she doesn't even feel like she deserves right now because she was prepared to pick a fight with him the minute she saw him. It's embarrassing, this contrast of her misplaced aggression against Brad's thoughtfulness, especially when she considers that Brad is even busier than she is most of the time. Tears slip down her cheeks and she wipes them away with the palm of her hand. Brad rushes to her side, taking her by the arm and leading her over to the couch. She sits down hard and buries her face in her hands.
"I was mad at you when I got here because I thought you left the lights on!" she admits, through tears. Her voice is muffled by her hands, but Brad must understand her because he puts an arm around her shoulder and pulls her close. "But you were just being thoughtful and I'm sorry and I feel terrible-"
"Hey, easy, it's okay." He rubs her arm and she leans into him, taking deep breaths in order to get her sobs under control. "You're just stressed out; it's not a big deal, all right? Don't worry, it's my fault, I should have told you-"
"No!" she cuts in, shaking her head emphatically, still brushing tears away from her eyes. "No, I'm glad you didn't tell me." Pulling away from Brad a little, she sits up, glancing around at the decorations. "I don't… I mean, I just didn't expect…." She trails off helplessly.
Once she's calmed down, Brad helps her to her feet and has her follow him to the dining room. He disappears into the kitchen for a moment and reappears with an enormous tray of brownies. The words "Happy birthday Melanie" are scrawled across the top in white icing. It's almost enough to make her cry again, but she keeps her composure and instead just stretches up on her tiptoes to kiss Brad on the cheek.
Brad pulls a box of small birthday candles out of the pocket of his apron and counts out twenty-two candles, sticking them into the brownies one by one and then lighting them. By the time they're all lit, it looks like the entire surface is ablaze. Brad sings "Happy Birthday" quietly, wrapping an arm around Melanie's waist as he does so.
"Make a wish," he tells her, after he's finished.
Melanie doesn't even have to think about it. She takes a deep breath and blows out all the candles in one shot and grins because that's supposed to be good luck, right?
"What did you wish for?" Brad asks.
She shakes her head. "I can't tell you. It won't come true otherwise." She looks up at him. "But I think you already know what it is," she adds, almost shyly.
It takes a moment for a look of realization to spread across Brad's face. When it does, he kisses her on the forehead and pulls her into a hug. She feels him rest his chin atop her head.
"Yeah. I think I do."
It's the day after Sam and Freddie's wedding and Brad and Melanie are boarding a plane for Europe, hitting London first and then Rome. The trip is a reward, of sorts: for making it through the wedding planning without killing anyone (Sam's complete lack of concern about details combined with Freddie's inability to not plan everything down to the last minute detail makes for a nightmarish few months, though the ceremony itself turns out nicely), for not breaking down when they watch the people they love marry each other. It's a reward and a celebration and a letting go, and they turn off their cell phones and refuse to check their email or Splashface and don't speak a single word about Sam or Freddie or the wedding because this is a time for them.
Their final day in Rome is hot and crowded and noisy and Melanie fans herself with her free hand while Brad grips the other and leads them through the throngs of people milling around the Trevi Fountain. They knew it would be packed, had planned for it, but Melanie is tired and sweaty, her bangs sticking to her face, ponytail hanging limply, and she wonders if it's worth it, to push their way through this crowd. Not that she isn't thrilled to be in Rome - she is. The trip has been amazing. Europe is more gorgeous than she ever imagined. But she can see the fountain from where they are. It's huge. Do they really need to go all the way up to it, close enough to touch the water?
But Brad's determined, so they press on, being jostled by hundreds of other tourists with every step they take. The crowds thicken the closer they get, and at one point Melanie's hand slips free of Brad's and it takes them five minutes to find each other again. She's on the verge of asking Brad to just forget it, already, when they maneuver around a small group of people trying to take a picture and through a gap and find themselves directly in front of the fountain.
The sound of the water pouring forth mixed with the din of the crowd makes it difficult to hear anything, so she doesn't notice Brad attempting to get her attention until he taps her on the shoulder and motions for her to hold out her hand. When she does, he drops two two-cent euro coins into her hand. She looks at him, confused, and he says something to her but she only catches fragments of it. When she frowns and shrugs, he leans in, putting his lips close to her ear. The feel of his breath on her ear makes her twitch just a little.
"For the fountain," he repeats.
She nods, looking down at the two coins in her hand. "Why two?" she asks, raising her voice enough for him to hear. He leans in again.
"The first is to wish for a return to Rome," he tells her. "The second…." He trails off, and there's a moment of hesitation before he continues. "The second is to wish for love. New love."
When he pulls back, Melanie looks at him and can't tell if the red in his face is from the heat or from embarrassment. She's probably red, too, so she ignores it and just grins at him, and he smiles back with what is obviously relief.
Brad turns, putting his back to the fountain. He pantomimes tossing the coins over his left shoulder, using his right hand. All around them, people are doing the same thing. Melanie transfers the two coins from her left to her right and turns her back to the fountain, mimicking what Brad just did, eyebrows raised questioningly. He nods in confirmation.
"Ready?" he shouts to her. "One, two, THREE!"
They release their coins into the air at the same time. It's too loud to hear the splash they make when they hit the water, but she also doesn't hear anyone shout like they've just had four two-cent Euros rain on them from above, so she figures it's safe to assume they made it into the fountain. She turns to the fountain, tries to pick out where they might have landed, but the bottom is so covered in coins she doesn't even know where to start. It's enough, she supposes, to know that the coins are in there, that the fountain heard her wish.
Next to her, Brad takes the camera from his pocket (he had tried to talk Melanie into letting him bring his new Fanon SuperPic S7000 on the trip, but she told him that it was impractical to lug it around Europe and insisted that they just bring the Daikon instead) and snaps a few pictures of the fountain. Melanie feels a tap on her shoulder and when she turns he takes a picture before she even has time to smile.
"Do it again!" she says, and this time he catches her mid-laugh. She grabs the camera from him and gets a few photos of him, and when she returns it he puts an arm over her shoulders and holds the camera out at arm's length and takes a photo of them together. Then they're done, and he sticks the camera back into his pocket and holds out his hand.
"Ready to go?" he asks, and she puts her hand in his. Even in the heat, she doesn't mind the warmth.
It's eight-oh-three in the morning, according to the numbers she can just barely make out on the alarm clock next to the bed, and for reasons she absolutely cannot fathom Brad is shaking her awake.
"Hey, Mel, time to get up."
"It's Saturday," she grumbles in response, pushing him away with one hand and pulling the blanket over her head with the other. He's not having it, though, and he yanks the blanket out of her hands and away from her face. "Brad!"
"We're painting the accent wall in the living room today, remember?"
She groans. If she hadn't remembered before, she does now. "It's eight o'clock in the morning!" she protests. Somehow, Brad can be up and fully alert before the sun even rises, a trait which sometimes Melanie envies and sometime she is just annoyed by. Today, it's annoying.
"I made breakfast."
Now that he mentions it, she can smell bacon, but she's not Sam and that's not nearly enough to entice her to get out of bed at eight o'clock on a Saturday morning. "I don't want breakfast."
"But there's waffles!"
"Brad. I want to sleep. So you can either leave me alone or come join me." She reaches up, wrapping her arms around his neck to pull him down into the bed with her. It's a trick that normally works - even when she doesn't manage to get back to sleep, she usually gets something out of the deal. This time, though, Brad just reaches up and detangles her arms, pulling her into a sitting position. She glares daggers at him, and is vaguely offended that she doesn't seem to be intimidating him in the least.
"Come on, you're really going to make me eat everything by myself? I'll lose my figure," he jokes, pouting, and it's such a ridiculous mental image that Melanie can't help but laugh.
"I'd be more willing to eat with you if you'd made breakfast at a decent hour of the morning. Like ten. Or noon."
"Noon isn't the morning," Brad points out in his maddeningly obvious way. "And anyway, I've been up since six."
"Of course you have," she sighs. He's obviously not going to let her go back to sleep anytime soon, and they've been arguing so long that she's not sure she could fall back asleep, anyway. So she swings her legs over the side of the bed, feet seeking out her slippers because she knows the floor downstairs is going to be cold. "Fine, you win, okay? I'll eat."
He grins widely at her and bobs up and down on the balls of his feet as she stands up and shuffles toward the bedroom door. He's strangely excited over her agreeing to go eat breakfast, but it's too early in the morning for her to be particularly suspicious of his motivations, so she just ignores it.
It's still a little weird, walking out into the hallway and knowing that it's their hallway, in a different way that the hallways in their past apartments were. Brad had finally talked her into buying a house together, wearing her down over the course of a year. She had had so many objections, not the least of which was what if this doesn't work, what if they don't work? What if their broken pieces, after all this time, just can't quite fit together? They'd been sharing apartments since they were twenty, but a house was a different beast entirely: weighty and near-permanent. But Brad wanted it so badly, and Melanie worried that this, maybe, would be the straw that broke the camel's back if they couldn't come to an agreement, so she finally gave in after a time and they settled on a little two-story townhouse. Not huge, but plenty roomy enough for the two of them.
There are pictures of the two of them over the last ten years covering the walls, and Melanie's eyes sweep over them as she descends the stairs, Brad just a couple steps behind her. One frame has the pictures they took at the Trevi Fountain a few years ago. Another has a strip of four photos from when they used the photobooth at the mall, shortly after they started officially dating. There's even a few pictures from when they were in Sam and Freddie's wedding, and she considers it a good sign that there's only a soft, distant ache in her chest when she sees it, like remembering a wound from a long time ago.
By the time she reaches the bottom of the staircase the smell of paint has joined the smell of bacon, mingling into a rather unpleasant assault on her nostrils. She wrinkles her nose in disgust.
"Brad, did you start painting already?" she calls back over her shoulder as she walks into the living room and stops in her tracks, her heart leaping erratically in her chest.
Scrawled across the accent wall in the red paint they had picked out are the words "I love you."
Behind her, she hears Brad follow her into the living room, stopping a little ways from her. She turns to look at him, eyes wide, and he just stuffs his hands in his pockets and gives her a helpless smile and shrugs.
"I mean it," he says simply.
And then she can't stop herself from flying at him and throwing herself into his arms, a move that sends them both toppling to the ground but she doesn't even care because she's kissing him over and over, and they're both laughing and Melanie's pretty sure she's crying, too, and Brad's arms are wrapped around her waist like he's never going to let go of her again. With a grunt, he rolls them over so that Melanie is sprawled on the floor beneath him, his knees planted firmly on either side of her right leg. She reaches up, threads her fingers into his hair, pulls him down for a kiss that gets hands roaming and makes Melanie, at least, not particularly concerned with making it to the kitchen any time soon. When they finally break for air, Melanie takes his face in her hands, looking straight into his eyes, and kisses him soundly once more.
"I love you, too."