Hello, my friends. This story has been bouncing around in my head since October, and I finally feel like I'm at the point where I can start publishing. I'm nowhere near finished, but I'm hoping to be able to update regularly. This is going to be a long one.
I cannot begin to thank Labyrinth, who has been a invaluable source of ideas, advice, and encouragement, as well as an awesome editor. I am in debt to you, oh Queen of Britz Fanficdom.
The story begins at the end, with a happily ever after. Remember that as you read on. They will get there again. It will just take some time.
Feedback is appreciated. I would love to know what you think.
You're so great at imagining the worst. It's part of why you're good at your job. But try, just for a minute, imagining something better…
Driving west on the 101 and watching the Los Angeles city limits fade in her rear-view mirror, Brenda Leigh Johnson felt a sense of peace wash over her. Never in a million years would she have believed she'd become a commuter, but after four years she had come to appreciate some of the perks it offered. For one thing, it was a chance to decompress after a stressful day, as today had been. During her forty minute drive, she could listen to any type of music she wanted, as loud as she wanted, and no one was there to laugh at the way she sang along. Being a southern girl born and bred, she had a soft spot in her heart for country music, although she did appreciate some of the contemporary pop and rock as well. Today she was rocking out to Pink's newest album.
As she exited the freeway and turned onto her street, another perk of commuting came into view: her beautiful home. Pulling into the driveway, she thought about how long she had fought Fritz on the issue of buying a house and how foolish she had been. Now she couldn't imagine living anywhere else.
Their home was a modest two-story dwelling with three bedrooms, two and a half baths, and a small fenced-in yard, but to Brenda and Fritz it was perfection.
The first one to welcome Brenda when she walked through the door was her loyal buddy Joel. He didn't move quite as fast as he once did, but he never failed to run and greet her when she arrived home.
"Well, Hello, my fluffy-wuffy Joely…" She dropped her bag on the counter and lifted him up for a kiss and snuggle. "Where's Daddy, huh? Fritzy?"
"Fritzy, you wouldn't believe the day I h—" She stopped short and had to hold a hand over her mouth to keep from chuckling when she finally laid her eyes on Fritz. Sitting at a small table holding a teacup, Fritz wore a pink feather boa and one of Brenda's sun hats. Two of the other seats were occupied with stuffed bears. "My, my, Fritzy, don't you look stunnin'" she declared, setting Joel down and trying her hardest not to burst out laughing.
"Pardon me," he replied, "but the name is Lady Sunflower."
That did it for Brenda. Not being able to hold back any longer, she started to laugh uncontrollably. Collapsing onto the chair beside him, she fought to catch her breath. Fritz remained deadpan with his pinky in the air, until Brenda leaned in to plant a kiss on his cheek. "You are such a good sport," she said with a smile. "Where is the lovely hostess?"
"You mean Princess Sophia? I believe Her Royal Highness is upstairs powdering her nose," he said in a mocked British accent. After a pause, he added in his regular voice, "She's been in there for awhile actually. I was just about to check on her."
"Let me," Brenda smiled as she made her way to the stairs. She softly knocked on the bathroom door and called, "Oh, Princess. Your guests are waitin' and the tea is gettin' cold. Honey?" Brenda twisted the knob and couldn't believe the scene that was waiting for her on the other side. "Sophie Rae Howard, what on earth are you doin'?" Her four-year-old daughter was perched on a step-stool at the bathroom mirror holding one of Brenda's lipsticks and failing miserably at attempting to apply it in a straight line.
"Mama, I just wanna be pretty like a princess. Like you!" Her big brown eyes widened and began to fill with tears.
Just then, Fritz arrived at the door to see what had made Brenda raise her voice, but he ducked quickly out of sight when he heard his daughter's reply. I think I'll let Brenda handle this one, he thought as he quietly backed up and made his way back downstairs to start dinner.
"Aww, Sweetheart…" Brenda stooped down and stroked her daughter's cheek, catching a falling tear. "You are a beautiful little girl. You don't need any of this." She gestured toward the lipstick, gently took it from Sophie's hand, and replaced the cap. She only cringed slightly when she realized it was her favorite shade of "reddish brown." After returning it to the drawer, she tenderly washed her daughter's mouth with a washrag. "You're pretty just the way you are," Brenda said with a smile.
"But, Mama, you pretty too! Why you wear it?" she asked sincerely.
Oh dear, thought Brenda. How do I explain this? "Well, honey," she began as she wiped down the counter and straightened up the rest of her makeup, "It's just one of those grown-up things."
"You mean like bras and high heels?" Sophie dramatically whispered with her hand cupping the side of her mouth. "Like that?"
Brenda bit her lip to keep from smiling. "Yes, exactly. And all those grown-up things are just a pain in the neck to wear anyway." She turned back to face her daughter. "You don't need any of that. All you need to do is be Sophie Rae, and play, and laugh, and have fun bein' a little girl." Brenda straightened her daughter's plastic tiara, and smoothed down her soft brown curls. "There'll be time for all that later. Okay?"
"Okay, Mama. I love you!" Sophie almost knocked Brenda over with her fierce hug.
"Oh!" Brenda caught herself and smiled. "I love you, too, Baby. Now, shall we see what Daddy is makin' us for supper?"
"Yes! I hope it's somethin' yummy like chicken nuggets!" She started toward the door, and then paused. Her tone was serious as she asked, "Mama?"
"If I eat all my dinner, can we have Ho-Ho's for dessert?"
Smiling from ear to ear, Sophie quickly ran downstairs to check in with her daddy.
"That's my girl," Brenda said with a grin.
"…And they all lived happily ever after."
Fritz closed the storybook and peered over at his daughter lying beside him. Her eyes were closed, but he wasn't sure if she was asleep yet. He slowly sat up and straightened the covers around her. Kissing her forehead, he whispered, "Good night, Princess. I love you."
"Love too, Daddy..." she mumbled.
As he made his way to the door, he spotted Brenda standing there spying. Fritz put his arms around her and they just stood together for a moment, watching their daughter sleep.
"I know every parent says this, but I really think that we have possibly the most beautiful, perfect child there ever was," Brenda said as she leaned her head on Fritz's shoulder.
"I think you're right. I don't know why we waited so long to have her."
"I think you just needed a little convincin'" Brenda said with a smirk.
"Me?" Fritz pointed to himself with a look of shock on his face. "That's not how I remember it…"
"Daddy, I know this is hard, but you can't hang on to Mama's clothes forever. She would want them to go to someone who could use them."
Brenda was tired of having the same argument with her father. She had been staying with him for almost three weeks, and it was like pulling teeth to get him to part with anything that belonged to her mother. Although she couldn't imagine the pain that he was going through, she was becoming frustrated and didn't know how to help him. She was heartbroken too, but it helped to keep busy, so that's what she tried to do. Luckily, today she had called in reinforcements and wouldn't have to do it all by herself.
"I know it, Brenda Leigh. I just can't do it. Why don't y'all just go through them without me? I'm sure you'll know what's best."
Brenda turned to her sister-in-law Amy and her niece Charlie, who both nodded. "All right, Daddy. Why don't you go downstairs and put the game on? I'm sure Bobby will watch it with you as soon as he gets back from picking up the boys from practice."
Clay hung his head and nodded as he headed for the stairs.
"Do you think he's getting any better?" Charlie asked.
"I don't know, honey," Brenda answered. "I just don't know. All we can do is be here for him, and takin' care of Grandma's things here will help him out a lot."
"Ok, Aunt Brenda. Where do we start?"
"Good night, y'all. Thanks for your help."
Brenda waved to her family as they drove away in various vehicles. All alone with her father once more, she dreaded going back to the house. He was just so sad, especially in the evenings. She wished Fritz were here to lean on. He would know what to do, what to say.
She found Clay in the kitchen finishing up the dishes from dinner.
"Mind if I dry?" she asked.
"Nope. Go right ahead."
They worked in silence for a few moments. Brenda had grown tired of attempting to converse with her father. The thought of bringing up the subject of her mother again exhausted her, as did the idea of attempting small-talk.
In her head, she mapped out the next day. They were planning on meeting with Clay Jr. to straighten up a few financial things, and then Brenda thought they'd go grocery shopping. Her Mama had always done that, and her father would be perfectly happy to subsist on iced tea, oatmeal, and bologna sandwiches if she didn't keep a variety of foods in the house. She wondered if Fritz would call her this evening. He did most nights, as long as he wasn't held up at work with a big case…
Brenda was so deep in thought that her father's voice startled her, and she almost dropped the glass she was drying.
"What was that, Daddy?"
"I said, 'thank you,' Brenda Leigh. Thank you for coming out here and stayin' with me. You've been such a big help. I don't know what I'd do without you."
"Oh, Daddy!" Brenda embraced her father in a fierce hug. "It's nothin'. Really. I'll stay as long as you need. You've done so much for me all these years. It's the least I can do." She pulled away to look into his eyes. "Now, how are you doin'? I mean really, Daddy? We're all so worried about you."
Clay took a deep breath. "I'll be all right, Darlin'. Of course, I'll always miss your mother, but I still have so much. I've got you, your brothers, my grandkids…"
"Of course, Daddy. We all love you so much." Brenda's phone started to ring, but her focus was on her father.
"I love you, too. Now, go answer your little phone and talk to your husband. I'm gonna get ready for bed." He kissed her cheek and started toward the stairs.
"Night, Daddy." Brenda called after him. Then she put her phone to her ear. "Hey," she breathed.
"Hey, Honey. How's it going today?"
Brenda sighed as she took a seat on the couch. "Oh, all right, I guess. We got a lot done. Amy, Charlie, and I went through Mama's clothes and took them to the Salvation Army, so that's done. And, I think Daddy's doin' a little better. I don't know. It's so hard to tell. How was your day?"
"Not too bad. Things are a little slow, so I got off early."
"Oh really? Do anything fun?"
"Just a few errands. Not much. What are you doing now?"
"I'm sittin' on the couch in the livin' room. I should get to bed. It's late, but…"
"But what?" he asked.
"It's just so lonely up there. And cold. I miss you sleepin' next to me."
"Aww, Honey, I miss you, too. Only twelve more days…"
"Feels like an eternity."
"I have an idea. Close your eyes. Are they closed?"
"Uh huh. Now what?"
"Picture my face. Can you see it?"
"Now open your eyes."
Brenda startled as she opened her eyes and saw Fritz standing before her. She blinked several times to make sure that shadows weren't playing tricks on her in the dark. Could it really be him? She dropped her phone and ran to envelop him in a hug.
"Fritzy! How did... When…"
He silenced her with kisses, which she gladly reciprocated. He tasted like home and heaven and peace and chocolate. She held him tighter, afraid to let go or open her eyes for fear he might disappear, or she might wake up from what must be a dream, alone and cold in her childhood bedroom.
After a few minutes, Brenda pulled back to study his face. Slowly, she traced each feature with her fingers. "I can't believe you're really here with me. Let me go tell Daddy quick, so he's not surprised in the m—"
Fritz put a finger to her lips. "He already knows. How do you think I got in here? He snuck me in the back while you were outside saying goodbye to your brother. I've been hiding in the laundry room this whole time."
"I am shocked," she stated with mocked horror. "Y'all were conspirin'?"
"Are you complaining? 'Cause I can go back to the airport…" This time it was Brenda's turn to silence him with a kiss.
Brenda took a deep breath and exhaled slowly, sinking deeper into Fritz's arms. As they lay entwined, she couldn't help but think how right it felt to be held by him. She knew she'd definitely be able to sleep soundly tonight, for the first time in weeks. Fritz seemed to have other things on his mind besides sleep, however. As he trailed kisses down Brenda's neck to her shoulder, she had a hard time resisting him, yet she was apprehensive.
"Fritzy, we can't do this."
"Hmm?" Fritz mumbled as he pulled the strap of her tank top down and placed soft kisses to the tops of her breasts.
"Fritzy, my father's bedroom is right down the… hmm." Brenda was losing the battle, and Fritz smiled in triumph.
"Honey, you'll just have to keep your voice down for once."
"Me?" Brenda whispered. "I bet I can be quieter than you can."
"I'll take that bet," Fritz replied as he covered her mouth with his own and pulled the sheet up and over them both.