This was my entry for The Ruggeddom Contest. It won 3rd Place Judge's Vote, Judge's Pick by LayAtHomeMom, and Judge's Pick by Robsmyyummy Cabanaboy. Thank you to the Host, Jonesn, and all the Judges and everyone in between. Congratulations to all the authors! All of those entries were amazing!
Thank you to my PTB Betas: shouvley and wandofhawthorn. And mega loves to my darling friend and pre-reader: Ali OMalley Cat.
I can't seem to turn it off. The crying. These tears just keep coming, blinding my vision so that the dirt and sky become one poorly done watercolor of mixed paint. Gray. Brown. Black. So lifeless. So dark. Matching perfectly with the world we live in.
The beauty of color has lost its meaning when all of it can be associated with death. As red as Mom's blood leaving her body from the slits in her wrist. As blue as Dad's face when he was crushed between the hoards of panicked people. As orange as Rose's hair burned when the flames of our camp destroyed the last of my hope.
Green. Beautiful green. That's the only color that hasn't been tampered by the gray.
He grieves in his own way. Setting up the sound traps. Hauling my bag from my shoulders when we've walked too far. Determined to make camp before nightfall. Pulling me from the jaws of death. Wiping the coagulated blood from my face. Through it all so silent and strong, as he leads us through battle after bloody battle.
"Are you okay?" he asks. His once carefully maintained scruff is now spiraling out of control in tiny rusted ringlets, so close to my face, smelling faintly of the dirt and woods we've been living in.
I nod, trying to shake the nerves from my limbs. "Yeah."
He hands me back my gun, lost in the leaves at the beginning of the attack. "You need to keep a better hold on this."
I try to brush away the shame as I push at the straps digging into my shoulders, rubbed raw from walking all day and the jerk-jerk of the Gray that just tried to make me his meal. His greens, my only reprieve from the monotonous, follow my movement, watching as my fingers brush against the sensitive skin below my tank.
"And have more coverage," he says, his fingers twitching at his side. "Then you won't have this problem."
"It's too hot right now," I reply, shaking my head, mesmerized by the black blood flying from my skin, disappearing amongst all the dirt and leaves.
I can tell by the way his greens shift, so disapproving; those short rusted curls move with the press of his lips. I hate it when he looks down at me like that, as if he expects more. It hurts my heart to know that I've disappointed him yet again.
He turns away, planting his boot across the Gray's nose as support, the bone crushing beneath his weight as he pulls the arrow from its head, avoiding the splash of brain that follows the pointed tip. I grab his elbow when he retreats. "Thank you. Again. I don't know what I'd do without you."
He nods, briefly glancing my way. "We'll stay by the river tonight. So you can wash up."
I won't argue with him just for that little reprieve from dirtiness. The bank he chooses is new, but the river is not. We've been following it for days. We get to work, wrapping the sound traps of metal-on-metal around the edge not protected by the water and steep banks.
He doesn't look at me as he finishes it off, tying the battered ends of the rope to the nearest tree. "I'm going to hunt. Clean up while I'm gone."
"All right. Be safe." All I get is the back of his hand as he waves his crossbow in the air, his rust disappearing beyond the tree line with every step he takes away from me.
I shiver, searching the area, trying to be all-nonchalant as I throw my pack to the ground, carefully setting my gun next to it while rubbing at the red that burns across my exposed skin. It's always a little unnerving when he leaves, as if I need him to survive. In a way, I guess I do.
The water is cool when I wade into it barefoot. Balancing precariously on the shifting rocks, I watch as the current swirls around my dirty flesh. Stripping one article of clothing at a time, I give it a quick wash before throwing it toward the shore where it lands with a wet flop.
Goose bumps trickle across my body as I splash the river water up, washing away the dust and grime from days worth of travel through the woods. Brown eyes reflect back, and with the ripples flowing through their murky depths, they almost seem alive. Like that naive, young girl that once found beauty in every color, every shade.
It hurts when I slap the water, my palm stinging with the impact. There it is. The truth underneath all that falsely mirrored hope. The scars. The wear and tear of my body. Bruises and calluses. Signs that show the last two years haven't been kind or easy.
But the water, so refreshing and cool, slides down my stomach, along the inside of my thighs, bouncing as it hits the surface of the river, tickling that special place between. That reminds me of what I am. Human. Not a Gray with silver eyes and a hunger for flesh, so mindless and dead, despite the way they still stay on their feet. Just a girl who once had dreams and hopes, whose body hasn't adjusted to the times, who still craves the touch, the desire, the passion, of partnership.
Every day, seeing his hands hold that crossbow as he guides us, looking for safe passage, for the next camp, the new hope. The feeling as he holds me close at night when it's too cold, combating my shivers with his body heat. His breath against my neck when he shushes me in the face of danger. His fingers holding my trembles within as he waits for that one moment of opportunity.
My strong man. I shouldn't, but I can't help it because it all turns me on so good, that companionship, that protection. Even though he once belonged to Rose, who is now wandering the woods looking for her next meal. Even though he shared a bed and sweat and lust with a sister I held so dear. My attraction for him goes beyond the surface. It always has. Even before, when he deemed me too young to know what I was feeling.
So when my hands ghost along my breasts and then down across muscle and hair and into warm, wet heat, I'm not surprised by that or the twirls and swirls and the soft little sighs that leave my lips. It seems they know me better than I do. I close my eyes, thinking of green and flannel and that tiny smile beneath rusted curls, as a voice, so deep it resonates across my skin, leaving his mouth, whispering, encouraging, loving.
"That's it, baby," I'm sure he would say. "Let go. Feel it all."
The slosh, slosh of down there sounds just like the slosh, slosh of the river, wetter and wetter as my fingers move so good across a desire that hasn't been placated in so long. So when I come so hard my face hurts, with his greens and whispers against my closed eyelids, I can't help answering him.
"Yes! Edward! Yes!"
It's the rustle behind me that has me diving into the water, my arms coming up, protecting my naked body from any wandering eyes, not that Grays care about naked breasts. But it isn't silver I see. Green stares back at me. His hands are by his side. One is holding his crossbow. The other is holding dinner. My ears grow hot.
"Hurry up," he says, turning his back, walking up the dip where he's already collected kindling for the fire he'll start. I finish, stumbling up the rocky bed to my backpack, pulling out extra clothes and throwing them on, not caring how they stick to my wet skin. He ignores me when I join him.
"So…" I swallow. He tilts his head but says nothing. I clear my throat. "What did you catch?"
It isn't until night has fallen and we're picking the last of the meat from the bone that he finally turns my way. "I saw a sign."
"There's a camp up ahead. Called New Cheney. They take in survivors."
I nod. "Are we going to go?"
"Yeah." He pauses and then says a moment later, "It'll be a good place to drop you off."
I freeze, listening as the fire crackles, waiting for him to take back his words, to admit his mistake. We settle into the silence that permeates the air, the intensity making my skin crawl with fear. "Drop me off? What do you mean?"
He pokes at the fire, his greens lighting up in the dark with flames of red and orange. "It'll be good for you, Bella."
I swallow, my throat heavy and dry. "You're going to leave me there?"
He glances over when my voice catches, ending in a high note of fear and desperation. "I can't do good for you. This is for the best."
The tears sneak up on me again, overflowing down my cheeks. "Don't say that!"
"You can't leave me! Please! Don't leave me alone."
"You won't be alone." Even he sounds hesitant. "I'm sure there will be someone for you there. Someone like Rosalie."
"Nobody can replace Rose." My voice cracks, ending in a whisper. "Just like nobody can replace you."
Can't he hear my heartbreak? Crackling right along with the burning fire. He might as well throw me into the blaze. Being burned alive wouldn't hurt worse than this pain, this feeling of loss. He doesn't answer, standing up, so close to the raging red as if he's contemplating jumping in himself before turning his back and heading toward the water.
"Go to sleep, Bella."
"We'll head out in the morning." I can't fight it, not with him walking away, disappearing into the night. The only evidence he hasn't abandoned me yet is the sound of the riverbed splashing as he wades into it.
I curl up against my bag. My still hungry tummy. My parched throat. Edward. Not here. Only the sounds of the nearby woods as my company. All reminders of how my life has turned so bad. Losing Rose was hard enough. Now I'm going to lose him too? What's the point of living? Of carrying on? The pain is too much. So I muffle it all against my backpack, the polyester wet and cool with the night air.
His footsteps are light against the ground, clothes rustling as he changes into a new set. He pauses when I sniffle particularly loud but then continues on. Silent. Strong. Always strong. I hate it when he settles on his side of the fire. One more moment wasted before our separation.
I cry harder.
"Bella?" It's barely a whisper. I almost miss it over my own sad heartbeat in my ears. "Are you okay?"
I shuffle, pulling my knees up to my chin, ignoring his green gaze on my back and trembling shoulders. Seconds? Minutes? Hours? I don't know much time passes before he says, "Bella?"
"Just leave me alone."
This time there is no hesitation. "I'm sorry."
His voice, his normally powerful voice, holds his own sadness, his own desperation because he's human too. And that thought, that feeling that he doesn't want to leave me as much as I don't want him to leave me. That's anguish. He's suffering just as much as me. The polyester can barely contain my sobs.
I don't hear it, but I feel it, when he gets up, laying his body next to mine so that his chest is pressed against my back. His hand hovers above my arm before he's wrapping it around my waist, pulling me in close, whispering against my hair.
"Please stop crying."
"I can't." I relish in his touch, hoping for more, wishing this wasn't the last time.
"I'm sorry, Bella." His breath is so warm on my neck. "I can't take care of you. Not like I want to. Not like you deserve."
I shake my head, ignoring the dirt sticking to the wet trails down my cheeks. "You don't need to take care of me. I'm eighteen. Not a kid anymore."
"I know," he says, trailing his lips from the top of my head to my ear. "I know you're not a kid."
It hurts too much. I turn in his embrace, burying my head against his chest, holding onto flannel like I'll never let go. Maybe he feels just a bit of the loneliness that has settled over my heart. Maybe he knows how twisted my insides are. Maybe that empathy, that concern, is what leads him to tilt my head so that all I can see are his greens, just high enough, close enough…that I can lean up and kiss him.
He pulls back, so startled that I feel his body begin to leave mine. "Bella, I…"
I hold on tighter. "Please!" I cry, feeling the tears splash against his cheeks as I pull him toward me again. "I need you!"
In so many ways do I need him. His bravery. His skill with the crossbow. His soft touch. His warm lips. I try not to beg with my kisses so desperate against his heaving chest and shaking shoulders. The tears on his cheeks smear across my face as he pulls in me closer. It's surreal. Like I'm dreaming. Because in what universe would this strong man cry over me?
I touch each wet trail with the tip of my finger, following it from under his eyelid down to his chin. "Edward, I have to tell you. I need to tell you. I lo—"
His lips, usually barely visible under all that rust, are much softer than I would have thought. So plush against my own. Wet with the way he licks them and then bends down to kiss me again. He cups my face with big hands, the tips of his fingers sliding so rough against my skin as he closes his eyes. Those greens I love so much are hidden from my view as he presses forward a little bit harder, a little bit faster. His body twists as I fall to the ground, his lips following my own.
"I'm sorry," he whispers, kissing my cheeks, my forehead, my hair, and coming back to the start with a groan.
"Edward…" I sigh, loving the way his tongue draws pictures on my neck, his beard scratching as he shifts down. My tears follow in his wake because even though it feels so good to have his lips where I've only dreamed of them being, it feels like he's saying goodbye.
"I saw you," he says, his voice so rough and grainy as he heats that sensitive spot on my neck with his puffing, shallow breaths. "At the river."
My eyes fly open. He's not talking about… "What?"
"Moaning my name." And though my face is hot, I don't have time to be embarrassed because he's there, at my shorts, slipping the button through the hole, searching for the treasure underneath all that denim. "I liked it. Hearing you. Watching you."
"Fuck." This time the sigh that leaves my mouth is far from sad. Because with the way he's pushing by elastic, touching so carefully, pressing so hard, where I'm growing wet and warm, I can only feel one thing. Desire. I ache down there. For him. "Don't stop."
His free arm wraps around my head, holding me still as he lifts up, his greens dancing as he watches and listens. "Let me hear you, Bella."
I grab onto his arm, the one connected to the hand that's bringing me so much pleasure, simultaneously trying to push him away and push him deeper. I feel the crescendo but am afraid of the fall. This moment. Where my hips follow his snapping wrist. Where his breath hitches with his own lust. Where he watches as my peachy coloring turns a blushing pink. I want to stay here forever. The ending, though as beautiful and amazing as it could be, brings more than just that plummet of desire. Because where did this, his fingers against my lust, leave us?
"Fuck!" I try to shake my head against his firm hold, fighting that finish so close now that he's pressing deeper, harder, faster. "Wait!"
He hums, his tongue coming out, licking those plush lips as his greens undress me, the want so clear in them. "Let go, Bella. Let me hear you."
"No!" Not now. Not yet. Just a few more moments, hours, days. Let me live here forever. On this brink of desire. Let me have you like this always.
"Bella…" I can feel it. How his fingers are so determined. "Come for me, baby."
That does me. That endearment. It pushes me over the edge, screaming first into the air and then into his hand, muffled against the shadows dancing around the edges of the fire as everything overtakes me. Passion. Fear. Exhaustion. So tired of feeling that I willingly follow his kisses and shushes into sleep, hanging onto his flannel with my fingers, so afraid that he'll disappear into the night.
"Rest now, baby," he's whispering against my closed eyelids, and I fight the darkness to listen, to cherish his rare words.
"I'll always remember…"
"Your sighs and moans…"
"Wish I could tell you too."
I wake up without his arms, the morning dew collecting on my skin. He's gathering the sound traps, twisting it together, shoving it all into his backpack, and ignoring my gaze even when I call out his name.
"Edward! Please! Can we talk?"
And then he says with a voice so harsh, "We should go. It'll take a few days to get there."
So that's it. The plan is still on. He's still going to leave. With dried tears on my face and sticky thighs and all the emotion bubbling in my stomach, there's no room to be sad. Just numb.
"Let's go," he says, snuffing out the remains of the fire. "We'll find food on the way."
I see them. Cardboard nailed to trees, pointing the way, giving directions, saying, "You'll find help at New Cheney."
I hate it. All these signs of hope. Promises for safety. Encouragement to keep going. New Cheney won't help me. Not with Edward leaving so soon after we arrive. I stop, grabbing onto a tree. My feet can't take the torture anymore, can't bring me closer and closer to abandonment.
Edward turns. "We need to keep going."
I shake my hand. "I can't. Let's rest."
"Bella," he reprimands. "We're making good time. Don't stop yet."
"Just give me five minutes!"
He sighs, that rusted beard twitching with annoyance. "We haven't even been walking that long."
"What? Excited to get rid of me that much quicker?" I sneer. After the sad comes the bitter. I can't help it.
"Bella." He pauses as if choosing his words carefully in his mind. "You know that's not—"
"Whatever. Stop giving me excuses." I shouldn't say it. I really shouldn't say it. "Fuck me and run. I get it."
He freezes, his shoulders and arms so tense as his greens fight back. I can see it in the way his fingers shift against the trigger on his crossbow. How his feet shuffle closer to me and then retreat once again. How his gaze bounces from the trees to my chest heaving with exertion and pain.
And it was wrong. On both of our parts. Getting caught in this web of anger. Because we don't hear them. The Grays sneak up on us, shambling through the bushes until they're right there. His greens go wide as I pitch forward, catching myself with my hands, rolling, rolling, rolling until I can't anymore. Brittle bone wraps around my ankle, pulling me toward rotten teeth.
"Bella!" he yells. He runs toward me, his crossbow ready to shoot. He is so focused that he doesn't see the other Gray until he's side-swept to the ground, his hands grappling around the leaves for his dropped weapon.
"Edward!" Our screams echo through the forest, calling more danger, more death.
My Gray bites at my boots. I kick its face, watching as its head snaps back on its neck. Scrambling away on hands and knees, I jump to my feet, struggling with my gun caught in its holster. The Gray follows, its silver eyes so determined and hungry. The roar it lets loose disarms me, makes my heart stop, at it's ferocity, at the creature that used to be human. It could have been my mom, my dad, Rose…me.
I suppose my ruminations are my second mistake because I don't see it. The other Gray. Flying from my peripheral vision, it knocks me to the ground again, my gun flying from my grasp, lying just out of my reach. The Gray's teeth are too close to my flesh as I hold it back with shaking arms.
And then there's Edward, still fighting, still watching. "Bella! Hold on!" He grabs his Gray by the hair, shoving on its back with his knees as he uses the leverage to smash its face into the ground. One. Two Three times.
The eyeballs bursts. The nose breaks. The teeth fall out. All of this in a rain of decaying body fluids as leaves fly from the impacts, surrounding them in a golden halo of shimmering dead. Like my savoir should have wings. Beautiful, majestic wings that would take him away from all this pain, fear, and death.
It would be so easy right now. To let go. To let the Gray take its part in my flesh. To have it rip my throat out. To die here in the woods. Wouldn't that be better? Bang. To end my misery before it fully envelops me? Bang. My hold slackens, my arms trembling with the effort as those silver eyes, glaring down at me, reflect my weakness.
The gray is pulled back. It fights the strong hold, its jaw snapping as it reaches for me. Edward's white-knuckled fingers fling it hard against a tree. A snarl is punched from the Gray's chest with the impact on the bark. Before it can come at us again, Edward's pointing my gun and pulling the trigger. Bang.
If I'm not mistaken, his rusted beard shakes with a smile.
This entry was originally going to be way longer. I had an entire plotline worked out for it, but as I got to writing, I realized how much I would have to skim over in order to make it more one-shoty. So instead, I took a chunk of what I'd already written and submitted that into the contest.
I will continue this story—starting a few years back from this one shot—posting chapters under this title as soon as Our House is finished.