Summary: Scott copes with the loss of Jean. Scott POV

Rating: R for language

Disclaimer: Don't own 'em, making no money off 'em, own nothing worth suing for.

The Presence of Horses

I'm not sure what drove me to the stable.

It might have been Kurt and his religious platitudes.

It might have been Bobby and Rogue trailing me everywhere, apparently convinced I was suicidal.

It might have been Hank and his bone-crushing, exactly-the-last-thing-I-need-right-now hugs.

It was definitely, at least partly, Logan and his fucking patronizing, "She chose you" comment and all the "poor Scott" whispers and everyone's goddamn pity. Suffocating me. Drowning me. But I couldn't let myself think about drowning.

So I found myself in the stable, breathing in the sweet odor of horses and hay and finally, finally letting the iron band around my chest loosen, just a little. It got looser when I went into the stall of my horse, Cleo, the other pretty redhead in my life. The only pretty redhead in my life, now. It got looser still when she shoved her face in my chest, then nuzzled my neck with a nose that feels like damp silk. And it dropped off completely when I threw my arms around her neck, buried my face in her long chestnut mane and, with a sound that barely sounded human, let myself cry for the first time since the Blackbird.

There's something about the presence of horses that comforts me. Their needs are so simple: feed me, exercise me, groom me. In their own way, they too need me to be Fearless Leader, but it's in a way I can handle, even now. They don't give me the probing looks Charles does, they don't look at me in abject horror when my grief explodes into sobs, the way Bobby did, and they are unfazed by any mood swing I have, be it from white-hot rage – "How could she leave me?" – to acidic guilt – "I tried to kill her." – to numbing self-pity – "I'm a widower at 25." It's just feed me, exercise, groom me. And I can do that, even now.

Cleo is an appendix quarter horse, a cross between a thoroughbred and a quarter horse. She's got a thoroughbred's looks – long, slender neck, legs to die for, elegant as a runway model – and a quarter horse's heart and brains. Most of the time. Jean thought she was too flaky to ride, too inclined to panic at the sight of a squirrel and attempt to take off at approximately the speed of sound. My Cleo's a smart girl, but she needs a rider who can steady her when the world starts to overwhelm her equine brain.

Jean's horse – my horse, now – is different. Donna, short for Prima Donna, is a Morgan. She lacks Cleo's flashy looks, but she's far more sensible. Morgans are brainy, high-energy horses that tend to excel at everything they do. Race them 'round barrels, put them over a course of fences, they kick ass. Not so much flash and dash, but a whole lot of heart. Donna is the alpha mare, the boss of the mansion's little herd, and God help anyone, human or equine, who doesn't acknowledge that. She's not the biggest horse we've got, or the strongest, but let something threaten the herd – be it a strange dog loose around the paddock or a strange person approaching them – and it's Donna who's front and center, ready to charge, or to round up the others and flee. I never particularly liked riding Donna; she's too pushy. Utterly convinced she knows best, she views her rider as something to be hauled along as she goes about her equine agenda, whatever that may be. But Jean loved her. "You just have to get to know her," she told me once. "She's a different animal once you get to know her." Right.

But the first time I rode after losing Jean, it was Donna I reached for. I'd hung on to Cleo, weeping until my throat was raw, so relieved to be able to break down and lean on a warm body, far stronger than me, that wouldn't be shocked, frightened or contemptuous of the sobs that convulsed me. No judgments, for once. No fear that I was letting anyone down, setting a bad example, screwing up yet again. Just a strong and steady presence. And when I'd calmed down some, when I was aware of something besides my own agony, I left Cleo's stall, collected the Prima Donna, and headed out on the trail.

Donna may be pushy, but she's eminently sensible. Riding Cleo when you're distracted, or borderline hysterical, as the case may be, isn't a good idea. But I knew Donna could take me over a few miles of trails and return us both home in one piece, so Donna it was. And I sat on her, felt her steady breath under my legs and listened to her feet.

The walk is a four-beat gait. You hear each hoof hit the ground individually. 1-2-3-4. My-Jean-is-gone. The trot is a two-beat gait, when diagonal pairs of legs move together, right front and left hind, then left front and right hind. 1-2, 1-2. Jean's-dead, Jean's-dead. The canter is three beats, as the horse strikes off and rocks, two feet hitting the ground together, 1-2-3, 1-2-3. Wid-ow-er, wid-ow-er. That first time after Alkali Lake, I rode for hours.

And I kept riding, day after day. Sometimes Cleo, but mostly Donna. Riding off where Ro, who's never liked horses, couldn't follow me with her silent sympathy, which made me long for indifference. Where Logan couldn't track me with his eyes, my own personal guard-Wolverine, with that wary, "One-Eye gonna flip out again?" expression. And where I couldn't watch Charles watch me, knowing that while losing Jean has been agony for him, being trapped as witness to my mourning has been pure hell too. I've heard it said that grief bring people closer together. What a load of shit. All my grief has done is lock me up inside my own heart, unable to connect to people who love me, and whom I love, knowing all the while that all I'm doing is hurting them more. Far better to spend my time with the horses. Far easier, and far safer, too.

There was the day Logan sat in on my classes, sat next to me at lunch, trailed me out to the stables, all in silence, until I finally asked him why the hell he was stalking me. "You've been spending too much time alone, kid," he said. "It ain't good for you." And God, did it feel good to turn on my heel, mount Donna and take off, knowing that Mr. Hotshit Healing Factor doesn't ride and couldn't catch us. That was the day the canter's 1-2-3-1-2-3 became "She-chose-you-she-chose-you," and, eventually, "Go-to-hell-Wol-ver-ine." Did he honestly think it was a competition? Is he really so stupid he thinks lust equals love? Does he really think Jean was that stupid? Or that I am? That day I rode long and hard, long enough for the 1-2-3 to soften into "He-means-well." Hard enough for Donna to be sweaty, because Morgans get heavy winter coats. And hard enough for me to be sweaty too, because anyone who says the horse does all the work in riding is a cretin. The work was hard that day.

And I kept riding, day after day. The trot's 1-2-1-2 turned into "They-miss-her-too" and "They-need-you-Scott" and I stopped locking myself in my office after dinner, started forcing myself to sit with the kids in the rec room instead. Because they miss her too, and they need me. The canter's 1-2-3 became, "He-loves-you" and the walk's 1-2-3-4 became "Let-him-help-you" and I started going down the hall to the professor's suite sometimes to ask him if he wanted to play chess. The way we did before Jean died. And the relief on his face drove home like kick from an iron-shod hoof just how much this good man loves me, just how worried he's been about me and just how much I'd hurt him by cutting him out.

There were days when all I could hear in the beats of the walk was, "I-miss-you-Jean," "I-love-you-Jean," "I-need-you-Jean" and "I-can't-go-on." And then we'd start to trot, 1-2-1-2, and, sure enough, I'd hear, "You-can-do-this," "You-must-do-this" and sometimes, when I was feeling particularly desperate, "I'm-still-here-Scott." And that was as good an excuse as any to canter, 1-2-3,1-2-3,  until "Help-me-Jean, help-me-Jean" turned into "Just-hold-on-just-hold-on."

It would be nice to say that horses are magic and that they made it all better. But they're not, and they haven't. It's been months, and I still sleep on our couch, rather than in our bed. I haven't been able to pack up any of her things. There are days – lots of them, still, in fact – that  I go to classes, meetings, meals and DR sessions through will alone. But I no longer feel quite so alone, and I suppose that makes the difference. In the echo of the hoof beats, I hear the echo of my Jean, of my conscience. I'll never be whole without her, but sometimes, in the presence of horses, I can feel something in me coming back to life.