Disclaimer: S. Meyer owns all things Twilight. All of the references used in this story in relation to Brown University and its rowing team, and all of the regattas and other rowing organizations and brand names mentioned are only used here for entertainment purposes; no copyright infringement intended.
Thank you to Barburella and Hez Pixie, who so nicely helped me think out the plot for this silly little fic, and to Forever_Liz and Saluki as well. They know why.
Well, gang, it's been a blast, but we're at the end. Yup, the big finale. This chapter will cover a lot, and hopefully leave you with warm fuzzies. So hang onto your unis and secure your oars in their oarlocks! It's going to be quite the photo finish!
Hammer: In the C.R.A.S.H.-B. Sprints, the winner of the division for their erg time is awarded a hammer, with second and third place winners receiving medals.
Eastern Sprints: the annual rowing championship for the Eastern Association of Rowing Colleges (EARC). The race is held in Worcester, Massachusetts and generally, crews compete in a trial heat in the morning, followed by a final in the afternoon, each a 2000m race.
IRA Championships: The Intercollegiate Rowing Association runs the IRA Championship Regatta, which is considered to be the United States collegiate national championship of rowing. It is the oldest college rowing championship in the U.S.
Hands-away: At the close of the drive phase of the stroke, the hands move away from the body.
Look ahead: A command shouted by a crew about to be overtaken by another crew, telling the overtaking crew of their presence.
Chapter 15: Finally – Getting tossed
Walls shook as Bella pounded the shit out of them, and absently I wondered how much abuse the old plaster and lathe could handle. She'd insisted that a home couldn't be labeled as such without paintings and pictures on the walls, so my girlfriend had taken it upon herself to hang them in our house.
Of course, I was sure part of her reasoning had to do with bringing a feminine touch to our bachelor pad, since she spent so much time here. Looking around now, I realized it did lack the basic hallmarks of a home; but then again, what did she expect from three guys? It wasn't like we were the type to hang curtains and have flowers everywhere. A bit of ceiling fell on my head, so I walked into the living room to see if I could help.
"Bella, are you serious?" I asked incredulously. "That's an award, not a real tool!"
"Sorry, Strokie, but I didn't have a hammer and I didn't want to bother you by asking for one," Bella replied sheepishly, hiding the thing behind her back - as if I'd forget if it wasn't in sight. Sighing, I retrieved a used hammer from our toolbox in a hall closet and handed it to her in exchange for my ceremonial one. It might have looked like a normal tool, with its wooden handle and standard steel head, but…
"I'm not sure I'm going to give this back to you," I said sullenly, my finger smoothing the scratches on the head of the hammer. "Who abuses a Valentine's Day gift like this?"
Bella gave me a look that suggested I was acting like a petulant child. "Edward, it's a hammer. I'm sorry. I promise I won't use it for hammering ever again, okay? If you'd given me flowers or a stuffed animal, I assure you I wouldn't be trying to hang pictures with them."
"Very funny, coxie," I retorted. "Remember, it was your idea."
Bella shook her head and laughed. "I know." She walked over and kissed me gently. "It's still the best Valentine's Day present I've ever gotten." After some kisses that easily could have escalated, had Jasper not been in the next room, Bella stood back and admired her work.
"What do you think, Strokie? They're reproductions, but whatever. It's still nice, I think."
I walked over to where she was standing, stared at the collection of prints, tilted my head and rubbed my chin for effect. A quick jab of an elbow into my ribs prompted me to drop the act.
"It…it looks great, coxie," I said, holding my side. "Jasper, what do you think of Bella's attempt to make our place more homey?" Jasper rounded the corner into the living room and stood next to me, squinting one eye and then the other. I could barely stifle my laugh. Bella huffed and stared at him expectantly.
"Oh, come on. I swear, you two share a brain," she said, throwing her hands up in the air. "Just say yes or no. Thumbs up or down. Whatever. I don't know why I bother."
The bastard just kept looking at the wall while I tried, rather unsuccessfully, to go along with a serious expression. Emmett barreled into the living room, looking for us, and stopped when he saw what we were both examining.
"Did you do this, Baby Bell?" he said with a smile. Bella rolled her eyes at his nickname for her. "It looks awesome!" Emmett looked around the room. "Makes the rest of the place seem like less of a shithole. Thanks!"
Jasper and I gave up on our "critique" of Bella's work and started laughing at Emmett's honest assessment. Bella, to her credit, took his statement as a compliment.
"Why, thank you, Emmett. These two asshats couldn't be bothered to just answer me."
"Sure. What's for dinner, Jackoff?" he asked, already on to the next important subject.
"I didn't have time to make anything, fatty, because I just got back from visiting your mom," Jasper quipped with a smirk, knowing it would goad Emmett, despite it being a joke.
"Dude, I'm not fat!" Emmett whined, completely missing the other part of his roommate's comment. "Fuck you both. I'm going to have some cereal."
My phone ringing cut off my chuckles at Emmett's expense, and Bella handed it to me from its perch on the sofa arm, after looking at the caller ID. Nosy girlfriend. Her expression, however, made my heart jump into my throat.
"Edward, it's your dad."
What? Dumbly, I stared at the display for a few moments before excusing myself to answer it. My father rarely called me. I hoped there was nothing seriously wrong. I pressed the send button and nervously put the phone to my ear.
Fifteen minutes later, I left my bedroom and rejoined my roommates and Bella. All three were sitting quietly at the kitchen table, seeming like they were waiting for the sky to fall. After assuring them there was no emergency, I pulled out a chair and joined them.
"So, Ed, what did the old man want?" Emmett asked finally.
"He congratulated me on C.R.A.S.H.-B.s, believe it or fucking not," I replied, giving Bella a sideways glance. My crafty coxie must have had something to do with it. "I almost fell over when he said it. Weird, because I didn't even tell him I was competing."
With another glance in her direction, I wrapped my arm around her and squeezed, not wanting Bella to feel guilty for whatever she might have done. I appreciated it.
"Yeah, I might have had something to do with that," she replied quietly. "I sent Hank and Marcia the picture Alice took of us, and they must have passed it on. You know, when we use their gift certificate to that B&B in Chicago, we really should meet the two of them somewhere - catch up, you know? I'm sure they'd love that."
"That was really sweet of you, coxie," I said, kissing her nose. "And I agree."
My father started calling me every week. He never spoke of what had happened over Christmas, and I doubted he ever would. My mother never got on the phone, and he never really mentioned her, aside from telling me she was fine and said hello. Over the course of our short conversations, I began updating my father on my class schedule, my internship and the upcoming spring racing season. Olympic trials had been April, but I wasn't ready to tell him that. That was one dark cloud I didn't want over my head. My shot at the Olympics was something I held sacred. Only Bella, Coach and my team knew about it, and they repeatedly told me that regardless of the outcome, I'd done an awesome thing just by trying.
Though I realized my father and I would never have a conventional relationship - hell, at this point, I was glad to have any sort of relationship with him - our talks were something and I came to rely on the clockwork-like comfort of them. Most times, my father just listened to me ramble about my life, giving the appropriate "I see" and "right" here and there. But, as Bella reminded me, it was more than I'd ever had with him.
As my senior year progressed, I started thinking about me and Bella, and what my graduating would mean to our relationship. I still wasn't sure where the future would take me, but most likely, it would be away from Rhode Island. I couldn't stomach the thought of leaving Bella behind. Really, I couldn't imagine leaving any of this behind. Friends. Loved ones. Rowing. Brown. All of these things had become my life. Who was I without them? It kept me up at night.
One morning after practice, I found Bella in Coach's office, staring at the picture on the wall. She'd made a habit of visiting it of late, and finally my curiosity got the better of me and I asked her why.
"Matt really lived for rowing," she said distractedly, still looking at her brother's form. "Growing up, I never understood the stuff he put his body through: the puking, the infected blisters, the injuries, the ridiculous diets and the early mornings. I so get it now, Edward."
I stood behind her and wrapped my arms around her, hugging her to my body. "I know what you mean, coxie," I said. "No one else can possibly understand it. It's something you have to live. Do you…regret it at all? Joining?"
She shook her head. "No. Never. It brought me to you - and the rest of our impromptu family," she said. I could hear the smile in her voice as I rested my chin on the top of her head. "And I'd like to think this has helped my dad, too. It's helped us both."
Bella had come so far in such a short time, and Matt and this picture reminded me of that fact. My coxie, strong-willed and a spitfire from the beginning, hadn't lost an ounce of her spark. But now I knew what fueled it; she'd let me in and had shown me what made her burn. I loved her for it.
"It's his anniversary, you know," Bella said. When I pulled away to look at her, she added, "May 5. It's been almost 10 years."
"Wow. Bella, that's right before the Eastern Sprints."
How could Bella just nonchalantly bring this up, and then push it aside to focus on our biggest race of the spring season? My worry flared at the thought of her struggling with the pain of her brother's death, along with the stress of a race just days after. Then I thought of Charlie; would he ever watch his daughter cox? And would Hank and Marcia want to watch us, too? My thoughts suddenly swirled like an angry storm in my brain.
"Are you going to be okay?" I asked, unsure of how to broach the subject.
Bella turned and looked at me. "Oh, yeah," she said, before kissing me. "Thank you for being concerned, but I've come to terms with it all. It will be so satisfying to race in his memory. Imagine if we win!"
I kissed her again and grinned. "We will win, coxie. Promise."
That night, over pitchers and popcorn, Alice, Jasper, Rose, Emmett, Bella and I conspired to bring about the karmic bitchslap for James and his Skidmore crew. It seemed to come from nowhere; then again, we were drinking. Jasper, Emmett and I always seemed to have epiphanies when beer was involved.
"Man, wouldn't it be sweet if we could finally silence that assclown James?" Jasper mused before shoving a handful of popcorn in his mouth. "It would be so funny."
After we deciphered what Jasper had just said through the popcorn, Emmett smacked the table in agreement. Alice bounced excitedly in her chair and Rose's expression took on a menacing look.
"I despise that piece of shit," Bella said. It seemed we were all in agreement.
"Okay, then, but how do we get him to live up to Emmett's nickname for him?" I asked, wringing my hands with the infinite possibilities. "It has to be something sneaky. I'm not throwing away our race on that jackass."
"We could beat his ass up before the race!" Emmett offered. "Just my boat. You guys would be guilt-free." Alice shook her head; it was too risky. Then she offered hiding their oars as a potential solution. We all agreed that we'd have a hard time hiding 16 oars, since we'd need to hide their backups as well. And Skidmore would likely just borrow some other crew's if they lost theirs, anyways.
"What about a mysterious case of food poisoning?" Rose offered, licking her lips. Emmett leaned over and kissed her like he was digging for gold in her mouth.
"Admirable, considering the consequences of food poisoning, Rose, and the nickname Jimmy Skidmarks, but we want to punish James, not his entire boat," I reminded them. "I want this to be a mindfuck. Just enough to toss James off his pedestal and maybe make him think twice about messing with us."
"And me," Bella added loudly. Then I got an idea.
"Guys, I think I have it," I said, leaning over the table to tell them. Five pairs of eyes lit up with amusement as I started to explain. Bella had to be an integral part of my revenge scheme; it would be so fitting letting her get the last word, since James had insulted her at the beginning of the season last year. It would require good acting from me, if I was unlucky enough to run into James before Bella got to him. Once my coxie understood where I was going with the idea, she plunged head-first and offered suggestions and lines that, if she delivered them flawlessly, would make our scheme perfect. And fair, in the end.
"I absolutely love it, Edward," Alice said. Even Rose admitted it was brilliant, despite not requiring laxatives or food prep.
"God, I can't wait to see the look on his face!" Jasper shouted. "It'll be priceless!"
"When are Eastern Sprints, already?" Bella asked with a smirk. "I can't wait three weeks!"
Those three weeks had passed surprisingly fast. Coaches Esme and Carlisle were merciless in our practice schedule in preparation for each race. We'd had two smaller races in April, both in which the men's and women's eights had garnered second and first place, respectively, but the sprints were, by far, the biggest college spring race in the region. This one, as they said, was for all the marbles. All of the northeastern Ivy League colleges competed, as well as others…including Skidmore.
A group of us had just finished putting the oars back in the rack one the last morning before the weekend race, and had walked back down to the dock to put hands on, when Coach called to us from the boathouse bay.
"Guys, when you're done bringing it in, let's meet upstairs to the common room," he said, his voice bouncing off the water and the boathouse walls. "I wanna talk to you quickly. Bella, make it quick, please. Everyone else is up there."
My coxie immediately called for hands on and we scrambled to comply, going directly from that command to overhead, a feat for our taxed muscles. With a collective groan, we shouldered the boat and walked it up the ramp and onto a sling so it could be de-rigged later for travel. Then we huffed it upstairs.
The common room was a typical boathouse hangout space: old leather couches and stuffed armchairs scattered over the worn wooden floors. A ratty Oriental rug anchored the large space and often served as extra seating, like it would today. The wood-paneled walls had long been decorated with crew photos, going back to the 1930s. Uniform in their design - with the team standing, often with two oars, the coach and the cox, along with any medals or trophies from a win and the Brown University shield in front - they documented our long and prestigious past. I'd always felt the eyes of those who'd come before us staring out at me from behind the glass. Like they were keeping watch, silently reminding us of what we had to live up to. It was simultaneously comforting and intimidating.
When we got there, the women's team, men's four and novice crews were already waiting, so the nine of us took seats on the floor. While we waited for Coach, I took note of the plaque on the wall behind the small television.
"Why should you row a boat race? Why endure the long months of pain in preparation for a fierce half hour that will leave you all but dead? Does anyone ask the question? Is there anyone who would not go through all of the costs, and more, for the moment when anguish breaks into triumph or even for the glory of having nobly lost? Is life less than a boat race? If a man will give the blood in his body to win the one, will he spend all the might of his soul to prevail in the other?" - Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
"Every time I read that, it gives me chills, man," Mike whispered from his place next to me. I nodded. Indeed.
"Okay, everyone, thanks for hanging out after practice," Coach Carlisle said, coming to stand in front of us with Esme. I couldn't see the plaque anymore. "There are a few things we want to say to you, now that we have you all here."
"For starters, this weekend, for many of you, will be the highlight of your last year here at Brown," Esme began. "It is the culmination of four years of blood, sweat and tears. Literally. It is your time to put it all on the line, one last time, for yourself, your team, your coaches and your university."
"As you know, how we finish the sprints will determine whether we advance to the championships in June," Carlisle added. "I know I don't need to tell any of you how important this race is.
"I know I'm always cueing up race footage, pushing you harder on the water, making you erg and circuit train and run," he continued. "And I know I'm always asking you how much you want this. But gang, you know that's what it all comes down to. Desire. That is what separates you, in the end, from every other crew out there. We all know they're just as strong physically, their bodies just as able as yours."
"If we stripped away the heart of this team, and lined you up against all the others, there'd be no distinguishing you from them, and we want you to remember that," Esme chimed in. "You'd be faceless human machines, trained for a solitary task: to propel yourselves toward the finish line. But that's not any of you. This team has the collective heart of a lion - a true champion."
"You all need to dig deep, beyond what you think is the depth of you," Carlisle said, picking up Esme's thought like they were reading each other's minds. "We've asked for all of you. Now we need more. This, right here," he said, gesturing with a fist to his chest, "is what separates the winner from the rest. You all have it within you. What you need to do from now until that starting gun goes off is find it. Find that place that nothing and no one else – not self-doubt, not fear, not expectations, not family or competitors – can touch. Bring it to the surface, be willing to drown in it, and you will be victorious."
In the silence immediately following their joint speech, the entire Brown University crew team soaked up Esme and Carlisle's words before exploding into yells and applause. The two of them had always had a gift of reaching us when and where we needed it most. I'd miss that as well, I realized, as I whooped it up with the rest.
"Edward, got a moment?" Carlisle asked as I passed his office on my way out with Bella. I ducked inside and asked Bella to wait for me.
"Sure. What's up, Coach?"
"Edward, I'm going to cut right to the chase," he said. "I know you're graduating, but I don't want to lose you. Give your future some thought, of course, but just know that if you want it, there's an assistant coach's job here for you."
The news shocked me, of course. It also thrilled me. I thanked him profusely, and told him I'd give it serious thought.
"No need to make any decisions today, Edward," he reminded me with a pat on the back. "Think it over. I think we could use a guy like you coaching here. I'm willing to work around the Olympics, too, if that should be the case."
Walking out of Coach's office in a daze, I decided that for now, I'd keep the idea to myself and think things through. There would be no sense in dangling that carrot in front of my friends and Bella if I didn't actually take the job.
"Have any big plans for the night before the big race?" I asked Bella with a smile once we were outside. I'd walked her to her truck and was secretly hoping we could spend the night together, even if it turned out to be PG-rated. I didn't want to waste any moments with her.
"Hmm…," she said dramatically, pausing for effect. "I was actually planning on spending some quality time with my boyfriend. Great guy. Sorry."
"Ah. Well, my loss, his gain," I quipped, leaning down to kiss her. "So…what time can you come over? The guys are going out, I think, but it'll be an early night for them, so if you can, come over early."
Bella said she'd be over as soon as her last class ended. She was already there when I got home; evidently, one of the guys had let her in. I discovered Bella had also brought our dinner: chicken pockets, along with an order of their falafels - my favorite - all from East Side Pockets.
"Hey, coxie," I said when I pulled her off the couch and into my arms. "It's so nice to come home to you. Thanks for bringing food, too. What a woman." I kissed her a few times, ignoring cat calls from my two roommates. My body responded to hers immediately; I couldn't wait for us to be alone.
"I'm telling you, Ed, you don't ever let go of a woman who comes bearing food gifts," Emmett said from the old recliner. Jasper snickered at Emmett's standards for what defined a woman as a "keeper."
"Was that how Rosie won you? Did she bake for ya?" he asked mockingly. Emmett nodded in all seriousness.
"That she did. Made me a three course dinner and then got all rough with me in the bedroom," he answered truthfully. We all laughed at that. "I knew she was the one. I love a lady who can handle her man."
"Or man-handle her Emmett, as was in Rose's case," I amended. An hour later, Emmett and Jasper left to go pick up the girls for their night out. Bella reminded them about getting back early for a good night's sleep - and ordered them not to drink - and they assured her they knew these things and that they'd be back before 10. As soon as the door shut, I pushed Bella against it and assaulted her with my mouth. She giggled and squirmed under me, but within seconds I felt her fingers under my shirt.
"Strokie, shouldn't we eat first?"
"Was planning on it," I said in my best low, sexy voice. Then I unbuttoned her shirt and licked my way from her sternum to her navel. Bella gasped when she at last followed my train of thought.
"Oh, so you only wanted to get me here to seduce me," she said softly as I got on my knees and lifted her skirt toward her hips, bunching the fabric as I went. My lips skimmed her knees, then the insides of her thighs as I nodded. When I ran my tongue over the cotton of her underwear, she gasped and said, "Well, I guess I'll let it go - this time."
At that, I threw her over my shoulder and made haste for my bedroom, with Bella laughing the whole way.
"I'm going to punish you for that, Ms. Swan," I said, scolding her with a slap on her ass. She squealed and told me it was hot when I took the disciplinarian tone with her. After tossing her on the bed, I removed her shirt, bra and shoes before refocusing my attention on her skirt and what was beneath it.
This time, I worked my tongue and lips from her ankles up to her hip bones, carefully and purposely avoiding the one place I most wanted to be. Bella writhed under me, more insistently this time, and whimpered every once in a while. She must have known that this served as my punishment, however; never once did she beg me to move my tongue elsewhere.
With the skirt up around Bella's ribs and her toes flexing and curling, I trailed a finger over the panel of her underwear. The moisture I already felt there was a welcomed sensation, and I smiled. Keeping my eyes on Bella's, I slipped my tongue just inside the waistband and ran it along the edge until I reached a hipbone. My coxie closed her eyes for a moment, but then refocused on me.
Hooking two fingers under the material at Bella's hips, I began a slow descent, using every ounce of self-control not to just rip them off her. My cock hardened with each inch of delicious skin I exposed, and suddenly, I couldn't wait to get inside her. Shoving the thought aside, I gently spread Bella's thighs, pressing light kisses along each one until I was hovering over her.
"Please, Edward," Bella finally whispered. "Give me your tongue."
Fuck me. With a groan, I leaned forward and ran the tip of my tongue from the top of her slit to the bottom and then up once more. God, I could never get enough of her taste. Bella's whole body bucked with the addition of my tongue on her, so I used one palm on her stomach to anchor her to the bed. Then I dove in.
Bella was water to this dying man; she alone would save me from certain death. I used the flat of my tongue to lap at her; I used the tip to drive her insane with circles and figure eights. I tugged her folds with my lips and gently nibbled on her clit with my teeth. Then I hummed in contentment as I fucked her with my mouth.
"Oh, God, yes!" she cried, her hands fisted in the covers. Her head thrashed and her thighs shook as I continued to plunge in again and again, never satisfied and thirsty for more. My cock strained painfully against my fly, but I pressed onward as if what I was doing with my tongue could alleviate the pain in my groin. Dimly, I became aware of Bella's hands in my hair. I hummed again at the slight pain against the pleasure of where my tongue was. Then I realized Bella was pulling rather hard.
"Edward, please," she said, the rest of the sentence dying on her lips as her body convulsed with an orgasm. When I finally raised my head, her hair was a mess and her brown eyes were wild. She yanked me up by my hair and I willingly followed, my brain dim and drunk on Bella. Assuming she wanted me inside her, I quickly shed my jeans and t-shirt and moved back down her body. Another painful yank, however, had me confused.
"Edward, get up here," she commanded breathlessly, motioning me upward. When I didn't react immediately, she grabbed my thighs and pulled me toward her head until I straddled her face. With a quick and hungry glance at my dick, Bella took me into her mouth.
My stomach muscles jerked as her warm, wet mouth surrounded me, and I braced myself against the wall as I struggled not to come. With the same eagerness I'd shown her, Bella sucked, licked, flicked and fondled me. She paid special attention to the head of my cock and just below it, and when she sucked my balls into her mouth, I had to look away for fear of ending it too soon. My coxie had me panting and straining not to come in her mouth. I needed to…I needed to…
"Bella, I need to be…inside you – now," I managed in between huffs and shivers as she continued to suck on me. When she kept going, I slowly tried to extricate my dick from her mouth. "If you keep this up…I'm going to…come. Please."
Finally, Bella relinquished me from her mouth with a loud, wet, pop and I positioned myself over her. Teasing my wet cock over her lingering wetness, I slid back and forth just to tease her for a bit. And to de-sensitize myself slightly. Bella reached for my mouth and I gave it to her willingly, our tongues twisting and our lips still hungry.
"God, Edward, please stop teasing me," Bella moaned against my lips. I pushed inside her and we both moaned. Smoothing back her hair, I kissed Bella again and she smiled against my mouth.
When I pulled away, she said, "I can taste me on your lips. I love that." I loved that, too, and told her so as I thrust deep inside her. Bella wrapped her legs around me and pulled me even closer; I could only move my hips, but that was fine with me. When her legs got tired, I flipped us over so Bella could ride me, and I watched with complete rapture as she moved over my hips. My hands skimmed her small waist, the swaying swells of her breasts, the soft skin of her abdomen. As she came again, my coxie let her head fall back, crying out as a new rush of wetness coated me.
I could look at her like this all day. Forever. I'd never get bored. Not even for a moment.
"Fuck!" she cried as she collapsed against my chest, her hips still rocking. With her permission, I turned us over again and began pumping in earnest. Bella's eyes were glazed with her force of her second orgasm, and it didn't take long for me to follow her. I came powerfully, saw stars, and then settled my chest against Bella's as I kissed her tenderly.
We stayed like that, still connected, for a few minutes, before I rolled off of Bella so I wouldn't crush her. Instantly I pulled her against my chest so we were back to front, and pulled the covers over us. I kissed her neck and ear after I made sure she was comfortable.
"Hmm…I could fall asleep just like this," she murmured in the silence. I pressed against her and wrapped my arm around her waist.
"You're welcome to, of course," I offered. "I'll set the alarm, too, if you want. I'd love to have you stay tonight. I promise you a great night's sleep."
"After that, I doubt it'll take long for me to nod off into dreamland," Bella said. "Oh my God! We forgot dinner! We have to eat, Edward."
After convincing Bella to stay in bed, I checked to make sure no one had returned early and snuck into the kitchen to warm up our pockets and falafels. With plates prepared, I grabbed two glasses of water, put them on the plates, and managed to get back into bed without making a mess.
"Wow, dinner in bed," she remarked. "I like this."
"Anything to keep you here with me," I said. The chicken pocket was perfect and the falafels light and crispy. "So, do you want to stay?"
Bella swallowed her bite of pocket before answering. "Of course. I brought all my gear for tomorrow. I hope it wasn't presumptuous of me. I thought it would be nice to spend the night before our big race with my Strokie."
"Gonna make sure I get to bed early and maybe teach me some strategy for tomorrow?" I hedged, smiling around my pocket. "I have so much still to learn, Yoda."
Bella laughed and rubbed my back. "Oh, no. Trust me. You are the master." Settling back against the head of my bed, we ate in silence while I flipped through the TV channels. When we finished, I wrapped my arm around Bella and we got comfortable.
"Nervous about tomorrow?" Bella asked after a while.
"Nope," I answered. "I feel it - we're going to win this thing." Bella sighed against my chest.
"Me, too," she admitted. "I'm not nervous. Is that weird?"
"No," I answered. "It just means you and I are totally in-sync with each other. Cox and stroke. That's the way it should be."
The first things my beleaguered brain registered were the beep as we rushed past the finish line and Bella's exuberant face. Definitely a good sign. We'd just finished the morning's trial heat and from the looks of it, we'd done well.
It had felt good; our swing never wavered and no one caught a crab or skied his blade. Bella's voice had become a reverberation in my chest, a voice alongside my heartbeat, and intrinsically, I'd known we would make it to the final.
"Guys, awesome, awesome job!" she yelled over the speaker as we coasted and recovered from our efforts. "Harvard had us by half a boat length for a while there, but we came back! And our time was great - 5:40:09! Woo!"
I couldn't help but laugh at Bella's excitement. We all felt the electricity, too. The fastest crews from each heat would advance to the final. Wonder how Skidmore did. If our plan was going to work, they'd need to advance as well. It wouldn't be nearly as fun if the New York crew was eliminated in the trials.
Bella ordered us to paddle back to the dock - nice and slowly - and Coach Carlisle was waiting to catch us as we landed. His smile spoke volumes; but true to his own quiet way, he said nothing as we stepped out of the shell and pulled our oars in. Carlisle thumped me on the back as we walked the shell down the dock and up the small hill to our makeshift camp. Once the shell rested comfortably in its sling, most of the crew went to forage for food and drink.
"That was a great warm-up for later today, Strokie," Bella said, grabbing my hand. "It felt perfect. Did you feel it? We had good swing!"
"I know," I said, wanting so badly to kiss her. "You were amazing, Bella."
My coxie made a gesture of her cockiness, jokingly polishing her nails on her jacket, before laughing and adding, "Hey, it's what I do. One down, one to go!"
Together, we followed the crowds and got some lunch before heading back to the rest of the team. We found a quiet spot by the lake and sat down. Regatta Point was a beautiful spot at this time of year, and aptly named given what the lake was often used for.
"It's so nice here," Bella mused, as if reading my mind. I nodded as I chewed. "How do you say the name of it? I don't even know how to spell it."
"It's Lake Quin-sig-a-mond," I said, breaking it up into smaller pieces. "Spelled like it sounds. I know. I love it here. The lake really is perfect for sprint races like this. No current or waves to deal with, so starting from a dead stop is much easier."
When we finished our lunch, Bella and I headed back to our team. My eyes scanned the crowd for James and his crew, but the sea of people, boats and team jackets was too much to process.
"Bella, are you sure you can go through with this James thing?" I asked, making sure my coxie was still in favor of it. "I mean, if you're not sure, we can just shit-can the idea."
"No way, Strokie," Bella said, interrupting before I could go on. "His ass is mine."
"God, I love the way you think, coxie," I said, giving her ponytail a little tug. "And I love you, too." Bella returned the sentiment and said she wanted to confirm our race time before we got into our revenge plan. I met Jasper, Mike and Emmett back at our camp.
"Ed, you guys looked great out there this morning," Emmett said, whacking me on the back. "I was just telling J that it was pure poetry."
"Thanks, Emmett," I said, pulling the top of my uni down around my waist and throwing on a Brown t-shirt. "How'd the four do in the trials?"
Emmett grimaced but then managed a smile. "Eh, we were second across the finish line. Not sure if it'll be good enough to qualify for the final, but Alice is over with the judges checking the other crew's times."
My gut wrenched for Emmett and the idea of those guys and Alice not getting to race for the final, and it possibly hurting their chances at the IRA Championships in June. "Shit, man," I said, running my fingers through my wet hair. "It won't be right if you're not racing today."
The rest of the guys agreed sincerely, and Emmett thanked them. No sooner had we stopped talking, Alice and Bella came running back to our crews.
"Guys, we did it!" Alice squealed. "We beat out Syracuse by a tenth of a second to qualify for the final!" Emmett swept Alice off her feet and Jake and the other guys from their boat ran down to the lake's edge as if they'd throw her in it in celebration. When they finally put her down, Alice smacked them all before kissing them.
"We are definitely in the final, too," Bella said quietly as all of us watched the display. Seven heads turned in her direction with questioning glances.
"We're in?" I asked. Bella nodded. A much more subdued, but equally thankful, celebration erupted in our camp with the news. "So's Skidmore, Edward," Bella whispered to me.
Coach had given us three hours to eat, relax and do whatever else we wanted before we had to report to him before our final race. Most of us watched the other crews race in their finals, and then watched as the Brown crew men's coxed four went on to win it's final. Riding high from the win, it was difficult for us to relax, but eventually I fell asleep on the grass next to our trailer, my boathouse jacket behind my head as a pillow.
Some time later, a gentle nudge woke me from scattered images of rowing, winning and Bella.
"Hey, sleeping beauty. It's now or never," Bella said quietly, crouched close to my face. Rubbing my eyes, I nodded and stood. My coxie kept her distance from me as she informed me she'd located the Skidmore crew's camp, and James. There had been, after all, another reason for my lack of PDAs with her today.
"Go get 'em, tiger," I said, winking at her. Bella strode off, making a beeline for what I assumed was James's location. A quick look at Emmett and Jasper, and the three of us walked off at a distance behind her, hoping to scope out the action. Moments later, a still-wet-haired Alice and Rose caught up with us.
Thankfully, Bella had managed to pull James aside, away from his team but in perfect view of our vantage point from behind one of the nearby trailers. This was going to be good. Alice and Rose stifled giggles behind me as James's voice drifted over to us on a breeze.
"What the fuck -" he said with a choke as Bella pinned him against one of the Skidmore shells. I could see both of their faces in profile; it was clear she'd caught James by surprise.
"James, what's wrong? I thought you saw something you liked…"
"What about Cullen? I thought you two were a thing," he managed, inching slightly away from her. Nowhere to go.
"Boring," Bella explained. "Never had time for stroking his cox, James. He was always too busy for me. All that rowing and erging." She yawned for effect. "I want a real man, James." At that, she ran a finger down his neck and chest, which luckily for him was bare. Her finger stopped just above the lower half of his uni. I swore I could hear him swallow.
"But…but…you're -" he stammered. A slow, sexy smile turned Bella's lips upward.
"No timid little cox, James," she finished, using his own words. "I want to show you just what kind of champ I really am. You game?" Bella dragged her finger back up James's body until she reached his mouth, and then skimmed it across his mouth. He looked like a fucking deer in headlights. I stifled a laugh as I felt the others doing the same.
"Um…now?" he asked, incredulously. James's eyes roamed, searching for a proper spot, and for a moment I considered breaking him in half. Emmett's strong hand on my shoulder reminded me of reality.
"Oh, no, silly," Bella cooed. "After the race, of course." James considered it for a moment, and for a second I thought he might actually call her bluff. Thankfully, he was too cocky for that. A slow, confident grin distorted his face.
"Sure, baby," he said, stepping away from the boats and toward Bella. Emmett's hand remained firmly on my shoulder. To her credit, my coxie didn't even blink as she pressed herself against him and took his earlobe between her teeth. A quick check of my watch confirmed our flawless timing: we had less than 15 minutes before the final sprint.
I heard James groan and gritted my teeth. Bella is going to get an Oscar for this one.
"Good luck, James," she purred, giving his ear one last lick. "I'll be watching you. It'd be a shame if you didn't win. See ya later." Then she sauntered away, walking right past our hiding place and leaving James in her wake. He looked after her, tilting his head for a better view of her ass, I guessed, smirked and shook his head before getting back to his crew.
When we reconvened at our camp, there was hardly time for congratulating Bella on a job well done. As for me, I'd have to save my true congratulations on her performance for after we'd returned to Rhode Island. For now, I nudged her and winked when she glanced at me. She returned the gesture and gave me a subtle hand squeeze as Coach started doling out orders.
Walking our shell down to the dock, I caught Bella just as she winked at James, who was already in his own boat and tying in his feet. It was enough to make him stop what he was doing - and long enough that his coxswain had to snap a few times to get his attention.
"You are way too convincing, love," I whispered as we slid the oars into the oarlocks, as Bella secured her cox box and checked her headset.
"I don't know what you mean, Edward," she replied dramatically, making sure she kept her head down. Keeping a straight face presented quite a challenge, as I laced my feet in and secured the pin on the oarlock. As soon as we were laced in with oars fully extended, Bella told us to count down when ready.
"Eight," I said, my heart starting to race. This was it. Two thousand meters of truth. I glanced over and watched James. He was watching Bella. Before the electronic "gun" sounded, I focused my gaze on Coach, who stood on the dock. We nodded to each other.
"All right, coxie, let's fucking do this," I said, molten embers of a fire stirring in my gut. Bella instantly put on her game face and reiterated the comment, minus my nickname for her, into the mic. A chorus of yells rushed toward the stern as the other crews did the same on either side of us. The air felt charged and thick with the gravity of what the next five or six minutes would mean to the six crews at the starting gate.
My coxie's eyes flickered to the other crews, and then I saw her lick her lips, seconds before the electronic beep signaled the start of the race. Bella immediately starting barking out commands, telling us to drive with the legs, finish strong, and watch the stroke. Her voice, once more, became part of my subconscious, constantly informing me of our stroke rate and demanding more power, more perfection. Always more.
"I want clean drives, fast hands-away, strong finish!" she yelled. "Set it up, boys! Let me see that beautiful swing!"
I ignored the burn in my lungs, thighs, back, shoulders and arms. I ignored the blood on the handle when one of my calluses opened. I ignored the sight from my peripheral vision of other boats surging ahead and falling back with each of our strokes. I ignored the race officials following close behind in their pontoon boats.
"Give me a power ten, guys - ten!" Bella called, giving us no two-stroke warning. We must have been close to another crew. Grunting through the strokes, I heard our coxie call out, "Look ahead!" and I beamed through the pain.
"Give me another!" she cried, her hands gripping the gunwales like her life depended on it. Again, the eight of us grunted and yelled our way through another set of life-draining catches, drives and recoveries. Again, I heard those sweet words. "Look ahead!"
At some point, my brain completely shut down, protecting itself from the punishment I levied against my body. Still, I propelled myself toward that finish line, with words of Carlisle, Esme and Bella ricocheting in the now-seemingly empty space.
Heart of a lion.
Desire. It's what separates us from them.
Put it all on the line.
The boat twisted slightly, registering the resistance as one of my teammates caught a crab mid-power ten. Bella quickly took control, ordering the pair where the problem had occurred to fall out, then coaxing us and the boat back into form. She immediately called for another power ten as soon as everyone was back in it. Our coxie screamed at us, and we replied with all we had - and then some - until I heard the merciful, glorious beep as we crossed the finish line.
Eight men slumped over their oars, with not an ounce of strength remaining in them. A few, including me, bowed our heads over the gunwales and puked. A race well-fought is one with puking, I thought as I wiped my mouth. Bella, now completely hoarse from yelling, congratulated us with rasps and grabbed my bloody hand.
"You guys fucking did it!" she said, punctuating her statement with a cough. "I really think so. It was damn close…"
We all cheered despite the doubt; all of us had poured it all out. We'd found that place inside, brought it to the surface and fucking drowned in it, just as Coach had hoped. Surely, we had left it all on this lake. No regrets.
"Brown! Brown University! Followed by Harvard and Skidmore!" called a voice over the loudspeakers. Slowly, the news filtered through all of us, and there were cries of victory, claps and splashes of water as we came to our realization. I leaned over and kissed Bella, not giving a shit if anyone saw us. She returned the fervor, oblivious to decorum and how bad my mouth probably tasted. I gave an exhausted fist-pump and turned to congratulate the other guys. Bella finally had us paddle back to the dock, where people were cheering and Coaches Carlisle and Esme were waiting.
With shaky legs, we stepped from the boat, to receive hugs and kisses from everyone who could get close enough. The other crews came over to congratulate us as well, though James was nowhere to be found. Somehow we managed to bring in the oars and the boat, before the real celebration started.
Scooping Bella into my arms, I walked her down to the water. She didn't notice that seven others followed.
"Thank you," I said in earnest as I kissed her nose. "We could never have done this without you."
Then the eight of us grabbed Bella and tossed her into Lake Quinsigamond - clothes and all.
A loud roar of appreciation exploded from the crowd as Bella rose from the water, agape and smiling. We all clapped as she stumbled out of the water, looking like the happiest drowned rat. I offered her my jacket and as she pulled her arms into it, I whispered, "I love you, coxie."
"Love you too, Strokie," she said, wiping wet hair away from her eyes. A throat clearing brought us back to the present.
"Dad?" Bella said, astonished to see her father standing before us. The chief looked quite out of place in this crowd, but his smile was familiar.
"Baby, you did so well today," he said, coming closer and extending his hand to me with a knowing smile. "Edward."
"I'm…I'm so proud of you," he said, refocusing on his daughter. Bella pulled him into a wet hug and the two of them stayed that way, simply hanging onto each other.
"Matt would be so proud of you, too, Bells," I heard Charlie whisper.
"I did it for him, you know," she replied with a sniffle. Her father nodded and said he thought it was a fitting tribute. Once they'd chatted for a while, I invited Charlie back to our house that evening; he accepted, but only if I'd let him pick up takeout for dinner. For all of us.
"Dad, will you excuse us for a bit, please?" Bella said, kissing him on the cheek. "I have some unfinished business to attend to. I'll be back." Then she pulled me away and toward the other crews.
It wasn't difficult to find James. "So, you think you're so badass, huh? God's gift to rowing and women?" Bella said, poking a finger into James's chest. "Well, look who got played. And, by the looks of it, you need some new undies, too. Jimmy Skidmarks lives."
It might have been grease from the rollers and his seat; it didn't matter. James's uni was indeed stained with something dark. Before he had a chance to even offer a rebuttal, Bella stepped closer and glared up at him.
"Don't ever underestimate me or my crew again, dickhead," she seethed. "It'll be your mistake - every time." Then she turned and walked away.
"See ya, James," I said with a smile. "It's been great."
On our way back to Charlie, I heard my name being called. Glancing over Bella's head, I saw Hank and Marcia waving frantically while walking toward us. I put my arm around Bella and kissed the top of her wet head.
"Coxie strikes again, I'm guessing," I said. Bella just grinned at me.
"Edward, oh, sweetie, you did amazing things out there!" exclaimed Marcia as she wrapped her arms around me in a vise grip. Hank grinned and patted me on the back and she continued to gush. "We're so happy we were able to finally see it!"
"Hank, Marcia, I'm so glad you guys are here," I said, truly glad to see their smiling faces. The two of them traded pleasantries and hugs with Bella, and then I steered them toward our destination, inviting them back to the house as well. "There's someone I'd like for you both to meet." I introduced them to Bella's father, and we all talked for a bit about the race.
"Edward, don't you think you should get that hand looked at?" Charlie asked me finally, gesturing to my callused and bloodied palm. I'd forgotten all about it.
"Oh, right, I will, sir," I assured him. "Don't even feel it anymore, though."
Charlie winked at me, his mustache twitching. "Like that saying: pain is temporary. Pride is forever."
"Damn right, Chief," I replied. Looking at Bella, it suddenly seemed clear.
"Eat. Sleep. Love. Erg. Row," I said to them. "What else is there?"
A/N: Just so you all know, it is tradition for the winning crew to throw its coxswain into the water after a race.
I know that chapter contained a lot. Hopefully it wasn't too much to absorb and even more, it answered most of your lingering questions. I've greatly enjoyed this ride, and am so glad I decided to write a rowing fic. It was as much for my own nostalgia as it was for your collective entertainment.
To all of you, thank you.