Season's greetings, merry Christmas and happy Hanukkah, dear readers! And a special holiday shout-out to my Secret Santee, to whom this fic is dedicated. :)
I have to admit Winter Oak, your wishlist presented quite a challenge for me. Not only because of the theme, but because I've never played any of the games you requested in my life. Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed writing this and I hope you thoroughly enjoy reading it! I hope you like the pairing (or lackthereof I should say) I chose and I hope this is exactly the kind of 'Unrequited Love' story you were hoping for. (As you can see, I'm full of hope today. :P )
P.S. Woot for my first story on here! :D
Right foot on, left foot over. With a firm hold on the rail and a swing of her longs legs Gwen found herself surrounded by the comfortable sights and smells of the Brownie Farm horse stable. As she breathed in the intoxicating fumes of fodder and ancient wood, her mind began to reel backwards to the last time she had been here with a certain someone, on a cloudy blue-skied day in the middle of Summer...
A soft whinny drew Gwen's attention to the left and her nostalgia was quickly replaced with worry. She gasped. "Aww, Chestnut! Did you get another boo-boo?"
The horse whinnied again in response, and through the dim light Gwen could just make out the moon-shaped gash marring her hindquarters. Carving a pathway through the hay to the wounded horse, Gwen out a low whistle upon closer examination of the damage.
"You really nicked yourself up good this time. My poor baby. What are we gonna do with you?" With the delicacy of handling a butterfly Gwen began to stroke her fingers through Chestnut's mangled locks. She shook her head as three burrs fell to the floor. "You've been messing around in the forest again, haven't you, naughty girl? I sure hope you're not expecting anything from Santa Clause this year."
Gwen swore she saw a flicker of disappointment in the Paint's eyes, but it was quickly replaced with excitement when a bucket of oats and sugar cubes appeared under her nose. Gwen watched in amusement as the horse wasted no time in devouring the treats was she offered.
On the other side of the stable Silver Bells, obviously displeased with the attention being showered upon his roommate, reminded the girl of his presence with an indignant snort and stamp of his foot.
"Yeah yeah, hold your horses." Gwen almost laughed out loud at the stupid pun as she made her way over to the impatient Arabian with the treat bucket in tow. When she reached him she squatted down in front of him so she was practically peering up his flaring nostrils.
"What's the matter with you boy, huh?" Gwen cooed as he greedily inhaled the contents of the bucket. "Are you feeling lonely tonight too?"
The too had tacked itself onto the end of her question; a painful reminder from her sub-conscience of why she was here and not dancing beneath the stars. A lump formed in Gwen's throat as she waited for the horse to finish licking up the leftover sugar from the bottom of the bucket. Suddenly feeling woozy, she stumbled to the corner of the stall and nearly collapsed in a heap of hay.
Gwen sat up with her head burrowed in between her legs and took a deep, shaky breath. The memories had her trapped, there was no escaping now. She let each of them have their turn with her; yanking on her emotions, giving her self confidence a good kick in the ribs, twisting the arm of truth until she had no choice but to succumb to the lies.
You fool, they spat. Didn't you see it coming? Don't you see how happy Katie makes him? She's everything you're not. You're not cute, you're not charming, and frankly, your waffles are a little on the spongy side. He doesn't like his girls with mud on their jeans. You're just his childhood friend, his barn buddy, his gal pal... nothing more. The sooner you accept it, the better off you'll be. There's no use crying over spilled milk.
Gwen cursed as she rubbed furiously at the tears that had trickled down her cheeks and left a salty residue behind. If there was one thing Gwen hated more than the cold, it was crying. Doctors told her it was good for her mental health, that it helped to relieve the stress building up inside of her. Bullcrap. It only made Gwen feel vulnerable and empty inside, like her emotion was being washed up from inside of her for all the world to see.
Plus, H2O and thirty degree weather were never a good combination.
But as much as she despised them, Gwen was no stranger to tears. She had had more than her fair share of sad occasions that called for them. Her parents' divorce. Her move to Flowerbud. Her grandfather's stroke that left him bedridden for almost three months and still made simply using his arms to hug his granddaughter a difficult task. Her first and certainly not last time being thrown off a horse and bruising her backside so badly that it wasn't until weeks later that she could sleep comfortably on it again.
At this painful memory Gwen glared in the direction of the perpetrator, but he was too busy admiring his own flank to notice. She rolled her eyes as she struggled to her feet and made her way over to the proud Arabian.
"You'll never abandon me, will you boy?" Gwen murmured as she ran her hand along Silver Bells' glossy back. Silence was his answer and she accepted it as she continued to stroke him and she hummed the tune of "Silent Night."
After a few moments Gwen yawned and laid her head on the horse's withers. Another annoying side effect of crying- it made the girl unbelievably sleepy. Her mind began to drift. Maybe I can just spend the night here. I need some fresh air to clear my mind and besides, Uncle Doug's not the most sensitive guy in the world when it comes to female matters...
She winced at a flashback of a twelve-year-old girl crying as her uncle hosed blood off the lower part of her body. Her uncle meant well, but he was no Mister Mom, that was for sure.
Anyway, it's not like he'll worry. He knows I can take care of myself and besides, he's way too busy preparing for the upcoming New Years' feast and keeping his eye on the number of wines Ronald decides to treat himself to tonight. I can just run home real quick and change into my PJ's and brush my teeth and sneak a few cookies from the kitchen...
The rusty creek of the stable gate startled Gwen from her thoughts and set Silver Bells on alert mode. Gwen waited, her heart pounding furiously against her chest, as she listened for any further sounds.
A surge of paranoia-induced adrenaline went rushing through her veins when she heard heavy footsteps echo off the floorboards. Who besides me would come here at eleven o' clock on Starry Night?
Gwen could think of only two logical answers to her question. Option Number One was a drunken townsperson who had followed the heartbroken equestrian to the stable with sick intentions of fulfilling his Starry Night desires which involved the large pile of hay looming in the corner.
Then there was Option Number Two, which was the more likely answer and the one that she feared the most to be true.
With about as much stealth as a crippled fox Gwen positioned herself behind Silver Bells' humungous rump so that her head and legs were aligned with his. She squeezed her eyes shut, hardly daring to breathe, and mouthed a silent plea to the Goddess. Please make him go away. I'll do anything you want. I'll donate all my money to the church, I'll never take your name in vain again, I'll marry a freaking Harvest Sprite if it makes you happy. Please please please please...
"I can smell fear, you know."
The smile on Bob's face was a mixture of humor and bewilderment as Gwen reluctantly crept from her hiding place behind the horse. Her eyes were downcast and her face a rosy shade of pink as she raised her hand in a feeble greeting. "Howdy, partner."
Bob didn't seem to pick up on her failed attempt to be cheerful. "Well hey there stranger," he greeted her, grinning. "'Dunno why, but something told me I would find you here."
"Oh," Gwen replied, her eyes still downcast. A brief period of silence followed which was punctured by the crunching of hay and a loud neigh from Chestnut who seemed to sense the awkwardness from his stall.
Sneaking a peek at Bob's face, Gwen was surprised to see that instead of a shirt and dress pants, the usual attire for men that attended the Starry Night festival, Bob was clothed in his riding gear. This confused her, to say the least.
"So... what are you doing here?" she asked as she rocked back and forth on her toes and began to hum again. Obviously she needed to restock on nonchalance.
Bob raised his eyebrows. "I could ask the same of you. You do know the Starry Night festival is... was tonight, don't you?"
Of course I do, doofus. What am I, an idiot?
Gwen shrugged. "Guess I forgot to check the calendar." A few cricket chirps passed before she added coolly, "I didn't have a date, anyway, so it's not a big deal."
With a playful smile Bob motioned to the horse behind her that was now giving his rear end a thorough inspection. "Well that's odd, because I thought I heard rumors from some of the folks about a little something going on between you and Silver Bells here."
Gwen cracked a smile despite herself and patted her alleged boyfriend on the nose. "Well, he is the handsomest boy in this barn at the moment." Watch out boys, there's a leak in the vinegar bottle.
Bob stumbled back with his hand on his heart, feigning offense. "Ouch. That's harsh, Gwen."
"Life's harsh," she combated fiercely. "Ask anybody around here, and they'll tell you that's the truth. Ask my grandfather. Ask Wallace. Ask Joe. Ask Gina. Ask your freaking dad."
The wounded look in his eyes made Gwen want to swallow her words whole. Bob's father had died when he was five after overworking himself in the mine.
But instead of apologizing, she repeated her previous question with more agitation than before. "Why are you here?"
When he didn't answer, Gwen dared to look up. The intensity with which Bob met her gaze was too much for her to bear and she quickly feigned fascination with a pine cone on the floor.
"Gwen, look at me," Bob commanded for the first time since he had entered the stable. When she didn't obey he added, with a slight undertone of annoyance, "Please."
Gwen's lower lip jutted out in defiance as she raised her head to look him in the eyes. She was surprised to see not a disgruntled Bob but a distorted blob before her. She blinked, and suddenly the worried expression on Bob's face became clear. Two more trails of salt water appeared on her face, and she realized in horror that her vision had been blurred by tears.
Gwen caught a glimpse of the dumbstruck look on Bob's face before burying her face in her palms and succumbing to the sobs that she didn't even know she had within her. They had been lurking in the depths of her soul, biding their time, waiting for the perfect moment to unleash themselves in full power on the poor girl.
It seemed like an eternity that Gwen stood like that, tears flowing through the spaces between her fingers and onto the floor and taking her pride and half her body's supply of sodium with them.
Finally Gwen composed herself enough to speak. "Why...did...you...come?" she choked. "Answer the question or just leave me alone!" Just like her tears, the words flowed from her mouth uncontrollably. "You'd better go. Katie's probably waiting for you at home with a bunch of freaking star-shaped cookies. And they're probably all symmetrical and they all have an even amount of sprinkles and they're just the right temperature and they're arranged on some fancy snowman plate and they have just the right amount of sugar and they're all simply perfect... just like her."
"Gwen, please stop crying," Bob begged her, his voice dismayed.
And just like that, the train halted in its tracks. Gwen hiccuped into her hands a few times and with a very unladylike gesture attempted to wipe the snot from beneath her nose with her sweatshirt sleeve. Usually this disgusted her, but ever since the first sob all scraps of self-worth and dignity had fled from her body, leaving behind an empty shell.
Besides, she had already done the worst possible thing she could do, something she had vowed on that blue Summer's day she would never allow to happen. She lost her self-control; she had shown Bob how truly hurt she had been that he chose Katie over her. There was nothing left for her to hide.
She wiped her bloodshot eyes on her sleeve and straightened herself, her lips pressed together tightly.
"I have to go. Merry Christmas, Bob." Gwen wrapped her arms around herself, squeezing out whatever emotion was left in her, and took a step forward. Then another, then another. Past Silver Bells, past Chestnut. Past Bob. Past the piece of crap this night turned out to be. Through the stable door, and into the winter night.
She had taken no more than ten steps in the direction of the Inn when a strong arm caught her by the waist and pulled her through the air.
For a brief second Gwen's stunned mind was overcome with the fear that a stranger had indeed been watching her from outside the barn and had found his opportunity to strike. Then she realized that it was the galloping form of a horse under her butt and looked around in confusion at the snow-topped scenery flying by her.
A deep voice suddenly rang in her eardrum, nearly scaring her out of her wits. "You didn't think I was going to let you go home in tears on Starry Night, did you?"
"W-where are we going?" Gwen could barely hear her own voice over the icy wind tunneling through her ears. The man chose to remain mysterious as ever and ignored her question.
It was then that Gwen's frazzled brain finally put together the puzzle pieces of the current situation she was in.
It was eleven o' clock on Starry Night.
It was Chestnut that she was riding bareback through the field on.
It was Bob who had swept her off her feet, it was Bob's arm that was wrapped protectively around her waist, it was Bob's reassuring voice that was curling around her ears like smoke from a fireplace.
Part of Gwen wanted to cherish the moment. The other part wanted to strangle the man whose iron grip she knew she couldn't break free of if she wanted to. "You're crazy!" was the most intelligible thing on her lips at the moment.
Bob's laugh ricocheted off the mountains in the distance. "I just might be."
Now Gwen was just plain annoyed. "Really Bob, where are we going? And why do you keep ignoring my questions? And are you crazy?"
"Gwen, for once can't you just shut your mouth and let the wind do the talking?"
Don't you go getting all metaphorical on me, mister. But for once Gwen obeyed and instead focused her attention on how cozy Flowerbud Village looked nestled in snow. She watched in awe at the distant rooftops and trees that passed by them at the speed of light... or, more accurately, Flowerbud's fastest racehorse.
It was a truly breathtaking experience, not to mention terrifying. Gwen clung to Chestnut's neck for dear life. The Paint didn't seem to mind at all. This was what she had been trained for her entire life and it was rare that she got to go for a run like this in the dead of winter. She began to pick up speed and Bob laughed again and tightened his grip around the trembling girl's waist.
They finally pulled to a halt in what seemed to be smack-dab in the middle of the field. Before Gwen could open her mouth Bob grabbed her by the arms and lowered her to the earth below. She swore she would never take the feeling of solid ground for granted again.
Even as she stood trying to catch her breath Bob kept his hand planted firmly on her shoulder, for fear that if he removed it she would collapse, or even worse, run away. Once he was sure she was physically and emotionally stable he dismounted himself and stood with his hands on his knees, panting, as Chestnut treated himself to a patch of grass nearby.
Gwen whirled to face the recovering cowboy with her mouth agape and her arms flailing. Her didn't seem to notice the look of utter confusion on her face, and the biting sarcasm returned. "So... was that just a fancy way of taking me halfway home?" she demanded. "Because I could've done that by myself, just saying. And for the record, I still don't know why you came to find me in the first place."
Instead of a normal human response, Bob gently took her by the hand and pointed it skyward. Warily Gwen followed the gesture with her eyes, only to find herself struck speechless.
Because, millions of miles and yet only a fingertip's length away from her, was the most magnificent display of stars the night sky above Flowerbud had to offer. Gwen had never seen anything like it in her life. As she gazed in wonder at the beauty above her, she felt a single teardrop leak from her eye and settle on the curve of her cheekbone.
Before she had time to wipe it away she felt warm lips in its place. Bob smiled as she turned to him with starstruck eyes and answered the question that suddenly wasn't so significant to her anymore.
"I came because I wanted show my little sister the stars."