Warnings: (Non-graphic) death of an animal.
Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended.
Notes: Big thanks for Karenec for beta-ing this. She always does such a lovely job whipping my stories into shape!
This was my contribution to the Fandom4Colorado Fundraiser. Oddly enough, I got the plot bunny and set the story in Colorado before I heard about the Colorado fundraiser. It seemed serendipitous, so I went with it! Hope you like it!
Truth: Bella loves Edward.Truth: Edward does not love Bella.
Sometimes it feels like Bella Swan's always been around. I can't even pinpoint the moment she appeared in my life. Since I started school at Colorado State, she's been here on the periphery. With 27,000 students, I shouldn't even see her on a regular basis. But we're both in the veterinary program and that means we have most of the same classes together.
She sits near me in the large lecture halls, not right next to me, but nearby. Always a bit behind me and to the side. I can feel her eyes on me as I take notes. She never takes notes, although she aces all of the tests. Instead, she stares, not boldly, but contemplatively. Like she's trying to figure me out.
I can't figure her out. I know she has a crush on me. She doesn't hide it. But she's not pushy about it. She's never asked me out on a date, or spoken any words to me that weren't related to our classes, the weather, or banal pleasantries. I don't get it. I don't understand her. I don't know what she wants from me.
I'm not anything out of the ordinary. I'm a guy getting his degree in Veterinary Medicine. I'm attractive enough, middle-class, in the top quarter of my class. I know there are smarter men, richer, more handsome. It's not that I look down on myself, not at all, I am just realistic. Maybe if there were something extraordinary about me, I could understand Bella's fascination. But there isn't. And I don't.
Sometimes I wonder if she gets off, thinking about me. But I can't quite picture that. Her eyes on me aren't heated and wanting, just soft and pensive.
She's pretty. Not wildly stunning, but no one can deny that she's attractive. Long dark hair that she usually braids and wears pulled over her shoulder. Fair skin, dark eyes, a nice smile. She's average height, slender and nicely shaped. She wears jeans and t-shirts or sweatshirts most of the time. If there's one thing about the girls in the vet program it's that they're practical, no point in skirts and high heels when you're going to be up to your knees in horse shit anyway. But it suits Bella. She looks good in the simple clothes she wears. It isn't that I'm not attracted to her. I just feel uncomfortable that she likes me so much when she doesn't even know me.
I've had several girlfriends throughout my time here at Colorado State, but I don't think Bella's dated anyone. She has plenty of friends and there are guys who are interested, but she never dates them. She just stares. At me.
I don't know what she wants from me, and it drives me crazy.
If Bella Swan were shy, I could understand it. Shyness I get. I was pretty shy in elementary school when we moved from Colorado to Connecticut. I was nine when we moved to Hartford, and although I eventually made friends, I wasn't very outgoing. I missed it here. I missed the mountains and the air, and the horse farms. Connecticut and the rigid formality of East Coast city life made me feel uncomfortable, even years after we moved. It's the reason I moved back for college.
I can respect shyness. But Bella isn't shy. She's not meek or even particularly quiet. She's open and approachable, she laughs easily with friends, and even our interactions aren't awkward. She doesn't blush. But she doesn't flirt with me either.
I wouldn't even believe that she had a crush on me, if it weren't for the fact that it seems to be common knowledge among our classmates. I overhear people talking about it when they don't realize I'm standing near them.
It's just a fact. Bella Swan is in love with Edward Cullen. It's as true as the statements that there are mountains in Colorado and the food at the Corbitt Dining Center on campus is terrible.
Truth: the earth revolves around the sun. Truth: Bella loves Edward.
For a long time, I argued with people about it, made sure it was known that I didn't return her feelings. And then I realized that kind of made me an ass. I don't want to make her feel bad.
But again, I have no idea what she wants from me. Is her staring supposed to entice me into wanting her? Am I supposed to make the first move?
Sometimes I wonder if it's all an elaborate scheme on her part to get my interest. It's clever; I certainly do pay more attention to her than I would otherwise. I think about her constantly, wanting to understand why.
But I don't see her as being that manipulative. She breathes, and she loves me. It seems as simple as that.
I'm mucking out a stall when I overhear her. All the vet students work at the Large Animal Clinic and a certain portion of our courses include animal care. Sick animals from across the state are brought in when local vets can't diagnose their illness. Dr. Banner, the head of the Clinic, is like the Dr. House of vets. He's brilliant and short on patience, although at least he's without the painkiller addiction. He's great with animals, and I know all of us have learned a great deal from him. But his standards are high, and none of us dare slack off on our expected care. Truthfully, I don't mind much. Hauling out soggy straw and horse shit isn't my idea of a good time, but I like the time with the horses.
I'm in Riley's stall. He's a gorgeous old bay-colored Arabian gelding. He's blind in one eye, and stumbles sometimes, but he's the sweetest horse I've ever met. At twenty-one, he's nearly the same age I am, but in horse years, that's getting up there. I know he doesn't have much longer, and it's cancer. For once, it's not the diagnosis that's stumping the vets, it's the fact that the type of cancer he has is rare in humans, much less in horses. It's in the lining of the optic nerve of his eye. They're fairly sure it's metastasized. Being so close to his brain, there's nothing they can do about it but make him comfortable. While they do that, they're studying his symptoms, hopeful that they can learn from it, and do more to help the next horse that comes in.
Riley's owner is a sweet little sixteen year old named Ashley. She's quiet, and a little awkward, but she loves that damn horse and I know it's going to be hard on her when he goes. Hell, it's going to be hard on me. I've gotten pretty attached.
With the wheelbarrow is full of dirty bedding, I wheel it out, dump it in the bin so it can be sent for composting, and return with a bale of straw. Riley nuzzles my arm as I finish spreading the straw and I take a moment and lean against his broad flank. For being old, and sick, he looks remarkably strong. He's average size for an Arabian, and as a Polish Arabian he's slender and dainty, but still powerful. His injured eye is milky blue, but the other is a deep, warm shade of brown. Horses have very expressive eyes, and Riley is no exception.
I reach a hand up under his forelock and rub between his ears. His black hair is floppy and always falling over the damaged eye. He whickers softly and nudges my hip with his nose.
"Hey, buddy," I say quietly. "Sorry. I wasn't talking to you like usual, was I?"
He dips his head and lets me scratch harder. Some sick horses get riled up and anxious when they're at the clinic, but not this guy. He's as sweet as can be, and I swallow hard, thinking about how little time he might have left.
"How are you doing today?" I ask softly, still itching between his ears. It's one of the few places horses can't reach with their mouths, so I know it gets itchy. His eyes droop close, and he almost leans his head against my side. The medication we're giving him makes him a little groggy, and he tends to get sleepy when we brush or pet him. I run a hand down his neck and he blinks at me, but doesn't move. Sometimes I feel like I could stay like that forever, leaning against his warm flank and feeling the powerful muscles under my palm.
Non horse-people don't get it, but there's something relaxing about the quiet, solid bulk of a horse. It's reassuring in a way another human isn't. Not that I don't have plenty of friends and a great family to turn to when I need them, but I've always gone out to the barn when I want to think. It's an automatic thing for me. Brushing them is relaxing for me, and I can talk without worrying about judgment, or unsolicited advice.
"Ashley's coming to see you tonight, buddy," I remind him, and his ears twitch at the sound of her name. He knows her, loves her. Even drugged up and groggy from the anesthetics we gave him before we did the battery of tests last week, he knew her. Poor girl, she cried when she saw him, and I couldn't blame her. But he's a bit more like himself today and I think she'll be glad to see it. I know I am.
I've finished brushing him and given him one last pat on the nose when I hear Bella speak. She's a couple of stalls over with Charger, the palomino mare who injured her leg a couple of days ago. She's talking with Alice. Alice is another vet student. She's so tiny; I'm always amazed to see the way she doesn't let horses boss her around. But it takes attitude even more than physical strength to lead a horse, and she has that in spades. Pretty decent guns as well. Maybe it's more obvious because she's so small, but she has biceps like you wouldn't believe. Most vet students are in pretty good shape, you kind of have to be if you're going to haul around bales of straw and hay, and lead a horse. But Alice puts the rest of us to shame.
"Did you see him with Riley the other day?" Bella says. I tilt my head, wondering if she's talking about me. Each vet student is assigned several horses, but there's always one or two that become favorites, especially if they're here for a while. And everyone knows he's mine.
"Who? Edward?" Alice asks.
Bella laughs softly. "Who else?"
"Fair enough. You really don't see any of the other hot guys around here, do you?"
"No. I just see him," she says simply.
"I don't get it." Alice sounds baffled, and frankly, I have to agree with her. "Don't get me wrong, he's cute and all, I just don't get this obsession you have."
Bella's voice is sure but gentle. "I know. I don't expect anyone to. I'm not sure I totally understand it either. "
"What made you notice him in the first place? Was he hauling bales of hay, because let me tell you, I about tackled Jasper when I saw him shirtless and hauling hay."
Bella's answering laugh is soft. "No. Although, I've certainly enjoyed watching that since. We were in class. It was a teaching case, and Dr. Banner was lecturing on Equine Encephalitis. He referenced a specific case during the lecture, and at the end, Edward asked if the horse survived. And he sounded so genuinely worried for it. No one else cared. That's when I fell for him. I just knew that any man who cares so much about an animal he's never even met was the kind of man I'm meant to be with."
I blink in surprise, barely even remembering the incident she's talking about. It makes me feel a bit better about her though. It's one thing to be attracted to someone, but the idea of her thinking she was in love with me without actually knowing me well, seemed strange. But maybe she does know me. Or, at least a really big part of me.
I'm a huge softy for animals, especially horses. Obviously, all vet students care, or they wouldn't be going into the field, but it's always been very personal for me. Seeing them hurt, makes me hurt. I do get attached, like I am with Riley. I absentmindedly scratch him, and wonder if Bella will continue. I'm curious now.
"He is really good with the horses," Alice admits. "What were you saying about seeing him with Riley?"
"Oh," she laughs quietly. "It was one night as I was headed out. He'd finished up with Riley's stall, and was just standing there talking to him. He talked about his day, and about Ashley and how much he knows she misses Riley. It's like they're friends. It's just...it's the sweetest thing. I shouldn't have, I don't like to make him uncomfortable, but I stood there and watched them for a minute. This tall, strong guy with the rough hands and yet he was so gentle as he petted him and told him goodnight. And I... God, Alice, he'd probably be embarrassed if he knew I'd seen him, and I know he'd be embarrassed to have me tell you, but..."
Her voice trails off for a moment before she speaks. "He kissed him on the nose. It was the sweetest, most adorable thing I've ever seen. Forget a man with a baby, a man kissing a horse just makes me melt."
"That is pretty damn adorable," Alice agrees.
I am slightly embarrassed that Bella saw that, but I'm not ashamed.
"They just… click. If it weren't so sweet, I'd be jealous of the horse."
I smile and lean my forehead against Riley to muffle my laughter. She has a point. If she really does care about me, I'm sure it drives her a little crazy that I spend hours a day talking to and touching Riley rather than her. Not to mention kissing him.
"I don't know," Bella continues. "It just makes me like him that much more."
"He's not into you though," Alice says gently.
Rather than lash out, Bella only chuckles. "Thank you for pointing out the obvious. I know that. I do. And I honestly don't expect it to change. I don't think he's going to wake up one morning and decide he's in love with me. It hurts, of course it does, but I'll survive. And when we're done with school and I don't see him on a daily basis, I'll eventually get over it I suppose."
For some reason those words make me feel funny, like the idea of Bella not loving me has shifted the world on its axis. Even though I don't actually want her to be in love with me.
"Oh, buddy, this is all so confusing," I whisper against Riley's neck.
He whickers softly in agreement and I reward him by sliding my hand up under his mane and scratching there. It's another itchy place. I rub absently as Bella keeps talking.
"I'm not going to be some spinster, still pining for the guy in college I used to know. I'll get over him and meet someone who loves me back eventually. I promise, I won't be a crazy old cat lady."
"Just a crazy old horse lady," Alice teases and Bella laughs.
"Sure, but that has nothing to do with me being in love with Edward."
It's strange to hear those words come out of her mouth. Knowing it is one thing, but hearing it is another.
Truth: Bella loves Edward
"I just don't get why you haven't asked him out."
I suddenly wish I could see Bella's expression, because it's a question I've been dying to know for years.
"Because, by the time I realized how I felt about him, everyone else already knew. You know how everyone is in this program; gossip is like oxygen to them. I felt…ridiculous asking him out then. And I couldn't bear the thought of him rejecting me and having every single person know and then gossip about it…. It's one thing to know he isn't interested, but to hear him say it to my face is just too painful."
I step back from Riley and drop to the floor, my back sliding along the stall wall as I sink down onto the fresh straw. Fuck, I feel like an asshole now. No wonder she never really pursued me. She's right about the gossip, too. Everyone knows your business. Sometimes it was things you really don't want to know. Like the fact that our fellow vet student, Mike Newton, is plowing the sixty-five year old receptionist for the Large Animal Clinic. Tanya is not a woman who has aged well. I shudder at the thought, and then sober, thinking more about Bella. I'm so lost in my thoughts I don't even notice when Bella and Alice leave.
Eventually, Riley nudges my knee with his nose and I look up at him. His big brown eye stares at me and I chuckle softly and stand up, giving him a few more pats and a quick kiss on the nose before checking his water and meds one last time, and heading out for the night. Bella and Alice are long gone, but I find myself thinking about her while I drive home, shower and eat dinner.
Maybe I need to be a little nicer to her, I realize as I drift off to sleep. Her interest in me no longer frustrates and confuses me. I get it now, and I just feel bad that I don't return the feelings.
She deserves someone who will love her as much as she loves me.
I try to be nicer to her in the following week, but instead of being grateful, she just looks confused. I'm the one making awkward conversation and asking her about Charger, when there's no real reason to. I know Charger will be going home in a few days, we all heard the vet overseeing the case update us on her condition. Bella's not rude to me, but she just looks perplexed, and a little bit wistful.
I realize I'm probably sending her really mixed signals, because once I back off, she looks even more wistful, and really disappointed. I am an asshole, but I don't mean to be.
Riley hangs in there, and Ashley visits every day. She and her family live half an hour away from us here in Fort Collins. But she makes the drive every single day after she gets out of school. I'm usually finishing up my daily clinic time just as she gets here, and I like watching her interact with him. Some days she's cheerful and upbeat. She likes to sing to him. He seems to enjoy the ridiculous pop tunes, even if the rest of us roll our eyes at the sound of a sixteen-year-old girl singing Justin Bieber to her horse. Some days she's really quiet, and does her homework in his stall.
Once, I even found her curled up asleep in there. The thought of a small, fragile girl falling asleep next to a sick horse makes me anxious. There's no telling what could happen if he got agitated and accidentally stepped on her or panicked and kicked. The majority of injuries caused by horses are due to human inattention. But I don't worry about Ashley and Riley. In fact, when I peer in to check on them, he's lying down, too. It depends on the horse, but it's rare to see them lie down. Their bodies just aren't designed for it. They sleep standing up. He's exhausted though, and sometimes laying down seems to help him conserve his strength.
Ashley's asleep, with her hand on his back. He's more drifting than sleeping, and he lets out a quiet snorting sound of contentment. I suddenly want to show them to someone, and it's funny, but for the first time it's Bella I think of immediately. I know she'd appreciate it. But she's gone for the day.
I ask one of the night techs to keep an eye on Ashley and Riley when I head out, and she readily agrees. I'm not really worried, but I want to make sure they're both doing okay. You can't be too careful. I go home and shower and change, before heading to the bar.
We vet students hang out at the New Belgium Brewing Company a lot. It's always crowded, with tourists going on brewery tours and doing beer tastings, but the locals love it, too. I slide into a chair and order a beer from the pretty blonde waitress before I even turn to say hi to my friends. It's been a long week.
"Hey, Emmett." I turn to my buddy and he raises a glass to me.
"Nice of you to join us."
"Long week. Hey, Rose."
Emmett, and his girlfriend Rose, are large animal vet students as well, but they're both focusing on cows, sheep and goats, rather than horses. I think he's out of his damn mind, but Emmett swears that cows have more personality than horses. He's nuts. Still, we're good friends, and I like his girlfriend. They've been together about six months and seem happy. She's a really laid-back girl, and funny as hell.
"Hey, Edward," she responds with a smile.
"Who else is coming tonight?" I ask Emmett.
"Paul, Sam and Emily, and Jane." They're all fellow vet students. Sam and Emily are dating. It's funny, but we have a very insular group. Everyone within the program makes friends with and dates each other. It gets messy occasionally, when couples who split up have to work together on a case. But for the most part, it works.
"Your stalker's here," Emmett adds.
"She's not my stalker," I snap, and then wonder why it bothers me so much that he calls her that.
"Oh come on, it's funny, Edward, you've laughed at it every other time."
He's right, but it still makes me feel weird all of a sudden. "Look, just ease up on her."
Emmett holds up his hands in surrender. "Dude, fine. I just don't see what your sudden change of heart is about, unless you're interested in her."
"No, it's not that. I just feel kinda shitty about the way everyone harasses her about it." I drop my voice. "I overheard a conversation she had with Alice, and it made me realize I've been a little harsh on her. Considering how much she gets teased about it, I think she's actually been pretty decent about the whole thing. I just don't want to be an ass about it, okay?"
"You're probably right, Edward," Rose says. "She's gotta be really uncomfortable about the whole thing."
"Exactly. And she's never done anything even remotely stalkerish to me. She's just... there."
The conversation is interrupted when the waitress sets down my beer. It's the 1554, a dark, malty beer that's my favorite. They have an amazing selection, and there are few I don't like, 1554 is just my go-to beer.
The waitress, Jessica, smiles and touches my shoulder and asks if I need anything else. She's very pretty, and I flirt back a little. Nothing too over the top, I'm not actually trying to get her to go home with me, but enough so that she knows I'm not uninterested. The rest of our friends arrive, and I forget all about Bella.
When an incredible ass crosses my line of vision, I don't even realize it belongs to Bella. The place is crowded, and in the gap between two people, I see a pair of jeans at the bar. They curve around a very well-toned ass and thighs. The girl is bracing herself on the bar, so her ass is pushed out toward me. I tear my eyes away to see if the rest of her is as appealing, when a guy steps up behind her. He blocks my view of her, and I grudgingly look away and return to the conversation at the table. I find myself sneaking surreptitious glances over at the bar, and eventually, I see a girl slip out from the crowd of people. She glances over in this direction and I simultaneously realize that its Bella looking at me, and that her ass is the one I've been checking out.
I blink in confusion and try not to choke on my beer. I've never thought she had a bad body, not at all, but apparently I'd never seen her in the pair of jeans she's wearing tonight, because I can't get the image of that nicely rounded ass out of my mind. I know she shows horses, and she rides English. Riding, especially English, does amazing things to a girl's thighs, hips, and ass. It's a very athletic sport, and builds the muscles there. It also makes them amazing in bed. You've never been ridden, until you've been ridden by a girl who shows English. I shift in my chair, aroused, and completely bewildered by the fact that I am imagining Bella on top of me. That is definitely new.
I can't stop looking at her though, even after she turns away and joins a few people at a table. She's sitting sideways, and I find myself looking at her upper body, noticing the long lines of her arms and the way the black top she's wearing falls down on one shoulder. It's still a t-shirt, or at least the same kind of fabric. I know crap-all about girls' clothing, but it seems like the same stretchy, thin fabric. It's sort of gathered and drape-y, and I don't quite understand it, but I like it. It leaves her arms bare, and scoops down in the front and even lower in the back. It's the kind of shirt that makes you want to kiss a girl's neck. Her hair is in a braid like always, but it seems looser, and softer somehow. She's actually really fucking pretty. She looks soft and approachable and I watch her drink her beer. I can tell from the label on the beer bottle that she's drinking Prickly Passion, the brewery's amber beer that's made with prickly pear and passion fruit. I'd call it a girly drink, but it's actually stronger than what I'm drinking, and it's really fucking good. I'm confused when I realize I want to lick it off her lips.
Unsettled, I order another beer. Jessica flirts with me again, and a part of me really wants to take her home. She seems nice. She's not trashy, or obnoxiously pushy. Just a cute girl who is showing interest in me. But I can't do it. Not when my cock is hard from Bella, and I don't understand why. I'm not the kind of guy who would do that. To either of them. It's a shitty thing to fuck a girl and want her to be someone else. And an even shittier thing to go home with some girl, when the girl who loves you is watching.
So, I let Jessica down gently, and say goodnight to my friends. I can feel Bella's eyes on me as I leave.
I'm not technically on clinic duty over the weekend, but I go in to see Riley on Saturday anyway. Ashley's there and we talk about how he's doing. She knows as well as I do how soon he'll go, but instead of crying about how unfair it is, she's enjoying her time with him. I know she probably does cry, in the privacy of her own bedroom, and on her mom's shoulders, but she's pretty stoic here at the clinic. I've only seen her get choked up once or twice. She's a good kid. Mature for her age.
We feed him the slices of apple that she brought, and he whickers appreciatively and rubs his nose on my hip and gently lips at my arm. You have to be careful, a horse being playful can still easily hurt you, but I know this guy, and I trust that he won't hurt me. It's kind of gross, they get slobber everywhere, and his is mixed with little bits of apple. But, it's something horses do to each other in a herd, so when they do it to a human, it means they like you a lot.
Getting bit by a horse, accidentally or not, hurts like a bitch. But Riley is gentle, and although I have to wash the slobber off my arm later, I don't really mind it. I leave him with Ashley, and head back home. I catch a movie with some friends on Saturday night, and I spend the rest of the weekend studying, doing laundry and cleaning up around my apartment. Unfortunately, it doesn't keep me from thinking about Bella.
Riley's worse on Monday, and I get a lump in my throat as I check over his most recent lab results. It's just a matter of time now. Dr. Banner's the one who calls Ashley and her family, and I'm grateful. I don't know if I could get the words out without choking up.
I see him get weaker and weaker over the next few days. By the time Ashley leaves him late Thursday night, I know he probably has less than twenty-four hours. Although visiting hours are long over, I offer to let her stay the night.
"Are you sure, Ashley? He probably won't still be with us tomorrow," I ask her gently.
She sniffles and leans on her mom. "I know. I don't think I can be here for that, though. I said goodbye."
"I'll stay with him tonight, then," I offer.
She gives me a watery smile. "Thanks, Edward. He really likes you a lot."
I nod, and squeeze her shoulder. She walks off sniffling and I see her mom wipe at her own eyes.
Riley is a retired show horse. He showed dressage for years, but the injury that blinded him put him out of commission. It was a careless handler who let him get agitated and slam into a sharp piece of metal on a trailer while they were loading him. He's such a mellow horse that I can't imagine how incompetent the guy was to have riled him up like that. It makes me angry to think that someone's idiocy hurt him like that. We have no way of knowing if the eye injury and subsequent blindness is what caused the cancer. There's no way to know. But it's suspect that the cancer began in the injured eye. We don't understand the connection, but I know Dr. Banner thinks there's a least a possibility that they could be linked.
Ashley told me the story of how they got him. His owner, the woman who showed him dressage, was moving from Colorado to Michigan, and didn't want to transport him. He was already retired after his injury, and about fifteen. She was looking for a good home that would care for him as he got old. She obviously picked the right one. I know this horse is loved. Ashley was eleven when they got him, and he's been a huge part of her life. She doesn't want to show, she just loves trail riding and working him in the paddock of their forty acre farm. It's a good life for a horse.
My work is long done for the day, so I go right into Riley's stall. His head is hanging low, and I can see how weak and tired he is. He's not any real pain though, and I'm grateful for that. It's the reason why we haven't put him down. It's always better to let an animal die on their own, as long it isn't prolonging their suffering.
I spend an hour brushing him, and combing through his mane and tail. He looks remarkably good for a horse that's knocking on death's door. His eyes though... something in them makes me swear he knows.
"I know, buddy," I whisper, my voice hoarse and raspy. "Not long now."
He leans his head in to me and I can feel the ache begin in my chest. It doesn't seem fair that this beautiful, sweet horse is dying. I've met people in my life who deserve to live less than he does. But, he's lived a full, happy life, and I know he's ready. I can see that in his eyes, too.
I squeeze my eyes shut tightly and murmur in his ear, quiet, soothing words that don't mean anything. Hours pass, and I know my body should be protesting at the way I'm standing, but I don't even feel it. I'm afraid to leave him for even a moment.
Eventually, he stumbles, and I help ease him to the ground, or at least as much as I can manage with a thousand pound horse. He goes down fairly easily though, and I feel his breathing grow heavy and strained.
"It's okay," I whisper. "Ashley loves you, and so do the rest of us, but you can go, if you're ready."
A few moments later, he lets out a deep, shuddering sigh, and then he's gone. I close his eyes, and lean against his broad flank. It's warm, and I spend a long time stroking my hand along his neck, my eyes stinging with hot, salty tears. I can smell the mingled aromas of the barn, fresh hay and warm horses. I hear a horse in another stall let out a quiet whicker and I rub the back of my arm across my eyes.
It's worse than I anticipated; the ache in my chest, and the lump in my throat. I have no idea how much longer I sit there quietly before a vet tech passes by. Her face crumples when she realizes he's dead, and she nods at me. "I'll give you two a little while, okay?"
I nod tightly. In a while, they'll come and take his body, but in the meantime I say my goodbyes and straighten his forelock and mane. It's falling over his eye, like always. I leave my hand on his neck and bend my head, pressing it to my updrawn knee. I'm exhausted, but I'm not quite ready to leave yet.
"Edward?" a sweet voice asks some time later, and I lift my head. It's Bella, and I suddenly realize that there's no one in the world I'm more grateful to see. Her expression is so soft and caring. I know without a doubt she can feel my pain.
"What are you doing here?" I ask hoarsely. She comes inside the stall and drops to her knees beside me.
"I knew Riley wasn't going to make it longer, and I couldn't sleep. I kept wondering if you were here, and if you needed me."
I nod, gratefully. I do need her. I don't know how she knew, and I can't explain it, but I really, really do need her. Not any caring person, but Bella specifically. She's the only one who understands how hard this is for me.
I hold out my arm and feel her skin against mine for the first time as she tucks herself against my body. It's perfect. I've spent years avoiding this, and yet the feel of her in my arms is exactly right. I close my eyes and press my lips to her hair. My eyes are watering again and my chest aches.
"Thank you," I whisper.
She doesn't reply, just shifts until she's settled closer to me. My shoulder is leaning against the stall wall, and she's tucked against my hip, her head on my chest, her hand on my stomach. Her other hand slides under the back of my shirt to touch my back. Her fingers are soft and warm and the awful, aching feeling recedes a little.
"I'm sorry, Bella," I whisper.
"For not seeing you. For making you feel bad about caring about me."
"You didn't make me feel bad. At least, not intentionally. Don't get me wrong, I didn't exactly feel great about the fact that I was crazy about you, and you didn't care about me one way or the other. But I never felt like you were being cruel about it."
I sigh. It's been an emotionally exhausting night. Between Riley's death and the revelation that I do care for Bella, I'm worn out. But nothing in the world could get me to move right now. We sit there quietly for a long time, her fingers softly stroking my back. Her steady breathing and quiet presence is exactly what I need.
When she finally speaks I realize I've been waiting for the question. "What changed your mind?"
"I don't know, not exactly. I think it started when I overheard your conversation with Alice about me. When you told her about the moment you fell for me. I realized you did know me, really well, in fact. And I respect the reason. For a while, I thought you were just... infatuated with me, maybe."
"No." Her voice is gentle but firm. "I love you, Edward Cullen. I love that you spent the night here with Riley, so he wouldn't be alone. I love that you talked to him every day, kissed him goodbye, came in on your days off. I love that you're going to be the most amazing vet ever. That's more than enough for me to know and respect you, to admire your character. You're handsome, I won't deny that I've noticed that, but I love your mind and your soul and especially your heart."
Jesus, this girl... something about the way she speaks makes my heart ache, but in a good way. Now, instead of being put off by her single-minded determination and curious gaze, I like it. She's so straightforward, so uncomplicated. She's honest and observant, and I'm shocked to realize that she's exactly the kind of girl I want to be with. It's true that we have a long way to go before we'll know each other completely, but I want to. I want her to know me. I want her to see inside my brain and my heart. And I really want to learn about her.
I tug at her gently and we situate ourselves so that she's curled up on my lap. Her brown eyes are eager, and she doesn't hesitate to slide her hands into my hair and press her lips to mine. They're soft and sweet, like her, and I'm suddenly reminded of my need to taste the Prickly Passion beer on them before. Now, they just taste like toothpaste, and she smells like laundry detergent. It's simple and unassuming. Reassuring almost. I cup her cheek and let my hand sink into her hair. It's braided like always and really thick and soft. She makes the quietest little sound of contentment in the back of her throat, and I think that I could probably spend the rest of my life coaxing her to make that noise.
I want to see her ride, see the wind make her long braid fly back, and her cheeks go pink from the excitement of galloping full-tilt. I want to know if freckles dust the tops of her breasts, the way they do her nose. I want to see her ride me, find out if her hips would really move the way I imagine they would. I want to lay her down on a blanket on top of a cushion of straw in the dappled sunlight and just look at her. And then I want to touch her until she cries out my name and shatters. I want her.
I close my eyes and let my lips slow. Hers do too, but a fraction more reluctantly, as if she's a little afraid I'm going to stop completely. So I whisper what I've just been thinking, right there against her mouth. Her cheeks do go pink, but it's from my words, and I somehow think that's even better.
She whispers her own dreams and fantasies, and they're similar enough to mine that I know we're gonna work out just fine, but different enough that I know I'll never be bored.
"It's okay, you can tell me, 'I told you so'," I tease her, after I pull back to look her in the eye.
She shrugs and gives me a soft little grin that makes my heart race. I'm done for. I don't know what the hell was wrong with me, because I should have realized it all along. Bella Swan is the perfect girl for me.
There are three truths in the world now.
Truth: the earth revolves around the sun.
Truth: Bella loves Edward.Truth: Edward loves Bella.
This wasn't an easy story for me to write; it's loosely based off the experiences I had in college when my horse got cancer. None of the vet students were as hot as this Edward, but they were all really fabulous people and took amazing care of him. This story is dedicated to my four-legged buddy. I still miss you. You were the best horse a girl could have had!
This story was a little different for me, but I hope you enjoyed it!
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