Authors Note: I wrote this in honor of a friend of mine whose 11 month old baby was diagnosed with ALL in July. I've shared their inspiring story as a note on my Facebook wall and in my group if you're interested.
"Thanks, Carlisle!" Emmett turned, allowing Carlisle to pin the racing bib with the number eighteen in bold, black font to his jersey.
"No problem. It's good to see you back this year. How's Jasper doing?"
"Not too bad. I think he's finally accepted he won't ever have the stamina to ride in one of these with me. And he and Alice are looking into adopting sometime next year whether they get pregnant or not."
"Oh yeah? That's awesome. Adoption is a beautiful thing." Carlisle patted Emmett's shoulder. "All done. You taking it easy or trying to beat your time from last year?"
Emmett grinned. "You know me—always the competitor, even if it's with myself."
Carlisle chuckled then pointed at Emmett. "I'm not touching that with a ten-foot pole. Good luck out there. You know the drill by now, but make sure you stay hydrated and all that jazz."
"You know it. Good seeing you again, Carlisle."
Emmett grabbed his bike and headed toward the crowd milling around the starting line. He was searching for one of the guys he'd ridden with the past few years when someone caught his eye. The man looked completely out of his comfort zone as he eyed his bike warily and then bent to press a thumb into his tire. Emmett nudged his bike in the man's direction to see if he could help somehow. The fact that the guy was tall and lanky with a strong, square jaw and a downright adorable grimace, had nothing to do with his sudden urge for spreading good will . . . or so he told himself.
"First time?" Emmett asked, parking his bike next to the man.
"Is it that obvious?"
"Meh, just a little. You looked like you wanted to kick your bike over and run just then," Emmett joked.
"I think I'd prefer that. Running is much more my speed."
"I've never been much of a runner myself—too bulky, I guess—but you've certainly got the body for it." Emmett threw out the compliment as casually as possible. One of three things was likely to happen: if the guy was gay, he'd flirt back (hopefully); if he was straight, things would get awkward really fast, and if he was a homophobe . . . well, he'd probably spew some assholish shit, but at least Emmett would know right off the bat.
To Emmett's delight, the man's cheeks tinged pink. Definitely gay. "Thanks. I'm Edward," he said, holding out his hand.
"Emmett. Pleasure to meet you."
Edward smiled as he held onto Emmett's hand. "Same here. I take it you popped your cherry a while ago?"
"Pfft . . . you could say that! This is my twelfth year. I started when I was nineteen. My younger brother was fighting ALL at the time, and this was the only way I could help," Emmett explained.
Emmett realized immediately he'd already poked a sore spot when Edward's eyes flicked to the ground, and tension filled his shoulders. Assuming Edward's pain was still fresh, Emmett dropped his hand. The last thing the guy needed was someone hitting on him if he was dealing with the loss of a loved one. "How'd that work out?" Edward mumbled.
Desperate to bring the crooked smile back to Edward's face, Emmett rambled, "The ride or my brother? Because the ride was horrible. I mean, really. I slept for two days and couldn't move for another four after that, but once I could walk around without looking like I had a bike seat up my ass, I swore I was doing it again the following year. And since I knew what to expect and conditioned myself properly, it only took me three days to recover the second time instead of six."
"Fuck," Edward breathed. "Are you serious?"
"Dead. But it's worth it, and I actually enjoy it now."
"What . . . what happened with your brother?"
"Remission," Emmett beamed, "for nine years now. He had a small relapse about a year after his initial diagnosis, but since then he hasn't had any problems!"
"That's awesome! I need to hear all of the success stories I can right now."
"Yeah, it always helped us to meet survivors. Who are you riding for?"
Edward turned, revealing the single name on his back. "My niece. She'll be a year old in three weeks. They took her to the doctor for an ear infection, which she had, but it turned out to be so much more."
Emmett's heart twisted at the pain written all over Edward's face. "I'm sorry, man. How's she doing?"
"Eh . . . better. I mean, her white blood cell count was over eight hundred thousand that first day, which is practically unheard of, and no one expected her to live through the night. So the fact that she's still alive at all is a miracle. The doctors were amazed she didn't have a stroke or heart attack, but you know how it is. It's torture to watch her tiny body have to go through so much. The good days are awesome and bring so much hope, but then she'll have a few days where she can't do anything but lie around. It sucks sitting around, unable to help."
Knowing exactly how Edward was feeling, Emmett nudged his elbow. "Hey. This helps. Your sister has a rough road ahead of her, but she has to physically be there for that baby. You being out here, spreading her story and helping to raise money when she can't is important."
"Thanks," Edward sighed. "Anyway, I just hope I don't pass out before the halfway point! It's not like I had much time to train or even raise money!"
"The best advice I can give you is not to start out like a bat outta hell. I've seen a lot of people speed through the first ten or twenty miles and then run out of steam. It's hard to hold back when everyone is passing you at first, but you'll be glad about midafternoon when you coast by the same people sitting on the side of the road sucking down water."
Edward laughed. "Oh, don't worry. I don't think anyone has to worry about me going too fast at any point in the race!"
Before Emmett could reply, the loudspeakers boomed for all cyclists to get ready. Emmett chuckled to himself when Edward discreetly moved to the edge of the crowd.
"Good luck." Edward offered his hand again. "If I finish the first leg today, I'll look for you at the campground tonight."
Emmett took Edward's hand, feeling its warmth run all the way up his arm, and smiled as his heart fluttered its approval at the contact. He thought about how he'd be spending the next two days, pushing himself as hard as he could through every mile to beat his personal best, of leading the race with guys he'd bonded with over years of leading the course together, and of finally claiming a top ten—or even top five spot—at the end.
Still connected to Edward by a handshake, he looked into Edward's hopeful eyes, and it only took a moment to decide he wasn't ready to say goodbye just yet. "You're not getting rid of me that easily. I think I'll ride with you for a while if you don't mind."
Edward's face lit up. "Of course not! That is . . . if you're sure you don't mind holding back for me?"
Emmett shrugged, the desire to beat last year's time completely erased by the appearance of Edward's smile. "I'll stay behind you at first, let you set a pace you're comfortable with. When you're ready, just signal and I'll slingshot around so you can cruise in my draft."
"Sounds perfect. I really appreciate it. I'll have to find some way to repay you after the race."
Emmett grinned as he tightened his helmet. "Oh, I think we can work something out."
Emmett was still grinning when the starter's gun went off, and despite their sluggish start, the next several hours ended up passing quickly for Emmett. Of course, staring at Edward's ass for the first hour pretty much made up for every time they were passed. While Edward was in great shape, it was painfully clear that he wasn't a cyclist. He seemed hesitant to allow gravity to pull him down some of the steeper hills, and the tension that filled his body every time a large group of riders approached was achingly obvious. Edward's confidence grew when Emmett took the lead and gave Edward a focal point. They were able to actually catch up to a couple of riders that had passed them early on.
They pulled into the campground behind most of the other riders, but Emmett couldn't find it in himself to care when Edward thanked him.
"I didn't think I was going to make it there after the first hour, but it was so much easier once you pulled in front of me, and all I had to do was concentrate on you. I guess it's true that ninety percent of cycling is mental."
"It is, and don't sell yourself short. You were great, especially considering this was your first time! I'll go over some things with you tonight, and you'll be a pro by morning!" Emmett said with a wink.
Edward's chest swelled with pride as he followed Emmett to a long table displaying a variety of carb- and protein-heavy dinners. Still high from actually completing the day without making a total fool of himself, he grabbed the first bowl he could reach. His body was exhausted, but he felt like he was finally doing something to help his precious niece. He knew Kate appreciated his company whenever Garrett couldn't be there, but they'd received so much support from their families and community that there were ten people waiting in line behind him to sit by her side whenever she needed company. This was something only he could do, and he felt only a little silly admitting how proud he was of himself for following through.
Of course, he owed getting this far to the brawny man he was following. When Emmett had first approached him, Edward had dreaded the conversation he anticipated. He wasn't in the mood to hear platitudes about how everything would work out, and he couldn't stomach hearing the man's own story if it turned out to be unsuccessful. But to Edward's surprise, the man had turned out to be a breath of fresh air. There were no pitying looks, no hundred and one questions, and no being brushed aside and told everything would work out in the end. He'd gotten nothing but understanding and acceptance, and Edward couldn't have been more grateful for it.
Plopping down on the bench next to Emmett, Edward followed his lead and started shoving pasta into his mouth as quickly as possible.
"So if we work on your cadence a little bit in the morning, you should be able to coast through the rest of the course," Emmett mumbled around a mouthful of chicken.
"My cadence? You want me to download a drumline from iTunes?"
Emmett snorted, causing a chunk of food to shoot out of his mouth. "Not that kind of cadence—your pedal rotations per minute. I noticed when I was following you that you don't keep a consistent cadence. You're pedaling really fast one minute and really slow the next. You'll have an easier ride and conserve more energy if you maintain your cadence and adjust for hills and speed with your gears."
"Right." Truth be told, Edward hadn't given a single thought to his cadence or anything else that took his focus away from not falling and causing a massive fifteen bike pile-up, but he wasn't about to confess that to Emmett. "You know, they should rethink the saying, 'It's as easy as riding a bike.'"
Emmett laughed, drawing attention from a few other cyclists. "I'm pretty sure the saying is 'It's just like riding a bike,' as in it's easy remembering how to ride a bike."
"Whatever. Same difference right now. I don't remember it being this exhausting either."
Emmett nudged Edward's shoulder with his own. "You really are doing well. You think you'll keep riding after this is over?"
Edward shrugged. "Maybe. I guess it depends on how tomorrow goes. I may be on an adrenaline high right now, but I'm not so amped to miss that meeting you is still the best part of today."
The silence that followed nearly pushed Edward into retracting his statement or explaining it away as simple gratitude for helping to get him through the first half of the race. Maybe he'd misread what he thought were obvious signs. Maybe Emmett wasn't gay. Edward swallowed his last bite of pasta and peeked over at Emmett, his worries flying right out of his mind at Emmett's shy grin.
"Want to take a walk down to the river before we turn in?" he asked.
Edward smiled, reveling in the butterflies of a brand new crush. "Love to."
Edward followed Emmett toward a narrow path in the woods, and they walked the short distance to the riverbank in a comfortable silence. Edward flopped onto the plush grass, stretching his legs out in front of him and leaning back on his hands. When Emmett sank down next to him and covered Edward's hand with his own, Edward's heart sped up, settling into a faster cadence as he tangled their fingers together.
"So how's your sister handling everything?" Emmett asked, staring off into the rushing water.
Edward sighed, warring internally with his need to talk about everything he'd been feeling for the past month and his desire to forget about all of it for just one night and pretend like he could flirt with this handsome man without a care in the world.
"Better than I would," he finally mumbled. "My father is a minister, so my family is extremely strong in our faith, and while we all selfishly want to keep her here, my sister has accepted that might not be God's plan for Claire. Kate finds a lot of comfort in Scripture. Their story is really quite inspiring when it's not ripping your heart to shreds from the injustice of it all."
"Wow. Minister's kid, huh? How'd it go when you came out?"
Edward laughed, equally relieved he'd admitted his own weakness and that Emmett had glossed over it without the barest hint of judgment. "Not too bad, actually. My family is really great. They said they'd already known and were just waiting for me to admit it to them. My mom told me God didn't make mistakes, and if I was gay, then it was because He wanted me to be. Dad lost a few members of his congregation afterward, but he never wavered in his support. I think in the end, he picked up more than he lost."
"Nice. You don't hear too many of those stories."
"What about you? You obviously still have a good relationship with your brother at least."
"My road wasn't quite that easy. I didn't come out 'til I was older because of everything Jasper was going through. Struggling with my sexual orientation while Jasper was fighting for his life seemed so trivial. Jay actually figured me out though. He said after all those hours we spent together in his hospital room, he knew something was up when I only checked out his male nurses." Emmett laughed. "Bastard. I begged him to keep it a secret until he was in remission, and he agreed on the condition that he get to be there when I told Mom and Dad so he could see them fret over someone else for a change."
"Jasper sounds pretty awesome. Did your parents flip like you thought they would?"
"Not too bad. They were definitely shocked, but after a few weeks they came around. I think it still squicks my dad out if I get too touchy feely with someone in front of him, but he's never said anything."
"That's better than what a lot of people go through when they come out," Edward said, stifling a yawn.
"Am I boring you?" Emmett teased.
"Not a chance. This is the most content I've felt in over a month. I wish it didn't have to end."
Emmett stood and held out his hand to pull Edward up. "Too bad it does or you really won't finish tomorrow!"
Emmett never let go of Edward's hand as they walked back toward the huge tent everyone had to share for the night. They found two cots in a semi-secluded corner and huddled down for the evening. Edward passed out almost immediately with tired legs, a smile on his face, and a warm hand encompassing his own.
Edward mounted his bike the next morning and groaned. "My ass hurts," he complained, "and for all the wrong reasons."
Emmett snapped his head around to gape at Edward before folding over in laughter but thankfully was interrupted before he could make a crude joke.
"Emmett? That you?"
"Oh hey, Ben! Good to see you again."
"You too, man! I thought maybe you'd skipped out this year when I didn't see you in the front of the pack. Getting too old to hang with us now?"
Emmett chuckled and shrugged his shoulders. "Not on your life. I just decided to take it easy this year."
Ben shook his head. "Such a shame, man. James was huffing and puffing those last five miles yesterday. You could've easily beaten him this year. Maybe even won the thing! I mean, we've been wanting you to put him in his place for the past two years!"
Emmett shrugged again, his eyes darting to Edward, willing Ben to shut up. "Maybe next year."
"Right," Ben said, finally taking the hint. "Well, good luck and maybe I'll see you at the end."
"See you, man. Good luck." Emmett watched Ben ride off and felt a small twinge of jealousy.
"You should ride on without me." Edward's voice was soft and missing the enthusiasm it held even just a few minutes ago when he complained about his ass. Emmett hated it.
"Don't be stupid. If I'd wanted a shot at finishing in the top, I would've ridden ahead yesterday."
"I'm sorry. I didn't realize how much I was holding you back. I'll be fine on my own, and maybe I'll see you at the end of the race."
What? Maybe he'd see him? Emmett didn't fucking think so. "Edward, I didn't mean it that way. I wanted to ride with you, so I did. I don't see the problem here."
"There is no problem. I just hate that I've held you back from accomplishing a goal you've clearly been working toward for years. Seriously. I'm fine. Go on ahead today. I'll find someone else to coast off of and hope that you wait for me at the finish line." Emmett studied Edward's face. He seemed determined for Emmett to go without him. "I'll just feel worse about myself knowing you could be finished, but instead you're gimping along with the newbie. Seriously. Go on. Please?"
Defeated, Emmett acquiesced. "Fine, but the second you're over that finish line, you're mine. We're going to find somewhere to take a shower and wash off the rank, and then I'm taking you out. Deal?"
Edward smiled and nodded. "I think I can handle that. Just do your best, okay?"
Impulsively, Emmett leaned over, careful not to tip over their bikes, and gripped the back of Edward's neck, pulling him closer until their foreheads were touching. "I'm serious, Edward. You've been the best surprise I've had since my brother's clean bill of health, and I'm not ready to let you go." He tilted his chin down and gently pulled Edward's lip between his own. Edward sucked in his breath and gripped the front of Emmett's shirt to pull him closer, sending shivers down Emmett's back. Wanting more, and not caring they were in broad daylight, Emmett opened to slide his tongue between Edward's lips. He was so giddy when Edward returned the gesture that he was powerless to stop the huge grin that spread across his face.
Laughing, Edward pulled away. "It's kind of hard to kiss you when you're smiling so hard."
"Might want to get used to it."
"Again, I think I can live with that. Now go. You can still get a decent time if you ride with those guys. I bet you can still beat that James guy on this leg. Maybe it'll be almost as good as if you'd beaten him on the whole thing."
Emmett stared at Edward for a moment longer before nodding. "See you at the finish line," he said before taking off after Ben.
Edward settled into a steady cadence by the third mile, drafting off a more experienced rider who didn't seem to mind pulling him along. He'd be crossing the finish line before he knew it, the way his thoughts kept wandering to Emmett. Edward was relieved he'd convinced the more experienced rider to go on without him and only a little bit disappointed they couldn't finish out the course together. He still couldn't get over the fact that Emmett had blown off his chance to win the whole race just to make Edward's own ride more bearable. He never expected he'd meet someone so down to earth, charming, and compassionate, who was also interested in him, and it didn't hurt that the guy was also fucking gorgeous! His eyes lit up and two deep dimples appeared whenever he smiled, making Edward want to do whatever it took to keep them there—not to mention the man was a solid brick wall of muscle. Edward could practically feel the hard pecs beneath his fingertips as he imagined running his hands across Emmett's chest.
"If I'd known daydreaming would ease all of that tension out of your back, I would've suggested it yesterday!"
Edward snapped back to attention to find Emmett riding next to him. He was so shocked, he nearly wrecked his bike as they eased into a curve. "I thought you went ahead!"
Emmett grinned and shook his head. "Company's better back here. Let's go, slowpoke," he teased as he sped up.
As Edward fell into place behind Emmett, his focus locked onto his new happy place—Emmett's ass.
"Hey what?" Edward yelled back, catching Emmett's smirk.
"Match my cadence!"
Edward's gaze dropped to Emmett's powerful legs, watched his calves flex as they pumped evenly, rhythmically, but not nearly as quickly as they had earlier this morning when Emmett had taken off for the lead.
The cadence wasn't Emmett's; it was Edward's.
As the finish line came into view, the two men rode in perfect sync, grateful that sometimes life's tragedies bring unexpected blessings.
A/N: Thanks to born and Chaya for all of their help with this. For anyone interested, my friend's baby is in remission! She's in her last round of intensification chemo, which should wrap up right after Christmas.
Anyone also reading Building Hope, I should have the chapter sent off to my pre-readers in the next day or so. Putting the final touches on it now!