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In Braille

Summary:
In Braille Banner Winning entry into the anon Beautiful Edward Challenge. A young woman, scarred inside and out. A guilty man looking for forgiveness. Will they recognize their redemption in each other? Beauty is not just skin-deep. AH, Bella and Edward, Romance


Notes:
A/N: Thanks to LightStarDust for the Beta work. Thanks to BoydBlog and CandyTwi for facilitating the Beautiful Edward Challenge, and thanks to the voters who made this the Winning Entry. Cheers!


1. Chapter 1

Rating 5/5   Word Count 4735   Review this Chapter

-O-O-

Edward Masen's footsteps fall softly on the linoleum alongside the scratchy whispers of his dog's paws. Balt is relaxed beside his leg, matching Edward's loping pace easily. He's been here many times and knows what's expected of him. He knows the way, and follows the corridors of the hospital like well-sniffed paths of the park near their Seattle home.

Edward is not oblivious to the looks they collect along the way. Some are curious about a man and a dog walking the halls of the hospital with such easy grace, like they belong there. Some are complacent, having seen them many times before as they make their way to the elevators. Some, like the nurses, shoot adoring glances at the man and his dog, quietly awed and grateful for the unofficial duty they perform on the Children's Ward. Well that, and he's easy on the eyes. Edward Masen is a looker.

Balt might feel at ease here in the hospital, he might even look forward to their destination knowing about the attention that's about to be lavished upon him; to Edward, however, walking the halls here feels a little like finding oneself in an episode of The Twilight Zone. All these doors look so innocent, and yet behind each one is a special kind of tragedy. Each one houses personalized horror for the patient within. He keeps his eyes trained ahead, knowing that should he look sideways, he might unwittingly lock eyes with just such a tragedy, one much worse than his own.

Balt's furry head perks up as they make their way toward the elevators; he can smell the cafeteria they're about to pass. His black nose twitches as it always does, and he quizzically looks up at his master. Edward smirks down at him and winks. Of course they'll go in, just as they always do. Edward needs this little reprieve before heading up to the Children's Ward. It's a little ritual that he and Balt have perfected over the past few months.

The smells become more pronounced as they walk into the cafeteria and Balt's nose twitches and sniffs around in frenzy, his tongue lolling out as he tastes the fragrant air. It's a veritable feast of aromas. Edward grabs the mane of scruffy fur at Balt's neck and gives it a playful tug as they walk toward the cafeteria ladies to order their usual fare. Balt looks up at his master with eyes full of love, as long, sure fingers scratch behind his ears in just the right way.

One black coffee and a bagel with cream cheese later, and the man and his dog head over to their usual table by the far windows, away from the busy tables in front. They settle themselves in their usual seats; Edward splayed awkwardly in a chair which is too short to accommodate his long legs, and Balt on the floor alongside his master's feet with one eye trained firmly on the edge of the white plate which holds the bagel.

Edward looks out of the window as he slowly sips his coffee. It's a peaceful view; a cityscape overlooking Seattle's busy streets. The bustle can barely be seen from here, let alone heard. The cafeteria is barely occupied at this time of day. It's mid-morning, well after the end of the breakfast service and a good hour before the lunchtime rush.

The ladies behind the counter have time to catch up on the hospital gossip while they prepare for the onslaught, and they too look at the man and his dog, familiar fixtures though they are. The man is young and handsome, and coupled with the big, happy dog, they're an intriguing pair. The ladies are very indulgent of the man and his dog, and so they pretend they don't see a piece of the delicious bagel making its way under the table and disappearing into the dog's mouth, which is surely against some kind of health regulation.

Enjoying a moment of tranquillity in preparation for the squealing and screaming upstairs in the Children's Ward, Edward and Balt enjoy the slivers of sunshine filtering through the windows. Balt's tail is flicking ever so slightly from side to side as he lays sprawled under the table at his master's boots. Imperceptibly to Edward, Balt's eyes zero in on a small movement a few tables away, his well-groomed body suddenly becoming quite still. Balt has spied an errant snack falling haphazardly to the floor.

He observes it silently for a few moments, as only a bottomless pit of a dog can, giving the morsel his undivided attention. It lays silent and completely undisturbed on the floor a few tables away, just minding its own delicious business. Balt's eyes never leave it, even as he abruptly rises from the floor, an oblivious Edward still staring out through the cafeteria's windows. By the time he registers the movement out of the corner of his eye, Balt is already halfway across the room with his eyes still locked on the runaway prize.

-O-O-

Just above the unsuspecting morsel sits an equally unsuspecting Bella Swan. She also stares out of the windows, a ray of sun resting like a warm streak across her cheeks, and bouncing in a flare of light off the lens of her opaque sunglasses. She sits alone and still, basking in the glow of the mid-morning sun, her hands curled loosely around a half-empty Styrofoam cup on the table in front of her, slim legs folded elegantly under her chair.

Bella hasn't noticed that a piece of her mother's abandoned cupcake has made its way onto the floor, just as she hasn't noticed that a rather large animal is currently making its way toward her through the hospital cafeteria at an alarming pace.

Something that feels much like a warm hairy wall bulldozes its way under her table. Bella yelps in surprise and instinctively pushes away from the table, upending her chair and crashing backwards to the ground in a graceless tangle of limbs. She's a little stunned by this development, and just lays still for a moment, trying to gather her wits about her.

"Baltazar!" A man's voice sounds suddenly very close as a hand encircles her upper arm. She can feel his presence as he kneels on the floor alongside her. Fearing her face is arranged in an expression resembling a stunned mullet, Bella snaps closed her mouth and exhales through her nose, finally under control again.

"Are you alright?" Says the man, his voice softly quiet in her ear and his warm breath fluttering across her cheek. Then, speaking in a direction away from her: "I think she's alright!"

Obviously for the benefit of anyone else that was treated to the spectacle of Bella catapulting herself out of her chair.

"What the hell was that?" She finally manages to spit out some words, while accepting the man's help in lifting herself off the floor and back into her chair.

"My dog, Baltazar. Um... Balt. I think he was crumb-diving under your table. I'm so sorry he knocked you over!" The voice is contrite, the timbre rich and soothing in her ear. It's at this moment that she realizes her glasses aren't on her face, which can only mean that he's looking at her eyes. At her scars. By now, she assesses, he has surely already realized that she's not making eye contact with him, the way a normal person does.

Feeling suddenly very exposed, Bella remains as calm as possible while her hands feel around for the glasses which might be snagged on her clothes or in her hair. She feels the man gently take one of her hands in his as he lays the glasses across her palm.

She swallows hard and with all the dignity she can muster, slowly replaces the opaque glasses on her face.

"I'm not completely blind, but almost," she says in a hard, defiant voice, daring him to be repulsed, to leave at the revelation.

Instead, he almost whispers, "I know. I can see that... I'm sorry."

There isn't much to say at that. Bella frowns, feeling her brow crease. What now?

"So, what is your dog doing here at the hospital?" A blunt segue but better than nothing.

"We come here sometimes, to visit some people." He's still speaking very softly, as though to a frightened animal. It's definitely having a soothing effect on her. She hears a chair being moved, he must be sitting down at the table with her.

"Do they allow that? I mean... do they allow dogs to visit people in a hospital? I thought it had to be pretty sterile and all that."

"Yes, there is that... we've both been 'trained' so to speak, and Balt is screened to make sure he's healthy and clean and so on. We're part of the Animal Visitors program here at the hospital." He pauses and clears his throat. "We volunteer and visit sick kids here. So they can have a chance to play with Balt..." His words trail off, as though he's worried Bella will laugh at him. "You know... for therapy."

Bella is not going to laugh at him. It's a very generous thing to do and she's a little humbled by his admission. She relaxes into his voice and sits back, momentarily forgetting to be self-conscious.

"I'm Bella Swan. Nice to meet you, owner of Balt." She tentatively offers her hand, and is relieved when he takes it, shaking lightly on the introduction. He doesn't immediately let go though, which is... nice. His hand is large and hard, but his skin soft and warm. It's a pleasant contradiction resulting in a very manly hand indeed. When he does let go, she feels as though heat has been sucked out of her hand. She lays it gently in her lap like a fallen leaf.

"Edward Masen. I really am very sorry about earlier. Balt is very sorry too, he didn't mean to be such a brute."

"Well, where is he? I want to meet him!" Her skin tingles as Edward plucks her hand from her lap, once again spreading warmth from his palm into hers. She's not sure if she should be indignant at his frequent touch, or if she should be grateful that he's very deftly guiding her hands to where they need to be, to see. The internal conflict doesn't last, and Bella has decided that she's comfortable with the contact from this gentle, generous man. In fact, she surprises herself by realizing she wants more.

Bella's hand is transferred from Edward's strong grip to tufts of soft, thick fur, as he guides her to Balt's bulky, warm body sitting between them. Bella has never owned a pet, and is pleasantly surprised at how soft and luxuriant it feels to part the dog's coat with her slim fingers. She gives herself over to the sensation and brings her other hand up to join in the play too, a goofy smile plastered on her face as she strokes firmly across the dog's flank.

"He's really big!" She exclaims excitedly, and hears Edward's muted laugh in reply.

"He's a German Shepherd. They are a large breed, definitely."

"Oh... he's lovely!" Bella is completely taken with the dog and the feel of his thick, silky coat under her cool palms.

Balt, glad to be forgiven for his embarrassing gaffe, is thoroughly enjoying the attention and gently lays his muzzle in her lap, where she strokes and explores it tenderly.

"I bet those kids love him! Do you come to see them often?"

"I try to, at least once a week, sometimes more, if I can get away from work."

"Amazing... this must give them such a happy fix! I bet it really takes their minds off the other stuff."

Edward clears his throat again and she lifts her face toward the sound, waiting for him to speak. She finds herself looking forward to the sound of his slightly husky voice. When he does, the question surprises her.

"Do you have a guide dog?"

Having been reminded of her condition, Bella is quiet a little too long, something Edward obviously interprets as having taken offense at his question. He clears his throat again, and sensing an approaching apology, Bella puts him out of his misery.

"No, I don't. Actually, I haven't always been like this, so I've never needed one. I mean, it's only recent. The injury." Now it's Bella's turn to blunder through an awkward explanation. She takes a deep breath and tries again.

"I was injured in an accident a few months ago resulting in my corneas being damaged. I've tried all the other treatments but now we're discussing a corneal transplant. So I'm here today with my mom, speaking to the surgeon, getting to know the place. Hopefully I'll get some new eyes and be... back to normal. Hopefully."

Her exposition is met with silence. Hmm.

"Are you still there?" What did I say?

"Yeah, I'm sorry Bella, I was just thinking. So, what do you think of Balt? I think he quite likes you, actually." Edward's voice really is very nice, so Bella doesn't mind the abrupt change of subject, it's not like she relishes talking about being blind. His voice is quite masculine and a little rough, but very warm and deep. Bella wants to keep him talking.

"Yeah? Well, I like him too!" She leans in toward Balt and nuzzles his nose with her own. Inexperienced with dogs, Bella is completely unprepared as Balt repays her affectionate gesture with one of his own - a slobbery lick across her chin. "Ohmigod!" She yelps for the second time that morning and furiously rubs the back of her hand across her face in an effort to de-slobberize it.

"Shit! Sorry Bella. Here, let me help you!" Bella is completely aghast as a napkin-wielding Edward takes to her face with a gentle wiping motion. He appears to note her overwhelming embarrassment, because while he is still holding her face, he's no longer wiping dog slobber off her chin.

Then her world stops. Edward's fingers, ever so tenderly, tuck a loose tendril of hair behind the shell of her ear.

What the fuck? Who the hell is this guy? Is he hitting on me? All this passes through her head in microseconds as she fights the urge to lean into his hand. Just as she's about to react, Edward withdraws. The whole side of her face is tingling, alight with nerves sensitive to his fleeting touch.

Bella can still sense Balt's warm, panting bulk between them, but now she's ever so aware of Edward's exact proximity that they're like repelling magnets conspicuous for not touching. It's her turn to clear her throat as though she's about to reveal a compromising secret.

"You have me at a disadvantage, Edward," She eventually chokes out.

"I do?" Strangely, Edward's voice sounds equally unstable.

"You already know what I look like, but I have no idea about you." Bella knows this could go either way; he might laugh it off, or he might play along. She hopes like hell it's the latter, because this bizarre aura around them is zapping at her sensitized nerves and she needs to know more, to see more about him. Hesitatingly, she lifts her hand toward him, allowing it to hang in the air between them.

She smiles with relief when she senses Edward reposition himself directly in front of her, and unwittingly licks her lip as his warm fingers take a gentle hold of her own, guiding them to his shoulder. He leaves them there, just resting lightly on his shirt, then proceeds to keep entirely still, giving her his permission to see him.

Bella has never actually done this before. She's well aware of the fact that blind people use their hands this way, to form a mental image of what someone looks like, but she has not had to develop this skill. Her doctors, her family, everyone has always assured her that her trauma-caused blindness was a temporary condition and that one day, she would be able to see again. Procuring a seeing-eye dog or learning how to read using only her fingertips hasn't crossed her mind once over these last dark months. It's with trepidation and butterflies in her stomach that she prepares to read Edward, in Braille.

At first, her fingers are light on his shoulder, barely touching the fabric. It feels like cotton, cool and smooth. Emboldened by his stillness, she pushes harder until she feels the warmth of him radiating through the fabric and infinitesimally harder still until she makes contact with the hard flesh of his shoulder beneath. As lightly as dew, she caresses the deltoid muscle that emerges from his shoulder upwards toward the place where cotton meets skin.

Slowly, ever so slowly, she works up the courage to curl her fingers into his collar, and there she can feel his pulse beneath. Bella never knew her hands could be this sensitive and she pauses here, relishing the beat of blood in the veins under her fingers.

As she works her hand higher, Edward's skin becomes rougher to touch, and suddenly she's right under his earlobe. She can feel that his hair is cut a little long at the nape of the neck. She detects a slight curl there, which she twists around her fingertips. It's not army short, nor is it hippy long, but the length that is there is soft and thick, inviting her fingers to comb through it. Well, as long as he's sitting still... Bella's fingers stay in his hair a little while longer than appropriate, but Edward is being very accommodating so she savors this sensation and eventually moves on when she's ready for more.

Her fingers move back to his ear, which seems delicate and soft compared to the slight scruff at his neck and jaw. Following the curve of his ear to his face, Bella's mouth lifts in a smile as she touches coarse hair; she loves a masculine sideburn. OK, so he's not an overweight, sweaty old guy. Thank fuck for that...

Scooting forward in her chair a little, she now brings her other hand up to find his face, eager to know the features she would give anything to see right now.

Slowly, hesitantly, Bella's hands rest on either side of Edward's face, aligned symmetrically over the cut of his jaw. There is a light, coarse smattering of growth under her fingertips; he hasn't shaved for a day or so. Oh God, that's sexy. She can't help recalling a young, cut Clint Eastwood and the way he looked in those sparse, bleak westerns back in the day; like a dusty, lone God astride a horse, saving virgins from spinsterhood one sneer at a time.

Suddenly, Bella's innocent exploration takes on very intimate undertones. Yes, without a doubt, she's attracted to Edward Masen. Now that she thinks about it, even his name is sexy, in a classic, serious kind of way. Later, back in the privacy of her own room, she's going to speak it out loud and test its resonance on her lips, then whisper it and relive these incredible electric moments.

Edward holds ever so still as Bella's fingers continue to sweep light patterns over his skin. Her thumbs rest over the apples of his cheeks and she maps the contours of his visage, sweeping over them lightly back and forth, learning the complex anatomy. The tips of her fingers are skimming his hair and his ears, and she feels a distinct shudder quake over his body. She stills her hands and wonders if he's about to tell her to stop. But no, he's still and silent once more, allowing her to continue.

She feels his warm breath on her hands as she explores the structure of his nose with her soft fingertips. It's a nice nose, not too large, with a slight bump that gives it character, making him less pretty-boy and more fascinating man. The brow above it feels heavy, brooding. She skims his thick brows and finds that his eyelids are closed under them, allowing her to ever-so-lightly trace across his lashes, detecting a slightly feline cast to the shape of his eyes. Damn, damn, damn... I want to SEE!

Sighing in wonder, Bella continues her synchronized exploration of Edward's face, both hands working in tandem to create as full a picture as she can in her mind. She imagines he has a strong profile with well-defined masculine features. The strong jaw and shaped chin confirm it and she wonders how he looks when deep-etched in the shadowy ghost of the beard he's sporting. Sinful is the word that comes to mind. God, I'd give anything, ANYTHING, to know if he looks as good as he feels...

One more pass over his cheekbones and she's down to his mouth, her sensitized fingertips suddenly resting on his lips.

Edward's mouth remains closed but his lips are so soft that her fingertips snag on the arch and drag the corner up just a tiny bit so that inadvertently, she finds her pointer finger between his lips and almost inside his mouth. They both stop breathing for an eternity, trapped in a moment bordering on erotic, until Bella's fingers continue away from his mouth and down over the stubble on his chin and throat. She skims lightly over his Adam's Apple trying not to think about the fact that this stranger, this Edward Masen, is allowing her more liberties with his person than she has taken with any man in a long time. She's lonely and horny as hell just sitting this close to him and feeling his moist breath on her fingers, let alone visualizing him like the young Clint of her dreams.

Continuing to sit in absolute silence, Edward allows Bella's hands to gently caress the skin of his throat until her thumbs meet at the hollow between his clavicles, where she feels his sternum steadily rising and falling with each deep breath. Bella knows that there is no reason to linger now, but splays her fingers anyway, smoothing over the contours of his chest with her flattened palms. He does nothing to stop her when the thumb and index finger of her left hand casually seem to slip in around a button and under the fabric of his shirt, coming into contact with the soft hair and hot skin beneath. Oh God oh god ohgodohgodohgod... he's unbelievable! Her right hand is still flattened against his chest, and she feels his heart beating its steady tattoo under it, imagining that it's accelerating even as she senses his nipple stiffen under her palm.

He's hard-bodied, this man, spare and lean under her touch. Bella fights hard, so hard, to resist the overwhelming urge to curl and claw her fingers into his chest, where muscle and sinew lie so flush and perfectly coiled under smooth skin. He really is Clint-sexy, but warm, generous, compassionate and patient as well, so his beauty is not just skin deep. Bella would love nothing more than to continue to roam her hands over him, over what she imagines must be a hard belly and long flanks layered over etched muscle, strong thighs, muscled calves-

"Bella?" The voice of her mother is like a bucket of cold water thrown over her head. Edward almost jumps out of his skin and they slide away from each other like synchronized swimmers in a well-practiced move.

Goddamnit!

-O-O-

Making her way back to the cafeteria should be easy, and yet, somehow, Renee has managed to become lost in the hospital's repetitively white corridors. When she finally gives in and asks for directions, it turns out that she has already walked past it twice, which is a little embarrassing, to say the least. Finally, she rounds the corner of the entrance and stops dead in her tracks by the sight that greets her.

Bella is making out with a red-headed man who has a giant, wagging tail growing out of his ass.

Hold the phone... Bella is making out?

Renee quietly creeps a little closer to get a better look at what is actually going on. They're sitting close together with the man's back to Renee, and Bella appears to be fondling his face and hair. On closer inspection, she realizes that it's not a tail growing out of his ass (which she is extremely grateful for); it's a tail growing out of the ass of the big hairy dog that stands beside him. The panting dog looks at Renee, its tongue lolling out and muzzle happily open in a doggy smile. Oh, you're enjoying the show too?

Edging closer still, Renee finally gets a look at the man, and a grin stretches lazily across her face. He's gorgeous; all delicious sinewy limbs and lean body filling out blue jeans like he was born to wear them. He's casually dressed but still looks well put together, scruffy two-day growth only enhancing his good looks. The morning sun is in his hair and it glows with an orange halo about his head. His eyes are closed, and Renee cocks an eyebrow when she sees his hands folded neatly in his lap as though he's hiding something. Something... large. He's very obviously enjoying the warmth of the sun and the way that Bella is groping him with abandon. And Bella? Well! The look of blissful concentration on her face is positively astounding and her mouth is open in a rather lascivious pout. Renee realizes she'd better announce herself soon, or settle in for a voyeuristic spectacle. Besides, she really wants to know who the hell he is and why her daughter is soundly on her way to rounding second base in a hospital cafeteria.

"Bella?" She speaks softly, so as not to startle them, but still they both jolt in their seats as though she's just passed a live current through them. The young man's guilty eyes lift to hers in silent contrition. Good-looking and well-raised too...

"Hi mom," Bella tilts her face in the direction of her mother's voice and sighs in resignation. "Renee Dwyer, my mother, please meet Edward Masen. Edward, this is my mom, Renee."

"Hello Edward, lovely to meet you!" She says, noting that while he stands to shake her hand, he's still a little hunched over. Renee's grin stretches as wide as it will go. This bodes well for Bella, and whatever makes Bella happy, makes Renee happy. That, and he's really tall, and Renee likes the tall ones.

"Thank you Renee, great to meet you too. We really have to be going..." Edward's eyes flick between Bella and his dog, as though he's not sure whom he'd rather leave with.

Renee's smile is bright enough to burn holes in the ozone layer.

"Thanks for your understanding Bella, Balt is really glad you've forgiven him for his uncouth behavior."

Renee watches mesmerized as her recently very withdrawn daughter leans toward Edward's voice as though pulled by an invisible string. An awkward silence descends between the four of them, until Balt whines noisily as if to say 'Enough painful staring already, it's happy kids time!'

"Bella, just a moment, I'm going to get some water before we leave, I'll be right back. Bye Edward!" Renee gives him a little wave as she walks off toward the front counter.

She doesn't need any water, but as she looks back it takes all her decorum not to break out into a happy dance at the sight of her daughter retrieving a pen out of her bag and writing something on Edward's palm. Renee sends a silent prayer to the patron saint of miracles that it's a cell number.

She takes a few more seconds to really appraise the two of them, standing face to face. As Bella studiously writes on his palm, Edward's whole lean body seems to curve around her as though they were interlocking pieces of a puzzle. In that moment, Renee is sure that Edward's beauty is far more profound than even his impressive exterior. Her perceptive daughter seems to know this too, even without relying on her eyes. Renee smiles, and a hopeful sigh escapes her.

She turns away, granting them their private farewell.

-O-O-