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Wild Raspberries

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Wild Raspberries

 

Chapter One

The woods were a wild green maze around him, and Dan was lost, panic long since muted to dull despair.

He was hungry too, hungrier than he'd ever been, including that time he'd gone fishing for the day with Billy, sneaking out before breakfast. The sandwiches they’d packed had fallen in the first stream they'd crossed and been ruined. They'd kept going. They'd eat fish for lunch, wouldn't they? Sure, they would!

They'd crawled home, hours later, their bellies filled with nothing more than gulps of teeth-numbingly cold water. Dan's father had taken one look at him, swept his hand around in a blow Dan had been too exhausted to dodge and sent him to bed hungry. Waking the next day, he'd been dizzy and sick, his hearing fading in and out, until breakfast had put the heart back into him.

This was worse. He'd eaten the day before. Ham, eggs, and toast, with the trucker who'd given him a ride smiling benevolently at his appetite, then beckoning the waitress over to refill their coffee cups.

And he'd lost every bite and swallow an hour later, throwing up on the side of the road, eyes scoured by the dust from the truck's wheels scoured his eyes. He'd thrown up more than the food. The rank, bitter taste of the trucker's cum lingered in his mouth after he'd puked, though that might have been his mind playing tricks on him. The woods had called to him then, safe and tempting because they were familiar. He'd marked the way the way the sun moved to find north and left the highway behind him.

He'd walked until it got dark, slept huddled in his thin jacket close to a small stream the summer heat had shrunk to a trickle, and now it was morning again, and he was walking because it was better than lying down to die.

These weren't like the woods he knew, bordered by farms. Farms where a knock at the kitchen door would bring a woman, smiling tiredly, to muss his hair (they all did that since his mom died) and hand him a cookie with milk to wash down every chewy bite. No, these woods were vast and empty. Nothing but trees, earth and a sighing wind that made branches creak oddly and the soft summer leaves whisper. He gazed across a valley of nothing but more trees, with the sun unhelpfully directly overhead, and came close to crying.

Too old to cry, though. Shit, only babies did that, and he wasn't a baby. Old enough for a stranger to push him to his knees and fill his mouth with cock. He turned his head and spat out the memory of the taste. God, had that man heard of soap and water?

His feet hurt. He’d left home in new boots and they’d rubbed his heels raw. He'd taken the boots off the night before and plunged his feet into the stream to cool them off. The scream he'd given when blistered skin met water had echoed among the rocks on the banks like a bowling ball striking the pins. Silence had settled around him, a thick, green blanket of it, warning him to be quiet, so he'd all but tiptoed back to the patch of floor he'd cleared of stones and twigs.

It had seemed so simple to head north to Canada, walking or hitching rides. Wasn't far. He'd estimated a week would do it, if he got a ride at least once a day. He'd felt proud of himself for being realistic and having enough eating money to last two weeks, not one.

He still had a few dollars left. He'd lined his boots with some of his savings as a precaution, and the trucker hadn't found the bills in his brief, rough search. The dollar bills, sweat-soaked and crumpled, were in his pocket now, and much good they were out here under the trees.

The going was easier. The realization jolted him out of his absorption with the hollowness of his belly and the red agony of each footstep. For the last mile there’d been stones shifting under his feet and brambles catching at his ankles. Now he was on a narrow path without being sure how he'd gotten there. He turned and looked back, but the woods had closed behind him.

The path was no wider than a man's shoulders, a meandering series of bends with short stretches where it ran straight. Someone had traveled it before him. He spotted a heel print in what had once been a patch of mud, the shallow depression baked solid. Maybe he was in a National Park? He didn't remember seeing one marked on the map, and there were no trail markers on the tree trunks, but it could be. They'd have places for the tourists, washrooms, people, food.

Hope rose, lending him energy to stumble along a little farther. He rounded a corner and the path ended in a clearing. Flashes of red caught his attention.

Raspberry canes, the bright acid green of the leaves stirred by the breeze to reveal the fruit. He walked forward, breaking into a staggering run, and snatched at the nearest dangle of berries, heedless of the sharp prickles guarding them. That didn't work too well; the ripe berries tumbled, lost among the canes, so he forced himself to pick them, one by one, with a hand that shook as it worked. He picked four or five, filling his cupped hand, then opened his mouth and crammed the berries in.

The sun-warmed flesh split against his teeth and juice and seeds spurted over his tongue. God, so good, so good. Ravenous now, swallowing saliva from his watering mouth to make room for more raspberries, he picked and ate until the juice stained his fingertips red, ignoring the prick of tiny thorns, hair-thin and itchy.

He moved deeper into the canes and reached out eagerly for another berry, almost out of reach inside the clustered brambles. His fingers brushed string and he paused, his hunger still acute enough to have blunted his thoughts, so reasoning flowed sluggishly, a silt-choked river.

String? Why would there be string here?

The quiet, chilling sound of a rifle bolt sliding home froze him in place, as terrified as a baby rabbit, his breath caught in his throat, his heart thudding fast. Shit. Fuck. His retreat was cut off and there was nowhere to run. This wasn't happening to him. He wanted to scream, but that would bring death, sure as taxes, at best a bullet in his leg to keep him from running, so he stayed still and quiet and waited.

A raspberry, dislodged by the weight of his body against the snaking brambles, fell to the ground, the small sounds of its passage through the leaves magnified by the silence. It hit earth and Dan shuddered. As if that had signaled the end of the waiting in some way he didn't understand, the person holding the weapon finally spoke.

"I planned to pick those for jam. Did you leave me any?"

He turned slowly, hands held up high, and met the cool, unfriendly gaze of a man with a metal pail at his feet and a rifle in his hands. The man was maybe twenty feet away, no more. For him to have gotten that close, unnoticed, he must walk like a cat, or, Dan reflected bitterly, his greed had left him deaf and blind. And now he’d pay for it. Well, at least he wasn't going to die with his mouth empty of anything but the taste of spit.

"I left you plenty, mister." And he wasn't going to beg for his life either. "Besides," he continued, fear making him reckless, "last I heard, the woods don't belong to no one, so I've as much right eating them as you."

The sun was in his eyes and he couldn't see what the man's face looked like, not clearly, only the anger there, but the barrel of the rifle dipped, followed by the welcome sound of the safety going on. The man held the rifle across his body, the weight looking easy, familiar.

"The woods might be free and clear, but this is my land, bought and paid for, and those are my raspberries you're stealing."

The man walked over to him, and paused out of reach. Dan didn't assume the man was scared of him for a second. It was natural caution, like the kind his daddy had taught him. Except the lessons hadn't stuck, had they, because here he was, guts rumbling, head aching from sun and hunger and plain tiredness, with trouble looming and a beating the best he could hope for.

"I didn't know that." He dredged up a sullen, grudging 'sir' and tacked it onto the end of his words where it flapped loosely.

"I bet you didn't." The man's eyes were light, and his brown hair was military short and showing early signs of gray at the temples. He looked dangerous, and it wasn't because of the muscles a denim shirt failed to hide, either.

No, it was the eyes. Gray, the color ice got in winter with the dark water swirling under it. Those eyes didn't belong in this green clearing on a fine July morning.

"Would it have made any difference?" the man asked him.

"No." The man's expression closed-off, the skin around his eyes tight with anger. "I was awful hungry," Dan offered by way of explanation. "Haven't eaten since…" He hesitated and thought it through. Did he count the breakfast of the day before or not?

"If you can't remember, then I guess that means you must be." Something that might have been a smile, a barely there quirk of his lips, passed over the man's face. "Get back to town, boy, and tell your mom to cook you up a stack of pancakes."

"Town? What town?" He caught his mistake and backtracked. "I mean, uh, I'm sort of turned around, mister. What direction should I take?"

"Simcoe's six miles due west," the man said, and jerked his head. "That way. I take it that is where you're from?"

"Simcoe, yes, that's it." He nodded for good measure. Six miles? Could he walk that far? The raspberries had been tasty, but not filling. There might be a house he could stop at before he reached the town; someplace he could earn himself breakfast at least.

The man sighed. "You disappoint me. A thief and a liar? Hell's gaping open for you, isn't it?"

There was an ironic undertone that made Dan doubt the man was the religious kind, but there was nothing amused in the look he got.

"I don't understand." He swallowed, the taste of raspberries fading fast as he realized what the man had done. "You tricked me."

That didn't get an answer, but something that obvious probably didn't deserve one.

"Ran away, did you?"

To Dan's way of thinking that was the kind of question a man should think twice about asking. It wasn't real likely to get a truthful answer. Somehow, though, with those eyes staring holes in him, lying wasn't easy. He settled for a nod, then qualified it. "I'm not in trouble. And I'm old enough to do what I please. So it's more like I'm traveling."

"Traveling." The man pursed his lips. "Yeah. I can see how that sounds better. Heading for somewhere, not running from."

"I'm going to Canada." Shoot. Never volunteer information. His granddaddy had taught him that and his daddy's belt had slapped the lesson in deep.

The man whistled admiringly through his teeth and there was the faintest warmth in his eyes now. Dan didn’t think for a moment he'd impressed the man. Entertained him, maybe. "Well, that's a fair way from here, so I guess you'd best make tracks, boy."

Dan eyed the space between them and took one cautious step forward. "I'm sorry about the berries. I can pay for them." He closed his eyes for a moment. He'd told the man he had money; what was wrong with him?

The man's voice was as gentle as it got, he figured. "Forget it. Get off my land, okay? There's a road into Carlyle a mile away. I'll point you in the right direction."

"Thanks, mister."

The man stepped back, allowing Dan to emerge from the tangle of briars, but still not relaxed enough to turn his back, Dan noticed without surprise. They walked side by side to the far edge of the clearing, where another path began.

"Down there." The man pointed with a lean, strong hand, all long fingers and tan. "You'll come to a split in the path; take the left one. Once you reach the road, turn left again. An hour or so walk will get you into town."

"Maybe I'll get a ride." Dan was too tired to be cautious and it stood to reason a quiet county road would be safer than the main highway. Only locals using it, and they wouldn't risk fouling their own doorstep by using him for sex when he could flap his jaw around town and make it hot for them.

The man glanced at him sharply. "That what you've been doing?"

Dan shrugged. "Maybe. Sometimes." He waited for a lecture, but he didn't get one. Somehow, though, he got the feeling 'stupid' had been added to the list the man was making about him. "I can take care of myself," he added.

This time the glance was skeptical, but Dan got no more than a lifted eyebrow by way of comment.

"Well, thanks again," he said awkwardly, and, moved by an impulse he couldn't explain, put out his hand. After a pause, the man took it, his palm warm and hard against Dan's. It was like licking the end of a battery. A spark and tingle raced through him. God, the last time he'd felt like this, he'd been naked, pressed close to Luke in the dark, his hands clumsy with nerves.

The man's eyes widened fractionally, then every emotion drained away and left his face blank. He dropped Dan's hand without shaking it and for the first time turned his back.

Dan watched him walk across the clearing to the pail, the rifle cradled across his body again. The man didn't turn back and Dan got the idea he wouldn’t until Dan left.

Which he did, his heart pounding with relief at his reprieve. Sweating, hot, he stripped off his jacket, clutching it in his hand. He got a short way down the path when the dizziness inside his head swelled and burst, so that all he saw as the path came up to meet him, was a sparkle of white against darkness.

His last thought was that maybe the man had decided to shoot him after all.

 

Chapter Two

A kid, hungry, lost, and he'd been the squeeze of a finger away from killing him. Tyler propped his rifle against a waist-high rock, then picked up the pail. His hand shook, barely visible to a casual glance, but a warning to him. Shit. Not now. It'd been months since the last meltdown.

He focused on the undeniable fact he hadn't shot the runaway and tried to fool himself he hadn't fallen so low as to shoot someone in the back, when he knew damn well if it was the safest way to do it, he'd take it. Giving a target a warning wasn't much of a kindness anyway.

The kid was alive because his hands had been visible, reaching out for the berries, and he'd stayed nice and still. A sudden move, hands dipping down and Tyler would have shot without hesitation. That thought didn’t stop the shaking one little bit.

He walked to the half-stripped raspberry canes, then hesitated. He'd heard something. A faint cry and a thud. He placed the pail down noiselessly, not allowing the metal handle to strike the bucket, and retrieved his rifle. This was turning out to be one hell of a Wednesday morning.

The kid lay crumpled in the middle of the path, holding his jacket, what Tyler could see of his face pale under streaks of dirt and smears of red. Knowing it was raspberry juice didn't stop his mind stubbornly insisting it was blood for a moment or two.

There was no one in sight, or reach of his hearing, and the birds weren't crying out a warning, so the boy had most likely fallen. Nothing to trip him, and nothing but the ground to hit, so he’d get up soon.

I was awful hungry.

Tyler cursed himself dispassionately and fluently before conceding defeat. Looked like he would have company for an hour or two since he couldn't leave the boy lying here. He'd feed the kid up, maybe slip him some money, and give him a ride into town. He didn't consider himself a benevolent man, but he had a few errands he could run in Carlyle and plenty of food in his cabin.

He stared at the rifle. He didn't want to leave it behind, but if the kid didn't wake soon, he'd need to carry him. He wasn't hauling the kid's ass along a quarter-mile of trail with a rifle in his hand. The way his luck was going, he'd fall and shoot his fool head off.

He settled for hiding it, unloaded, in the branches of a young white fir, some twenty feet off the trail, and left a stone on the path to mark the place.

Then he got the kid over his shoulders in a fireman's lift, with a grunt of effort and a twinge from his back that promised pain the following day, and walked home.

He thought that the boy woke up, at least partway, because the limp, relaxed body jerked once, but after a few steps his burden became dead weight again. The kid wasn't light, for all that his head came up to Tyler's shoulder; fed right, the skinny frame would fill out nicely.

The kid’s body heat soaked into him along with a pint of sweat. One of them didn't smell too clean and he didn't think it was him. He wanted to strip the kid down and scrub him raw, but that wasn't such a good idea.

He won't get far, if he's dirty. People won't look past the filth and the stink.

"Fine, I'll let him take a bath," he muttered to himself, a habit he'd acquired in the early days of living out here.

And he needs a backpack, plus a change of clothes, so he doesn't look like a vagrant.

He told himself to shut the fuck up and wrapped his hand tighter around a thin wrist. With his heart hammering from exertion and stress, it was difficult to find a pulse on the kid. Easier to listen for shallow breathing.

He dumped his guest on the couch, the boy’s jacket on a chair, and took a few moments to calm down. Breathing exercises taught to him years ago for a different purpose than mental stability helped. The boy whimpered, curling in on himself, shivering. Tyler took a soft throw hanging over the back of the couch and draped it over him. The boy blinked up at Tyler, his blue eyes unfocused, and fell into a profound sleep.

Tyler sat watching him for a while until he was sure the slumber was genuine, then took the jacket into the kitchen. He emptied the pockets of everything down to dust and fluff, then felt the lining until he was satisfied it didn’t contain any surprises.

His search yielded a small amount of money, a new passport, and a battered ID, both documents for a Daniel Seaton who’d turned twenty on July the ninth. Today was July the twenty-third. The address bore out his story in that it wasn’t nearby, not even in the same state.

Twenty. Huh. Daniel had looked younger than that when he'd turned to face Tyler, startled eyes wide, but fear could do that to a man; could strip away the cockiness and the masks, and under those, most people were still close to childhood, wanting their mommies to protect them from the scary monsters.

Tyler didn't know what he looked like when he was scared, but he was willing to bet he looked older. That came from being one of the monsters.

No cell phone. Well, Tyler didn’t own one either.

Daniel woke slowly from the nap that had followed his fainting spell. A nap of a few hours; long enough for Tyler to retrieve his rifle and find out pretty damn near everything there was to know about young Daniel. His computer skills were rusty, but a simple track and hack hadn't given him any problems.

Tyler still didn't know why Daniel had run away from the potato farm he'd grown up on, but there were no warrants out for him and no one looking to haul his ass back there. Well, at twenty, they couldn't. No siblings, mother dead a long time ago, father Peter, still farming, with a small amount of savings and no debts. A couple of bad crops would wipe him out, but that’d always been the case for farmers.

He sat tapping his finger idly against the mouse, considering reasons a man would leave a family farm he'd inherit in time, when a noise from the other room told him Daniel was awake. By the time Daniel sat up, Tyler was by his side, taking advantage of his height and build to look, well, maybe not menacing, but formidable. There'd been a time when achieving that was easy, but at thirty-four he was losing his edge.

Or maybe not. Daniel gazed up at him through tousled strands of dark, straight hair with something close to terror in his eyes.

"Easy, boy." Tyler dragged a stool over and sat on that, which put them more or less at eye level with some space between them so Daniel didn't feel crowded. "You passed out on the trail and I brought you back here instead of leaving you for the bears."

"I did what?" Daniel rubbed at his eyes, then pushed his hair back and swung his legs around, planting his feet on the floor. "What bears? Where are my boots?"

Tyler had taken them with him when he went to retrieve his rifle; Daniel's size nine feet would've swum in any of his shoes and it was as good a way of keeping him in the cabin as any. "Over by the door. I don't mind you using the couch, but I'm damned if you're putting your boots on it."

Brusqueness seemed to reassure Daniel better than sympathy. A hint of a grin quirked Daniel's lips upward and he visibly relaxed, shoulders lowering an inch. "The floor would've done. It's softer than where I spent last night."

The couch was old, the springs sagging and the nap worn off the green velvet in a few places. Tyler liked it because it fit his long body easily and was wide enough to sleep on when he'd read himself into a drowsiness he didn't want to spoil by moving. A night spent on it with the crackle of the woodstove for company was sometimes easier on his nerves than one in the comfort of his quiet bedroom.

He wasn't used to conversation these days. When he made a trip into town, he got by with a nod or a murmured 'thanks' or two. He'd never been much of a talker so it’d been easy to slip into taciturnity. He supposed Daniel expected him to comment, but for the life of him, he wasn't sure what to say, so he settled for a noncommittal grunt.

"Fainted…" Daniel shook his head, a tinge of color staining his cheeks. He met Tyler's eyes with a shamed air. "I've never done that before."

Tyler shrugged. "A man tries to run his truck on fumes, it'll stall and die on him. Bodies are the same."

"I thought you'd shot me.” It didn't sound like a joke.

"Hell, no." Nice to see what Daniel thought of him. "You were tired, half-starved, and I scared the shit out of you. That's what brought you down, boy, not a bullet."

"Well, I know that now," Daniel said patiently, like a man talking to a foolish child. "But all I remember was walking, then it all went dark." He grimaced. "Could you stop calling me 'boy'?"

"Tell me your name, and I'll consider it."

"Dan." No hesitation, but there was a noticeable pause before Dan continued. "Daniel Parker, if you want it all."

"I don't know about all, but the truth would be nice." Tyler smiled sourly as the wariness flooded back into Dan's face. "Look, boy, tell me as little as you choose to, but don't lie. I can smell them." He sniffed. "I can smell more than that, but a bath can wait until you've put some food in your belly, I suppose."

"I don't smell!" Dan ducked his head and snuffled in the general area of his armpit. "Oh."

"It probably crept up on you," Tyler said kindly.

"What did?"

"The smell. Or the skunk."

Tyler expected Dan to carry on arguing, but instead he laughed, a low, mischievous chuckle. "That's funny, but no, it's plain dirt and sweat, I guess." His smile faded. "I'm not a beggar, though. I'll work for whatever food you can spare."

"The name's Tyler Edwards," Tyler said, which was true in this state, at least, and he had the papers to prove it. "And I can spare enough to send you on your way feeling full, don't worry."

Dan's thrust out his lower lip, full and lush, in contrast with the rest of his face, which was all sharp bones and hollow. Stubborn as a mule. "Sure. After I've done some chores."

"Fine." It wasn't worth fussing over and there were a few jobs he had lined up where an extra pair of hands would be welcome. "But we eat first."

The pout became a yearning look. "God, yes, please."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Three

Dan wasn't sure why Tyler was helping him out after coming close to blowing his head off, but he wasn't complaining. Sometimes, when Tyler moved close to him, getting out plates and glasses, he flinched, remembering hands grabbing at him with an impersonal roughness, but Tyler never laid a finger on him. He went with his gut, which told him he was, well, not safe, maybe, but not in the deep shit he'd been on the highway.

Tyler had made him wash his hands at the kitchen sink, then sat him down at a table by the open kitchen window, with a tall glass of milk to start him off. The screen kept out the bugs, but let in the pine-scented air from the woods.

"Don't rush to fill your belly," Tyler advised. "You'll throw up. Drink that, then start small. You can always eat more later."

Starting small was a slice of homemade brown bread, sliced thin and spread with peanut butter, followed by a banana, the peel covered in brown splotches, but the flesh pale and sweet.

"How's that?" Tyler asked around a sandwich stuffed full with pretty much everything a man could put between bread, apart from meat. Daniel had seen butter spread thickly, lettuce, tomato, cucumber, cheese, then a sliced hardboiled egg before his food claimed his attention. Tyler drank water, which made Dan wonder guiltily if he'd taken all the milk.

"It's good." Dan licked the tip of his finger and captured some errant crumbs. "Is it okay if I have some more? I feel fine, honest."

Tyler studied him, then shrugged. "I don't see why not. Some soup, maybe?"

"Soup?" Dan considered that option dubiously. Now he'd had something to eat, his body, which had settled into an apathetic acceptance of hunger, had become demanding. A burger and fries would have hit the spot, salty and greasy, smothered in ketchup…

"Homemade," Tyler said gravely, which Dan translated as amusement. "Nutritious and easy to digest."

"Sure," Dan said with a sigh, his manners kicking in belatedly. "That sounds great. Thanks."

It was tomato soup, but he had to ask to find that out. He was used to the orangey-red of canned tomato soup. This was closer to brown, but one mouthful and he was converted. It was rich and tasty and the warmth of it spread through him. He ate two bowls, with more of the bread, and at some point the kitchen walls stopped wavering and became solid.

"You're some cook."

Tyler waved the compliment off. "I grow my own vegetables and it seems a shame not to use them. Besides, soup's not difficult. And I don't have much else to do."

Caution, not courtesy, kept Dan's questions unspoken. Tyler didn't seem a man who'd appreciate a stranger quizzing him. He put out his hand, as he'd done in the clearing. "Thank you, Mr. Edwards. And it's Seaton, not Parker, and I swear that's the truth."

"Tyler will do." Tyler shook his hand again with a wry quirk of his lips. "Seaton? Okay, then."

Daniel suppressed a burp, then stood, eager to repay Tyler’s kindness. "Want me to wash these?" Without waiting for an answer, he began to stack the plates.

"They can wait."

"I don't mind." He reached for Tyler's plate and had his hand batted away. "Hey!"

Tyler grinned, slow and tight, which looked good on him. Daniel shoved that thought down way deep and buried it. Stupid, stupid… "If I feed you, I get to say how you pay for it."

Oh. Disappointment flooded him, despite the tug of attraction he'd felt. So it would be like that with Tyler too? Well, of course it was. The man lived out here alone and there were no signs that he had a girlfriend. The cabin was comfortable, but lacked frills. In Dan’s experience, women liked knickknacks and a vase of flowers or two around the place. He didn't know how old Tyler was, but he guessed no more than forty, if that, despite the gray in his hair. Dan didn't make the mistake of thinking older people didn't care about sex; he knew they did.

He stepped back and tied to keep his voice level. "You use a condom, or I won't let you fuck me, and you even try to tie me up, and I'm out of here."

Tyler's chair scraped back and the man was in his face again, gray eyes startled and angry. "What in God's name makes you think I want that from you?"

Dan held his ground. "They all do." He felt his face twist. "The last one told me my mouth was made for sucking cock," he blurted out defiantly.

Tyler pursed his lips. "Not from where I'm standing. Seems to me like it's better suited for mouthing off. So that's how you've been buying rides, is it?"

He nodded, reluctant to admit it, but there didn't seem much point in pretending now. While he waited for Tyler to stop chewing that over and say something, he let his gaze drift to the exterior door in the kitchen, fastened by a surprisingly hefty lock, before he remembered his boots were by the other door. Shit.

"What I had in mind was you climbing up on the roof and handing me nails while I hammer down some loose shingles," Tyler said eventually. "I could do it by myself, but it's sensible to have someone around in case I do something foolish like falling off. And there's more than raspberries to pick, if you want to stay around long enough to help with that, but you don't have to."

Dan’s face flushed with mortification, heat rising until he imagined he resembled the tomatoes Tyler seemed fond of. "I'm not in any hurry," he muttered.

"Good." Tyler stepped in close and paused. Dan kept still, though his heart was hammering painfully hard, and found he couldn't look higher than Tyler's throat. Impossible when he was blushing like this. "They're good rules when you're messing around with strangers. You stick to them. But you might want to reconsider this walkabout of yours, because not everyone plays nice." A finger tapped under his chin and forced his head back, giving him no choice but to meet Tyler's gaze. "Including me."

"I wouldn't mind with you," Dan said. Hell, Tyler had said he wanted honest, hadn't he? And his blush was fading now, cooled by Tyler’s matter of fact acceptance. "So if you change your price let me know."

Tyler grinned and patted his face. "Nope. I guess five minutes on your knees seems better than an hour on a hot roof getting splinters, but tough luck, because that's where I want you."

He walked out of the kitchen, through the open archway connecting it to the main room, and returned a moment later with Dan's boots. He dropped them at Dan's feet, the bump-bump of them landing sounding loud in the quietness soaking the cabin. "Put them on and let's get to work if you're set on it. If you need it, the bathroom's the first door on the left, through there."

Daniel craned his neck and saw two doors leading off the main room. "What's the other one?"

"Work it out. And when you have, stay out."

Oh. Had to be Tyler's bedroom. Okay, he wasn't winning any prizes for being smart today, now was he?

He watched the flex of Tyler's ass as the man headed for the door, an automatic appraisal, then glanced away quickly when Tyler turned his head and gave him a look more puzzled than knowing, as if he'd felt Dan's look like a touch.

***

It wasn't plain, ordinary hot on the roof, it was baking hot, inside of an oven hot, with the heat from the shingles burning through Dan's jeans and making him shift position every minute or so. Tyler wielded the hammer with casual dexterity, not glancing Dan’s way more than he needed to and asking no questions. The roof was in good repair for the most part, so Dan clung to the comforting thought that it wouldn't take long before he was back on the ground. Maybe, if Tyler didn't mind, he could use the bathroom. A cool shower sounded like a slice of heaven. Everything he wore clung to him damply.

He looked at the ground. It wasn't far away, given the cabin was one story high, but it didn't mean he wanted to fall off and land on it.

"Nail." Tyler held out his hand.

Dan had one waiting. He passed it over, then watched Tyler pound it home, the silver-gray of the nail sinking deep into the weathered wood.

He shifted again, this time to ease the heat inside his jeans, as his cock twitched, curious and eager, and hoped Tyler's attention stayed on the task at hand. With one hunger satisfied, another had taken its place. Not counting the times he'd been made to do it, the last time he'd had sex was a month ago, and that didn't count either, given how it'd ended.

A month. An eternity. And jerking off was better than nothing, but he'd been too tired and chilly to feel the urge, most nights. Summer nights were warm, mostly, but his hunger had chilled him.

It was pitiful how ready he was to roll over and beg for a scrap of kindness, but he'd never considered the loneliness of being on the road as being one of the hazards he'd face. He knew better now. Mile after mile of road, dusty and drab, stretching out to a hazy horizon, with nothing and no one to share it with. When there was someone, they were only interested in what they could take.

He didn't think every truck driver was a horny son of a bitch, but the good ones, the ones who might have been inclined to spot him a coffee and a meal with nothing in return but his promise to pay it forward, well, those kind never pulled over. Being good didn't mean you were stupid, and people were wary about picking up hitchhikers.

He'd been lucky with his first ride, but the man had been older than God and only interested in getting home to his wife. He lived five miles from where he'd pulled over to let Dan get in. But five miles was a long way on foot, and he'd jumped out feeling grateful and optimistic, and given the man his best thank you kindly, sir.

And that had been all his good luck used up.

"Nail," Tyler said, the terse snap making it clear it wasn't the first time he'd asked.

"Sorry."

Tyler took the nail and spared him a glance. "It's okay. Don't fall asleep, okay? Not up here."

"I wasn't. I was thinking, that's all."

"Yeah, a job like this is boring enough that your mind starts to stray." Tyler straightened and wiped his hand across his forehead, where the sweat was beading. "I think that'll hold now."

"Are we done?" He couldn't keep the eagerness from his voice.

Tyler shook his head. "There was one more place, over by the chimney, but you can go on down, if you want. I can handle it."

"I can handle it too."

"Sure you can." Tyler studied the hammer he held as if he'd never seen it before. It was good quality, Dan noted and looked, not new, no, but not as old as most of the tools his father owned. "So, what's in Canada that's got you so eager to go there?"

"It's not here."

"Lots of places aren't." Tyler transferred his gaze to Dan's face. "By 'here' I take it you mean where you're from, not here on this roof?"

"I mean anywhere that a person has to follow rules and idea that might as well be from the fucking Dark Ages. “

"Rules, huh?" Tyler hummed thoughtfully. "What kind of rules are we talking about?"

Dan picked at a hole in his jeans and didn't answer. Tyler's hand, warm and strong, covered his long enough to make him stop enlarging the hole, then moved away. It felt good to be touched, even when it was casual and quick. He might as well not exist to most people the way they looked through him, hardly troubling to erase him from their world because he was so insignificant.

"When you only own what you're wearing, you need to take care of it." Tyler grinned. "That's not a rule," he added. "Common sense."

"I didn't start out without a change of clothes," Dan told him. He didn't want Tyler to think he was an idiot. "I lost it. My stuff, I mean."

"Mm-hmm." There was a wealth of understanding in the quiet murmur. "It's not easy without it, I bet, but there're worse things to lose than your spare socks. You did the right thing leaving it behind and running."

Busted. Why didn't he tell the man his life story? Angry with himself, Dan said sharply, "You think you know all the fucking answers, don't you?"

Tyler didn't get mad at him, which considering where they were, was sensible. "I can work them out from what you've given me. That's your doing, not mine. You say a lot more than you need to."

He couldn't argue with that. "Comes of talking mostly to squirrels for the last month." Daniel gestured at Tyler, easing back on the hostility because it was too much effort. "Give me another human, and I get excited."

He could've sworn Tyler's gaze dipped to below his belt, but there was nothing to see. He was back to being too fucking tired to care about anything, and the sunlight made his head swim.

"Remind me not to let you near a raccoon," Tyler murmured.

Daniel chuckled, the last of his annoyance gone. "I saw one, but he didn't stick around to chat. Too busy running off with what was left of my apple." He'd set it down for a moment, only three bites gone out of it. He'd been making the apple last, chewing each small bite to pulp before swallowing it, the juice trickling down his parched throat. It'd been a Granny Smith, tart and green, and if he'd gotten to keep it, he'd have eaten it, core and all, until nothing remained but the thin spike of stalk.

Tyler sighed and stretched his arms up high, a lazy, muscle-easing stretch that made his shirt pull tight across his chest. The man was built without looking all pumped up. Strong and tall, and shit, if Tyler glanced down now, he'd get an eyeful. If he did, Dan didn't spot it. Tyler rolled his shoulders, then set off toward the chimney on his hands and knees. Dan scowled down. His dick had gotten him in so much trouble recently, he was contemplating celibacy. He crawled across the roof a safe distance behind Tyler, which meant he got to admire the man's ass again. He revised his estimate of Tyler's age down to mid-thirties. Still too old for him, of course.

They completed the repair by the chimney in a silence that was peaceful, not strained. Tyler seemed to have asked all the questions he wanted to, and Dan had decided that keeping quiet was the safest option around someone as quick on the uptake as Tyler.

Tyler let him hammer the last nail home, which Dan enjoyed doing because he was good with his hands, always had been, and a small part of him wanted to let Tyler see that. It was satisfying to hit the nail and watch it go where it belonged.

"That's good enough." Tyler wiped his forehead with his sleeve. "Let's get the hell off this roof. I'm being barbecued."

"Or slow-roasted," Dan agreed, reaching out for the tub of nails and fitting the lid on snugly.

They moved back to the ladder, caution making Dan keep back and let Tyler take the lead. The shingles were slippery with age and his sweaty hands weren't much use at controlling his descent down the gradual slope.

Tyler moved like a cat, sure-footed and fast, which made what happened next doubly unfair. Dan saw a piece of glass glitter fiercely in the sunlight and Tyler’s hand moving toward it. He called out a warning. Too late. Tyler grunted in pain and brought his hand to his mouth. Blood welled and dripped from the ragged tear, but before the first scarlet drop hit the roof, Tyler rolled sideways, his balance lost, gravity calling him home.

Dan scrambled after him, heedless of his precarious footing, and got to the edge of the roof in time to see Tyler land, one foot doubled up under him, the breath driven out of his body by the force of his landing.

He didn't cry out, or swear, which disturbed Dan more than screams of pain would've done. He lay still, his face contorted, and fought to refill his lungs with harsh gasps and pants that hurt to hear.

"I'm coming!" Dan called out, uselessly, pointlessly. He swung himself onto the ladder and jumped off it as soon as he was close to the ground. By the time he got to where Tyler had landed, Tyler was sitting up.

"Left ankle," he said, his voice tight. "Broke it a few years back." He bit his lip, then eased his foot out in front of him, using both hands. "Fuck, that hurts." He gave Dan a quizzical glance. "I guess it's your turn to do me a good deed."

"I'll call an ambulance," Dan said. He wanted to do something; put his arm around Tyler's shoulders or maybe pat his arm comfortingly, but the man was so self-sufficient and calm it would've seemed like an insult.

Tyler shook his head. "No need. It's not broken again. Bad sprain, I’m guessing. I meant take me into town in my truck. You were headed that way, anyway. Doc Collins will see to me."

Dan summoned vague memories of a first aid course. "RICE," he said. "Rest, ice—"

"I know all that." Pain etched lines around Tyler's mouth. "Yeah. Better get it strapped up and some ice on it before it starts swelling." He nodded at the cabin. "I guess you can find the ice, and there're bandages and such in the cupboard in the bathroom." He held up his bleeding hand and examined it, before sighing. "Fucking glass. How in the name of God did that get up there? Better bring some water, so I can wash it out."

"Sure," Dan said. "I'll get it." He laid his hand on Tyler's shoulder, needing to breach the isolation the man surrounded himself with. "God, I'm sorry."

"My fault," Tyler said. "Now, if you'd slipped and knocked me over, I might be pissed, but I can't see what you've got to apologize for." He raised his eyebrows. "Except for chatting when you should be going to get me some fucking ice."

There was no real bite to the words, but Dan flushed and backed away. "Ice. Right."

He moved as quickly as he could in the unfamiliar house. Ice cubes in a plastic freezer bag, a deep bowl of warm water with a splash of antiseptic in it and a clean washcloth, an Ace bandage, antibiotic cream, and Band-Aids completed his haul. His hands full, he went back out and found Tyler, sweating and pale, sitting on a log some thirty feet away from where he'd landed, his injured ankle propped up on a chopping post.

"I could've helped you move," Dan told him. He put everything down and gave Tyler a glare that glanced off him like sunlight off water. "That was plain stupid."

"Shut up and help me get my boot off."

Dan slapped Tyler's hands away from the laces and put the bowl of water in Tyler's lap. "Soak your hand."

Tyler rolled his eyes and dunked his hand in hard enough that the water splashed his shirt. He snatched it out a moment later. "Jesus! What did you put in here? Moonshine?"

"Don't be such a baby," Dan said, savoring the moment. The man fell off a roof without whimpering, then fussed over the sting of peroxide?

Tyler flicked some of the water at him, then immersed his hand again. "You sure do like to live dangerously."

"Yeah," Dan said as he eased Tyler's boot off. "I'm about to take off your sweaty sock to prove it."

He peeled the sock away as carefully as he could, cradling Tyler's heel in his hand. In the end, finding it easier that way, he sat on the stump, with Tyler's foot in his lap. He worked the Ace bandage slowly over a swollen foot and ankle, bruises rising under the skin. Tyler's foot was sweaty, yes, but the skin was clean, the nails clipped neatly. Then he draped the icepack over the bandage and turned his attention to Tyler's hand.

"Might need stitches," Tyler told him, when Dan had blotted away the water. It was deep, but the bleeding had stopped. "At least my tetanus is up to date." He pulled a face when he saw what Dan was holding. "A Band-Aid? She'll tear it off."

Dan stuck one over the torn skin anyway. "You don't want to get dirt in it. That should do it." He raised his eyes and met Tyler's calm gaze. Reaction hit, and he began to shiver.

"Hey."

"S-Sorry." His teeth were chattering. Fuck. "You could have been killed."

Tyler made a soft, scoffing sound. "From there? It couldn't have been more than twelve feet, if that."

"It doesn't matter." Dan shook his head. "You could've, you could."

"But I didn't." Tyler's unhurt hand cupped his face and held it still, his thumb stroking Dan's cheek. "You're all over the fucking place, aren't you? And don't say sorry again."

"I guess I am," Dan admitted and tried to steady his voice. "Shit, I'm such a fucking girl."

Tyler took his hand away after an admonitory pat nowhere near hard enough to be a slap. "I know some girls who'd rip your head off if they heard you say that."

Dan grinned a little shamefacedly. "Yeah, I do too."

"Go get the truck keys from the hook by the kitchen door," Tyler said. "And lock up the cabin. You'll work out which key goes where."

"Did anyone ever teach you to say 'please'?"

Tyler stared at him, gray eyes cool. Dan was tempted to drop Tyler's foot on the stump, but remembered the sandwich and set it down gently instead. "Don't go anywhere this time, okay?"

Tyler shrugged. "I'll be right here waiting." There was a subtle emphasis on the last word that seemed to say it wasn't something he was good at, so Dan should hurry.

 

Chapter Four

When Dan had gone inside, Tyler let himself relax into the pain as a way of conquering it. More than his ankle and hand was hurting, but he hadn't felt the need to share that fact, not when Dan's nerves were like shredded tissues. The last thing he felt like dealing with now was an emotional meltdown from a stranger.

He began at the top and worked his way down, cataloguing the damage. His head was okay; he hadn't bumped it. Neck and shoulders were stiff, though. His ribs… He took a deep, slow breath and winced. Cracked one or two, by the feel of it, and bruised his ass.

It could've been worse. The way he'd fallen, with the control and grace of a sack of potatoes, he was lucky it wasn't much worse. He'd been distracted; the sudden pain from the glass slicing his skin, and Dan’s gaze, a mix of boldness and timidity.

It hadn't taken long for Dan to show an interest, but as far as Tyler was concerned, Dan was off-limits. Tyler wasn't interested in joining the list of men who'd abused him.

And for all that Dan had been eying him speculatively—and, yeah, he'd stretched and flexed to see what would happen—Tyler wasn't sure Dan leaned that way when it wasn't necessary. He'd learned early on when it came to sex fear could be enough of an aphrodisiac to let a man endure.

He stared at the cabin. How long did it take to find some keys? If Dan had gone snooping it could be awkward. There was nothing in plain view in his bedroom, with the exception of the computer, but hell, everyone had one of those. His had once been top of the line, but two years had changed that, so it wouldn't raise eyebrows. The upgrades were buried deep, where more computer savvy than Dan probably had was needed to find them..

"Got them," Dan called out, as he appeared in the doorway. He held the keys up as proof, then locked the door and walked over to Tyler, the keys jangling in his hand. Tyler, taught how to hold a bunch of keys so that they made no noise at all, winced out of habit, then gave him a nod. He struggled to his feet, the ice bag clutched in his hand.

"Hey!" Dan closed the gap between them with a few long strides. "Lean on me, before you fall over, or something."

"I'm not in the habit of falling over when I'm stone cold sober."

"You're probably not in the habit of hopping a long way, either," Dan retorted, and slid his arm around Tyler's waist.

Tyler counted silently to three, then when Dan showed no sign of taking the hint, grudgingly draped his arm across Dan's shoulders. "This way."

"Yeah, I saw the truck from the roof." Dan seemed capable of supporting Tyler's weight, so Tyler leaned on him a little more.

Hop. Hop. Each one sent a shock of pain through him. He gritted his teeth and concentrated on not curling his fingers reflexively into Dan's shoulder.

"Nearly there."

"I can do without the running commentary." Speaking had been a bad idea. Tyler heard the way his words were squeezed out like toothpaste, and from the sidelong glance Dan gave him, so could the kid.

"Want to wait here and I'll drive the truck closer?"

"No." The ground here was level and firm under the covering of grass and wild flowers he never bothered to mow, and the truck could make it easily, but he was damned if he gave in to injuries this minor. He'd once made his way across a mountain range in sub-zero temperatures after a parachute jump had gone badly, suffering from a concussion and a broken arm and with his supplies scattered over a square mile of rock and snow. And he'd still reached the rendezvous on time.

"I knew a mule once with your face," Dan said under his breath.

"Funny, boy. Real funny."

If he hadn't needed his arm right where it was, he'd have popped the kid one right across his ass for that.

They got to his truck and he leaned against the blister-raising metal of the hood while Dan unlocked the doors. The pickup truck was deceptively battered and common in make and condition, but like his computer, it held a few surprises for anyone looking closely. Such as a souped-up engine, a few hidden compartments, and one hell of a security system. Tyler didn't use it often, but he made sure the gas tank was full and turned it over a few times a week. Sometimes, he took it out, tires squealing, and drove, endless miles of road disappearing under his wheels, risking a ticket because it wasn't enough to drive; he had to feel like he was moving, until, hours later, he reached the foothills of the mountains or the distant blue sparkle of the ocean.

Once he'd run out of road, he hiked or camped out for a few days, before he turned around and went home at a sedate, safe fifty, itch scratched.

That was something he wouldn't do for a while with his ankle swollen and weak, and he'd been planning to soon, turning the idea over in his head that this time he'd pack up all he owned and never come back, all the while knowing that when the moment came he'd leave like the devil was chasing him, taking nothing but a belly full of roiling, restless boredom.

Dan started the engine, then looked around. "Uh, where's the road?"

Tyler grinned at that and pointed. "There."

"That?" Dan's voice went bat-squeak high. "That's a dried-up riverbed."

"That's my driveway," Tyler corrected. He pushed the seat back as far as it would go and bent to put the ice pack on his ankle again. "It gets easier farther down and it's not too far to the road. Take it steady."

"It'll bounce you around," Dan warned.

"I’ll survive."

Dan drove a few yards, then hit the brakes. "Your boot? Want me to go and get it?"

"Dammit, don't do that." Tyler breathed through the pain of knocking his injured ankle against the side of the foot well and replaced the ice pack. "I'll be strapped up, remember?"

"Won't you need a hospital to take X-rays in case it’s broken?"

Dan drove like an old lady. A blind old lady. At this rate, his ankle would swell to three times its size by the time he got it treated. He didn’t need his left foot to drive. Maybe he should take over.

Dan picked up speed and Tyler swallowed an order to stop and change places. Okay. Maybe only twice its size. "There isn't one for miles. The people around here make do with the clinic. It's small, but it's got an X-ray and an ultrasound and an operating theater."

"That's more than the clinic in my town had."

"Yeah, well, maybe your town didn't save the life of a millionaire's daughter twenty years ago."

"Really?" Dan sounded skeptical, as if he suspected a joke, with his gullibility providing the punchline.

Talking took his mind off his ankle and the hot throb of his hand, so Tyler continued with the anecdote. "Yeah. She went into labor early and the doc before this one delivered her babies, twins, a boy and a girl, right there in her summer cottage. There were complications, but don't ask me the details."

"I hear you," Dan said. "My cousin had a baby and walked us through it at Thanksgiving dinner. I came close to throwing up at the table." He turned his head. "What happened?"

"Watch the road!"

"You mean the trees?" Dan chuckled, low and impish. "The road's not the problem. Can't hit that."

Tyler smacked his arm. Hard. "Yeah? Well, I can hit you, and if you crash my truck, I'll put a dent in you the size of my fist."

Dan looked unimpressed. "Whatever, man."

Okay, when had he stopped being scary? "Look," he tried again. "One of us hurt is enough, so be careful."

"I've been driving my daddy's truck since I was fourteen and I've never put so much as a scratch on her." The truck hit a rut in the road and bounced sideways. The branches of a bush dragged across the driver's side door and Tyler closed his eyes. "Course, I wasn't driving through the freaking woods. Would it kill you to make a proper lane here?"

You have no idea.

"Driveways cost money and besides, I like my privacy."

"Found that out the hard way."

Tyler was compelled to state, "I wouldn't have shot you," though if Dan stuck around for much longer, that was where they were heading for the sake of his sanity, if nothing else.

Dan smiled at him. "I know. So, are you going to finish the story?"

"What story? Oh… Nothing more to it. The old man was grateful and sprinkled some gold dust on the town. Left the council a nice chunk when he died too. That put an extension on the library."

"Cool."

Tyler shrugged, abruptly bored of the subject, and pointedly turned his head to stare out of the open window at the press of green that gave him privacy, but also made such excellent cover. As he always did, he told himself if they knew where he was and saw him as a risk, he'd have been dead months ago.

The truck reached the end of the track and without asking, Dan turned left, his breath whooshing out in an audible hiss of relief when the tires rolled over a relatively smooth road.

They drove to town in silence, something Tyler should have been grateful for, but which left him uneasy. Dan struck him as the type who chattered, and when that sort went quiet and thoughtful it generally didn't bode well. He gave Dan terse directions to the clinic and let himself relax once Dan parked the truck between the white lines of the space closest to the door.

Dan took out the keys and handed them over, saving Tyler from asking. "Want me to help you inside?"

"No, I can manage.” He added a belated, “Thanks."

Dan was fiddling with that damn hole in his jeans again. "How're you going to get back?"

He'd been wondering that himself. "I'll figure it out. Right now, I want to get fixed up, okay?"

"Sure." Dan slid out of the truck without a backward glance. "Tell her to get the stick out of your ass while she's at it."

He let Dan get a few yards away before calling out to him to stop. He told himself it was because the kid still needed a bath and a few more meals in his belly before he set off again; told himself that it made sense to let Dan drive him home, but they weren't the real reasons.

No. He wanted the doc to fix him up with a cane or something, then he’d balance on his hurt foot and use the other to deliver a swift, hard kick to Dan's backside.

Dan kept walking and made Tyler call out his name again. Two kicks.

"Changed your mind?" Dan flung the words back like a challenge, but Tyler wasn’t interested in playing games.

"Yeah. Help me in, then if you don't mind waiting, you can run me home. I'll pay you in soup."

Dan grinned and retraced his steps with alacrity. "Make it a steak, and you've got a deal."

“Dream on. You’re not that good a driver.”

Inside the waiting room, a mother was jiggling her baby in an attempt to stop him wailing, and an elderly man, bent over and withdrawn into himself, sat silently in a corner. That was it. The paint on the walls was a cheerful pale yellow, framed posters of pictures chosen for their brightness dotted about. In one corner was a play area equipped with board books, unbreakable toys, and giant cushions. Music played through speakers, upbeat enough, combined with the décor, that Tyler wanted to find a dark, dank cave as an antidote to the relentless optimism on display.

The receptionist glanced up as they walked in side by side. "Mr. Edwards! Dear, oh dear, what happened?"

She bustled out from behind her desk to meet them, her gaze flicking over Dan curiously.

"Sprained ankle." Tyler made an effort to be sociable and smiled at her. "Fell off a roof, Miss Betty. They put those things too high off the ground."

Betty Sanders was too much of a gossip for him to want to give her more than that to work on. She was a few years older than he was. He suspected she'd turned forty a while back, but wasn't prepared to admit to it. Her hair got a little brighter every time he saw her, the original strawberry blonde now closer to mahogany. Plump, pretty, with a poisonous tongue.

She giggled at his weak joke and patted his arm. "I'll make sure the doctor sees you as soon as she's finished with Mira. It shouldn't be long."

Tyler shook his head and indicated the people waiting. "I'll wait my turn."

"Nonsense!"

The old man didn't look up, but the mother did, a spark of indignation showing. "I've got an appointment," she said. “Jordan’s shots are due.”

"Hush now, Lisa," Betty snapped. "The man's in pain. And I can tell you now, the only way to make your baby stop crying is to feed him, so I hope you brought a bottle, because he's giving me a headache."

Lisa gave her a hostile stare and calmly pulled her T-shirt up revealing ample breasts in a hot-pink lacy bra. "Got his bottle right here, Miss Betty."

Betty's cheeks flamed as pink as Lisa's underwear. She turned her back and gave Tyler a determinedly pleasant smile. "If this young man wants to make himself useful, there's a wheelchair in the corner."

"I don't need—" Tyler sighed as Dan left him wobbling on one foot. He grabbed at a nearby chair for support ignoring Betty’s outstretched hand. "Thanks," he said shortly, when Dan came back. He sank into the wheelchair, uncomfortable with his helpless state.

Betty went back behind the desk, lips pursed, and the room settled down into the church-like silence of any waiting room. The baby was suckling happily now, Lisa's face soft as she stared down at him, and the old man was tapping his foot on the ground, his mouth moving soundlessly. Tyler blinked as he saw the iPod in the man's hand, then grinned.

Dan cleared his throat. "Think I'll wait outside. Doctors freak me out."

Tyler considered that and decided since Betty would pounce on Dan as soon as he was left alone and ask awkward questions, it wasn't a bad idea. He dug out his wallet and pulled out three twenties. "Here."

Daniel stared at the money without accepting it. "What's that for?"

Tyler knew Betty was staring without turning his head. Her curiosity was a living, breathing force of nature. "There's a clothing store a block away and a drugstore across the street. Get what you need. Meet me by the truck. If I come out and you're not there, I'll make my own way home."

"You won't hunt me down to get your money back?"

Tyler snorted, unsure if Dan was joking. "That much effort for a lousy sixty bucks?" No, it'd never been for the money. "You want to keep on going once you've gotten yourself a change of clothes, go right ahead. Don't bother looking over your shoulder, because I won't be following you."

"Good riddance to bad rubbish?"

There was something wistful about that question, but Tyler had troubles too and no time to spare for coddling. "That's right."

Dan finally took the money and made it disappear into the back pocket of his jeans. In a city, that was the same as handing it over to a pickpocket, but in Carlyle he’d be okay. "I can spend it all?"

All? What the hell could you get with a lousy sixty bucks, these days? It would cover the basic toiletries and a change of clothes, leaving Dan with enough for a coffee if he was lucky. "Knock yourself out."

Dan pointed up at the clock on the wall. "Give me an hour, okay? I'll be back before then, most likely, but I promise I won't take off on you."

He lingered until Tyler nodded an acknowledgement of the promise, then left as Mira emerged from the doctor's room, her eyes red-rimmed, dabbing at her nose with a bunched up handkerchief. A shattering sneeze followed by a bout of coughing told its own story.

Betty stood. "Mira, I'll deal with your follow-up appointment in a moment. Poor Mr. Edwards here has to be seen right away. It's an emergency."

It isn't, Tyler wanted to say. I fell off a fucking roof. I need a few painkillers and a couple of stitches. I can wait. He swallowed back the words. No sense getting Betty mad at him.

Mira gave Tyler an incurious look. "I guess I can wait."

Clucking under her breath, Betty wheeled Tyler over to Doctor Collins' office, his file tucked under her arm. "I guess she can wait," she murmured. "Seeing as she's going back to do nothing but sit and stare at that TV of hers. If I was a germ, I'd pick someone a mite livelier to live off."

Betty rapped at the door and Tyler, teeth gritted, suffered the indignity of being wheeled in and positioned by the doctor's desk on a wave of exclamations, explanations, and greetings he pretty much tuned out.

The door closed behind Betty and he and the doctor exchanged rueful glances. "She's good at her job," Anne Collins said quietly. Her dark hair was drawn back in a neat bun and her hazel eyes, though tired, were amused. "And she's right; you need to be seen to. Are you sure it's not broken?"

"Yes. I broke it last time, though, which is why it hurts so goddamn much now, I suppose."

She grimaced sympathetically. "Ouch. What happened?"

He told her and finished with a terse list of his other injuries. Her eyebrows rose. "I think I'd better check you over."

He bit back a sigh and nodded reluctantly.

It took her a while to finish with him and he felt like hell when she had, though the painkillers she'd given him, with a prescription for more tucked into his pocket, were smoothing the ragged edges of his pain. She'd stitched and bandaged his hand and strapped his ribs lightly, telling him to take off the bandages the next day. "They’re to remind you to take it easy," she said as she strapped up his ankle. "Hmm. Bad sprain." Like he hadn't already figured that out. "It's swollen, so you need to keep doing the ice and rest. I'm sure you know the drill." She frowned. "How did you get here? Tell me you didn't drive yourself."

"No." He hesitated, habit making him reticent, but for once, there was no harm in telling the truth. "This morning I found a boy in my raspberry bushes."

"Not a baby in the gooseberries?" She grinned. "Sorry. How old?"

"Twenty."

"Not a boy then. And what was this enterprising young man doing?"

He gave her an abbreviated version, leaving out anything he'd learned on his computer search, and the way Dan had been paying for his rides.

Anne screwed up her face. "Well, I don't like it, but if he's twenty, there's not much we can do about it."

"Nope." Not a damned thing.

She turned her attention to updating his file. There was talk of computerizing the records, but the town wasn’t willing to pay for someone to transcribe them and Anne didn’t have the time. Tyler suspected the real issue was privacy. Unless a stranger did the job, someone would end up knowing an awful lot of secrets.

Without looking up, she said casually, "Are you going to ask him to stick around and help you for a day or two? You need to rest that ankle, you know."

"And while he's with me, apply some gentle persuasion to get him turned around and headed home?" Tyler said dryly. "No. In the first place, he'd drive me insane, and that's harder to get over than a few cracked ribs and a sprained ankle, and for all I know, he had a good reason to leave."

"True." She glanced up. "Then I'll assign a nurse to come by in a few days and check up on you."

"No, thank you."

"Mr. Edwards!"

"Doctor Collins."

She slapped his file closed. "Tyler, he needs somewhere to stay and regroup, from what you told me, and you need someone fit to do the work around the place. I've seen your garden; this is one of the busiest times of the year for you, isn't that right?"

"Fall's busier. So's spring."

"Are you going to keep arguing with me, or are you going to say, "Yes, doctor" and let me get to Mr. Thompson's sciatica and baby Jordan's two-month needles?" she demanded.

He pursed his lips before remembering how silly Betty had looked doing it. It seemed to be his day for people walking all over him. He made one last attempt to keep his home pest-free. "People will talk."

"If his name was Danielle, not Dan, they would since you’re still keeping that under wraps."

Tyler had told her he was gay when she'd asked him out to dinner, a few months after he'd moved in. She'd shrugged, and replied that a meal she hadn't cooked and a conversation with someone who hadn't known her since birth would do nicely even without the prospect of sex for dessert, and did he like Italian?

They met for dinner once a month, and went to the movies now and then, the invitations always coming from her. He'd never been to her home, though she'd stopped by his once or twice on foot. Although he'd resisted all her efforts to draw him into the town's social life, his friendship with her had given him an acceptance of sorts in the town. People still viewed him warily, but he wasn't the only unsociable eccentric in the area, after all. Nor the only gay man, but with no intention of starting a relationship, Tyler had let people assume he was straight.

Anne thought he was wary of small-town prejudice. Thought she knew him well. If he had any regrets, it was that she deserved better than the half-truths he'd shared with her.

"Fine," Tyler told her tersely. "He can stay for a day or two, assuming he hasn't already left town."

"A week, at least, and I want you resting that ankle, you hear me? Unless you want to be limping for the next few months." She stood to open the door for him, then glanced through the slats of the blind into the parking lot. "If he's the scruffy man leaning against your truck, I think you can assume he's staying. Is he gay?"

"Not that I know of," Tyler said evenly, refusing to give her the satisfaction of looking startled at the segue. "And I don't need to know. Did I mention the part about him being twenty? And a complete stranger?"

She opened a drawer and took out a sample box of condoms. "I wasn't asking if you planned to sleep with him, Tyler. But whatever his orientation, he should take these with him when he leaves." She tossed him the box and he caught it with his left hand. He wasn't naturally ambidextrous, but he’d taught himself to be. It had come in useful more than once.

"I'll make sure he gets them."

She glanced out of the window again. "Cute," she decided. "But way too skinny."

"Living on fresh air and sunshine will do that to you."

Cute? Not the word he would've chosen, but cute was safe enough. He didn't think he'd ever fucked anyone who fit that description.

Who was the last man? Tyler sorted through a few memories and came up blank on the name or the face of the guy he’d picked up in a hotel bar and fucked hard and fast in the man’s room. A single image surfaced of the man sprawled on the bed, asshole leaking lube, hands clutching at the cover as if Tyler was still deep inside him. That was it.

And that was enough.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Five

Dan looked at the bags on the floor. Maybe he'd gone a little wild. There was no way he'd fit all of this into the pack he'd bought, even folded down small. He still had fifteen bucks left, though, money he planned to give back to Tyler as soon as they were someplace they could argue in peace. Foolish maybe, when he was penniless, but if he didn’t have pride and independence, he didn’t have anything. Besides, Tyler intended the money to buy supplies and anything remaining belonged to him.

The town was so much like the one he'd left behind that he was soothed by its familiarity and jittery because he kept expecting to see a face he knew. The streets were tree-lined and wide, there wasn't much litter or graffiti, and people were nodding to each other as they passed.

Oh yeah. So like home.

He'd gotten some curious stares, but the town wasn't small enough that a new face stuck out a mile. Not with the summer visitors out in flocks, buying up souvenirs, their faces shiny with sunscreen, their arms dotted by bug bites.

Not that anyone would look at him and think 'tourist'. His jeans were too filthy for that which probably explained the sidelong glances. He'd bought some basic toiletries, then gone into the clothing store. The prices had made him blink and back out again fast. A dollar store with a wide selection in the window display had looked promising and he'd dug through a basket of sale items in a dark corner and bought some socks with Santa hats on them and three pairs of boxer shorts because not being able to change his made his skin crawl. The green ones with holly berries weren't too bad, but only the price tag made him feel good about the pink ones covered in Valentine hearts and the yellow pair covered in hopping rabbits.

Then he'd headed for the thrift store he'd noticed when they drove in. He wasn't wearing someone else's underwear—he'd go commando before he did that—but hand-me-down clothes didn't bother him.

Tyler, moving nimbly and using a cane, an Ace bandage on his ankle, looked pissed before he spotted the purchases Dan had made. The man had one hell of a nice smile, but he didn't let it out to play often.

When he was a few feet away, he tossed the keys to Dan. "Drugstore, then back to my place."

"You need to work on your chat-up lines," Dan said.

Tyler shot out his hand, the cane clattering to the ground, and Dan yelped, shoved against the truck door, Tyler's hand fisted in his shirt. "Listen to me," Tyler said, his breath warm on Dan's face. "I need help for a day or two, and you need somewhere to lick your wounds. Fine. You can drive me back and stick around if you want. But you keep coming out with comments like that and we're going to have a problem." He raised his eyebrows. "Do you want me to have a problem with you?"

Dan licked dry lips until they were wet enough for him to form words. Common sense should have made him back down, but he'd never been good at that. He'd faced down bullies before, although to be fair, Tyler came over as someone who didn't realize how intimidating he was rather than plain mean. "Mister, I won't kick a man with a cane, but if you don't move your hand, I'll rethink that."

Tyler's face was so close he could see into the light gray of his eyes, flecked with darker gray, the lashes thick and soft. It was like staring at the night sky with a sensation of falling upward in a dizzying, topsy-turvy tumble.

Tyler blinked once and let him go. Dan unlocked the passenger side door, tossed his bags into the truck bed now he was sure of what he was doing, and walked on strangely wobbly legs around to the other side. He turned the key once Tyler was settled in the passenger seat and pulled away, wondering what he would've done if Tyler hadn't backed down. On the whole, he was glad he hadn't had to find out.

"Drugstore's coming up," he said into the sticky silence a minute later. "Want me to go in for you?"

Tyler moved the cane so that it wasn't knocking against Dan's knee as he drove, which was possibly an apology. "No."

Dan sighed and parked as close as he could get to the drugstore's entrance. He turned the engine off and took out the keys. "Here."

Tyler stared at him. "You don't have to do that. I trust you not to drive away, and, yeah, if you did, I’d track you down for that. I need the truck."

"A cop comes around and finds me in a vehicle I don't own and I’m not insured to drive, and I'm in trouble." Dan pushed the keys unto Tyler's hand and got out of the truck. He leaned back in long enough to say sweetly, "I won't bother offering you a hand getting out with your cane and all, seeing as my head's been bitten off twice already."

Slamming the door before Tyler replied was satisfying.

***

The long, mellow light of early evening was spilling over the cabin when they returned. Tyler had made one more stop and picked up take-out Indian food from a restaurant on the outskirts of town, empty of everyone but a waiter desultorily straightening starched white tablecloths.

"I give it six months before this place folds," Tyler had told Dan in the truck. "The people here are more the burgers and pizza type."

So was Dan, given a choice. "But you aren't?"

"Nope." Tyler looked almost human talking about something mundane like food. "I like it spicy and I got a taste for curries when I was abroad."

"India?" Dan guessed.

"England." Tyler sniffed the air ecstatically. "I don't eat out often, or buy take-out, but it's been a hell of a day. Want me to order something for you?"

Tyler's mood swings would take some getting used to. Or maybe the meds were kicking in and making him a better, kinder person? Dan shrugged. Food was food and he was starving. "Sure, but nothing too hot."

"No, I won't do that. You wouldn't like it and you need some food in your stomach."

So stop by a burger place.

Dan had to admit the place smelled interesting when he walked in, though. And in a surprisingly short amount of time, they walked back out, his arms laden with brown paper bags, heavy and fragrant, something oily already leaking through one of them.

In the cabin, he helped Tyler to empty the bags, and burned his fingers prizing open the small foil containers. There was rice, which he recognized, though it wasn't something he'd eaten a lot of, his daddy being the original meat and potatoes guy, some of it white and fluffy, some bright yellow, and a lot of meat swimming in sauce.

"What's this?" He prodded a thick, roughly oval slab of something soft.

"Naan. It’s bread. You rip bits off and dunk it in the sauce." Tyler dropped into a chair with a sigh, his face pale under its tan. "Mind dragging over a chair?"

"You need a cushion." Dan's friend, Alex had broken his leg in high school and memories were surfacing about the treatment of breaks and sprains. "Elevation, remember?"

"Then go and get one from the couch."

Time for some training of the beast. Dan waited, arms folded across his chest.

Tyler got the hint faster than he'd expected. "Please."

Okay, he'd work on the snarl later.

The first bite was weird, the second less so, and by the third, washed down with a beer Tyler had put in front of him without asking, Dan was hooked. "What's this one?" he asked around a mouthful of naan, which was bland but still tasty. Tyler had rearranged the cartons and told Dan to help himself to any but the two farthest away from him.

"Chicken Dhansak."

"It's good." He scooped up some rice, his stomach approving every mouthful. "All of it's good."

"Might be a bit rich for you," Tyler warned.

"So why did you get it?"

"Because it's not all about you."

The conversation kind of died a death right there. Dan finished what was on his plate and had a second helping out of sheer stubbornness; chicken korma, this time, creamy with a hint of coconut.

Finally, with the beer buzzing pleasantly in his head, he waved his last piece of naan bread in the air. "Can I try dipping it in one of yours?"

Tyler looked at him with tolerant amusement. "You won't like it."

"Is that a yes?"

Tyler shoved a container over to him, the spicy smell rising up like smoke. "Shrimp Vindaloo."

He got a dollop of sauce and a shrimp balanced on the bread and popped it all into his mouth. Tyler settled back to watch, with a 'this should be good' air.

The sauce had cooled down enough that his first impression was one of warmth, not heat, but that changed rapidly. He choked, swallowed as the best way to get it out of his mouth that didn't involve spitting it onto his plate—tempting, but gross—then opened his mouth wide. Sweat popped out on his tongue and his nose ran enough that sniffing was needed.

"Kitchen towel over there," Tyler said kindly. "And a few gulps of milk will help."

Dan made a strangled sound of acknowledgment and headed for the fridge.

When he'd recovered the use of his lips, which were numb and tingling at the same time, and Tyler's smile had faded, he asked if he could take a shower.

"Sure. And you'd better bring in your stuff from the truck."

Dan nodded. "That reminds me." He took out the change from the money Tyler had given him and put it on the table. "I didn't need it all."

"You bought enough." A frown puckered Tyler's forehead. Did he think Dan had shoplifted it, or something? "Maybe too much, seeing as you'll be carrying it around with you."

"Yeah, I might need to donate some of it back, but I didn't have time to try anything on so I grabbed what I saw."

"Donate?"

"I got most of it from the thrift store," Dan explained.

The frown deepened. "You didn't have to do that," Tyler said slowly.

"I don't need fancy and new when I'm sleeping rough," Dan said. "And everything looked clean, with no holes." He backed away before Tyler said anything else, hot around the ears. Taking food from Tyler in exchange for doing some chores was one thing; taking money as a form of charity crossed a line. And it wasn’t earned money. Taking care of a man with a sprained ankle was a neighborly duty. He needed to think of some way to earn those dollars.

Outside, the air was sultry, the sky deepening to black with a half-moon climbing. Dan slapped at a mosquito and got his gear from the truck. The woods looked scarier with the cabin behind him than they had when he was in them, as if he'd gone from being part of them to being an outsider. He didn't mind, though. He would sleep clean on a soft couch tonight, with the hum of a fridge in his ears, and the taste of toothpaste in his mouth. He'd have taken all of that for granted a month ago, but not now.

***

The shower over the deep bathtub was old, with the steel fittings dulled by lime scale but clean. The curtain was new, a plain, chilly pale blue. The water came out hot and pounded the back of Dan's head with enough force to make him bow it forward. He watched the water swirl at his feet, cloudy with dirt, and reached for the shampoo he'd bought.

Being clean was a delight, improving his mood enough that when he smoothed shower gel over his stomach, his hand dipped lower and cupped his balls.

They needed washing as much as the rest of him. God, his ass probably still had bits of leaves stuck in it from his attempts to clean up after taking a dump behind a tree, his muscles clenched, his gaze darting around because it was weird to do that outside, like an animal or something. So, yeah, they needed scrubbing, but they probably didn't need stroking and squeezing gently, as his cock filled with a delicious slowness, pointing north.

He did it anyway, one hand braced against the white tiles, the other busy, a soap-slick slide from root to tip until he was as hard as he would get with nothing but his hand and fantasies to juice him up. He couldn't find his happy place, though. His best jerk-off scenes were tainted, invaded by lust-ugly faces from the last few weeks.

He gave a frustrated moan and slapped his hand against the tiles, his cock bobbing, neglected, his hard-on waning. He was fighting back tears, stupid, weak tears of tiredness and misery when Tyler knocked at the door.

"You done? Because I need to piss."

Dan had locked the door, so he couldn't holler for Tyler to come in and get on with it. He didn't think Tyler would have jumped him, even before spraining his ankle, but once learned, caution stuck better than riding a bike. He rinsed the soap away with a half-hearted swipe or two and shut off the water. "Give me a minute."

"I'm balanced on one leg and my tonsils are floating. Wrap a towel around your skinny ass and open the door."

Dan got out of the bathtub and opened the door, his hair dripping with water, one of Tyler's towels around his waist. It was the biggest towel he'd ever used, soft and thick, and it covered him to his knees, but he was conscious of being on the naked side. Tyler's gaze raked over him, indifferent and impatient. "About time."

He was too tired to defend himself and not sure of how long he'd stood under the water. Maybe he had been a while. He gave Tyler an apologetic smile and murmured, "Sorry."

Tyler grunted and propped his cane against the wall before transferring his grip to the doorframe. Beaded with steam, it was slippery and his hand skidded. Tyler cursed and tried to regain his balance without setting his foot to the ground. It was never going to work, and Dan was already moving to grab him when Tyler fell forward. They swayed in place, Dan struggling to support him, Tyler trying to pull back.

"Stay still," Dan said. "Before we end up flat on our backs." Tyler smelled of sweat and antiseptic and man, an emphatic assault on his senses. He tightened his arms around the broad chest and tried not to think about the muscles hidden under cotton and what they'd look like exposed.

"I don't think that's physically possible, and will you let go of me, please?"

"It'd serve you right if I did." Dan got one hand between them and laid it flat against Tyler's chest. He pushed and Tyler groaned, the sound bitten off fast, and got hold of the doorframe again. He straightened up, his face a shade paler.

Dan frowned. "Are your ribs strapped up?" He was sure they were; he'd felt the bandages under the shirt and T-shirt, an extra layer that shouldn't be there.

Tyler fumbled at his zipper. "Yes. A little privacy?"

"Huh? Oh sure." A moment later, he was on the other side of the door, shivering slightly as cool water dripped down his back. He took the towel from around his waist and gave his hair a brief, thorough scrub to get most of the water out. There was no warning sound of a toilet flushing, so he dug out a pair of his new boxers and shimmied into them, not caring that his body was still damp. The cabin was heavy with the stored heat of the day and it was kind of nice to feel goose bumps anyway.

Despite his earlier nap and the time—barely past nine, for God's sake—the couch looked tempting, but he'd have to wait for Tyler to go to bed first. He didn't want to be in the way. He also didn't want to get dressed again, but he pulled on a T-shirt in a faded navy blue, philosophical about the way it failed to match the yellow shorts with the rabbits. Tyler didn't strike him as the fashion-conscious sort.

With a yawn he couldn't hold back, he headed for the kitchen to deal with the leftovers of the meal and the washing up. Time to earn his keep. The bathroom door opened as he walked past and he paused and handed Tyler his cane.

"Thanks." Tyler's eyes widened as he took in Dan's shorts. "Are you trying to blind me?"

Dan grinned. "You should see the others; this pair's the tamest of the lot. I thought I'd work up to the Santa ones gradually."

Tyler gave a soft snort of laughter. "Yeah, I can see how you'd need to do that." He raised his eyebrows. "They're new, though?"

"Yeah. They're new." Dan waved his hand at the table, cluttered with the remnants of their meal. "I'll clear this away. You want anything?"

"You don't have to—" Tyler stopped himself. "Okay, yeah, I guess you do, or the place will stink by tomorrow. And no, I'm fine. Might turn in early. There's no TV, but help yourself to a book if you want to read."

Dan had seen the packed bookshelves running along one wall of the main room and been impressed, but not particularly interested. Books were for school. He'd grown up in a house that had the Bible and a Farmer's Almanac and precious little else in the way of reading material. "I'm ready to fall asleep on my feet, myself."

Tyler nodded. "Put the garbage in the—"

"I know what to do," Dan said patiently. Tyler looked like shit, which made it easier to be nice to him. "And anything I can't figure out, you can tell me tomorrow. I'll clean up and lock up. Don't worry about a thing."

"There's a sleeping bag and pillow in the chest by the window." Tyler studied his face for a moment, making Dan feel transparent, then made his way to his bedroom without looking back. The door closed behind him with a snick that might have been a key turning, might not.

Dan blew out a shaky breath and got busy. The kitchen was laid out neatly, with a logical place for everything that made it easy to work in. He made as little noise as possible, acutely aware of the man behind the closed door.

So, Tyler had cracked his ribs as well? Dan had done that once after a football game, when a quarterback had landed on him and his knee had done a good job of caving in Dan's chest. It'd hurt like hell to breathe and laughing had been torment. That hadn't stopped his friends dreaming up as many jokes as they could when they came over to see him, until he was crying with pain, his face contorted in a grin, the mix of emotions enough to make his head spin.

He remembered pushing Tyler upright, the heel of his hand firm against Tyler's ribcage; no wonder the man had groaned.

The sleeping bag and pillow were right where Tyler had said they were, clean enough, but, as Dan discovered when he shucked off his T-shirt and crawled into his makeshift bed, not freshly washed. They exuded Tyler's smell, nothing Dan could break down into individual elements, but unmistakably him. He put his mouth against the pillow, breathed out, then sniffed it, the scent stronger now, clinging to his lips. The soft, down-filled sleeping bag wrapped around him snugly and he sighed in pure contentment. This beat bare ground studded with stones and twigs. He settled down on his front, and relaxed into a sleepy jumble of thoughts, centered on Tyler.

Something different about him. Wonder what he does? Can't live off veggies… God, I thought he’d pull that trigger—scared the shit out of me, but he's okay. Nice. Trust him. Shouldn't trust him, shouldn't trust anyone. Ten years younger, and I'd crawl into bed with him right now and—fuck, couldn't do anything to him the way he's hurting, even if he was interested and he might not be. No, he is. I can tell. I can tell he's gay, anyway. Maybe not into me? Yeah, why would he be? Seeing as I told him—fuck, fuck, why did I… Older. I don't go for that, but he's so fucking big. Strong. Not a kid. Wonder what that'd be like. Doing it with him. He'd know what he was doing, not like Luke, shit, that hurt that time, but I know he didn't mean to—Luke. God, I'll never see him again—

He stirred restlessly and moaned, sleep calling him, and fear of what he'd find waiting in his dreams keeping him from answering. His moan was echoed and he froze, jolted wide awake, his heart pounding.

Tyler.

A band of light showed under Tyler's bedroom door when Dan looked over the back of the couch and he heard the faint, irregular sounds of movement from the bedroom. Caution warred with concern and lost. The state Tyler was in, Dan was sure he could fight him off if he needed to, and if the man was hurting—

He got up and ran his hands through his hair, dry now and snarl-free for the first time in a while. Without bothering to put his T-shirt on, he padded over to Tyler's bedroom door and tapped on it softly. "Uh, Tyler? You okay, man?"

There was a pause, then Tyler called back, a suggestion of a snarl in his voice, "I'm fine. Go back to sleep."

"I wasn't asleep, and you don't sound fine." Dan tested the door, surprised when it opened. He peered around it, then pushed it wide and went over to the bed.

The room was bigger than Dan had expected, airy and bare. A patchwork quilt covered the bed. Not like the quilts Dan's grandmother had pieced, with a fancy name and a story behind each pattern, but a muted rainbow of scraps, cut in the traditional geometric shape, sure, but sewn together randomly, blue velvet next to a garish orange, scarlet silk surrounded by mint green paisley. It shouldn't have worked, but somehow it did. A bedside table in the same honey-pine as the bed held a lamp, a book Dan couldn't see the title of, and a glass of water on a coaster. No alarm clock.

A small walk-in closet led off the room, the door open wide enough to let Dan see it held clothes and some neatly stacked boxes, taped shut.

And on a desk was a computer, sleekly efficient, a world away from the outdated ones Dan had used at school and the local library. Maybe Tyler was a writer? Or one of those people who played the stock market from home?

Tyler, like Dan, had gone to bed in shorts. Tyler's were black cotton, riding up high on his long, tanned legs, but he'd kept his T-shirt on. He sat on the edge of the bed, the T-shirt clinging damply to his back, the bedside lamp throwing out enough light for Dan to see that Tyler's hands were clenched into fists so tightly that the skin over his knuckles was stretched thin and pale.

"Get the fuck out of my room."

"If I thought you had the energy to make me, I would," Dan countered. He couldn't see the bottle of painkillers anywhere, but they had to be in here; he'd have noticed them in the bathroom, or when he tidied up. "Have you taken the stuff the doctor gave you?"

Tyler shook his head. "Don't want to take more unless I need them."

"If you can't sleep, then you do need them," Dan pointed out, reasonably enough, he thought.

"I'm hot," Tyler said. "If I can cool off, I'll sleep. If you get out, I'll go back to what I was doing, which is stripping off so I can cool down. Happy now?"

"I've cracked my ribs before," Dan said, "and I didn't wear a T-shirt or anything that went on over my head for the first couple of days because it hurt too much getting them on and off."

"Your point would be?"

"You tried to take it off and you couldn't, could you?"

There was a short sizzle of silence, then Tyler took hold of the hem of his T-shirt in one hand and tugged it up level with his armpits, exposing a flat belly, a wide chest dusted lightly with dark hair, and some wide, white bandages.

"Nice," Dan said approvingly. "Now what?"

He got a goaded look, then, mouth tight, Tyler widened the armhole of the T-shirt and raised his arm to guide it through, elbow first.

"You'd do it, wouldn't you?" Dan took a step forward and stopped Tyler before the man bit through his lip trying to keep quiet. He peeled the T-shirt out of Tyler's fingers and drew his arm back down. "Shit, save the macho crap for someone who gives a damn and let me help you. That's why you let me stay here, remember?"

Tyler looked close to hitting him, but Dan was getting used to that reaction, and after a moment Tyler gave him a grudging nod. "Okay. Help."

"Okay. Good." Dan cleared his throat and considered strategies. "Umm. We could cut it off you?"

"For God's sake." Tyler grabbed Dan's hand and pulled it to his chest. Dan watched his fingers curl into the soft fabric as if they belonged to someone else. "I can take pain, trust me, but I'm drowning in sweat here. Get it off me."

"It's not that warm in here," Dan said. He put the back of his other hand on Tyler's forehead. "You might be running a fever."

"I'm naturally hot." Tyler rolled his eyes. "Do you always talk this much?"

"When I'm not using my mouth for something else, yeah."

"Stop flirting with me." Tyler sounded tired. "I told you: I'm not interested."

Dan was. He'd never been this close to so much smooth skin and muscle without the need to guard his gaze. He wanted to touch and taste with an intensity that left his mouth dry. The hollow of Tyler's throat, the flat nipples waiting to be coaxed to points with his fingers and his tongue; whatever lay beneath those creased, rumpled shorts…

He'd never seen the point in foreplay before. He got hard, he got off. With Luke, it'd been over soon, every time, urgency and the fear of being caught spicing things up. Hell, most of the time, they hadn't undressed beyond what they needed to do to get to each other's dicks. For all he knew, Tyler was the same; no nonsense, no frills, but that had its appeal. He'd like to see Tyler needy and hungry, those gray eyes dark and focused.

What he wanted was to have sex with someone he'd chosen, his choice, like it used to be, and get his brains fucked out, pounded flat, so he wasn't seeing anything but the man over him, behind him, in him. Tyler wouldn't let him remember anyone else. Dan had known him less than a day but he was sure of that. Tyler wouldn't share him with those sons of bitches who'd left him feeling sick and dirty to the bone; he'd know what Dan was thinking about and he'd make him stop, make it all stop…

Pushing aside his thoughts before his body reacted to them in a way Tyler wouldn't be able to miss, given the fact he was standing in front of the man, Dan rolled the T-shirt up at the back. That put him so close Tyler’s breath brushed his bare chest like the distant memory of a touch. Don't get hard, he chanted in his head. Don't spoil it.

Clearing his throat, he muttered, "Put your hands on your knees and kind of lean forward."

Tyler obeyed him, which had to be a new experience, and Dan took hold of the back of the T-shirt and lifted it up and over Tyler's head. He hit a problem when the T-shirt didn't seem to want to go over Tyler's head, but it was old and the neck had enough give in it to make it work. He eased it off without Tyler needing to lift his arms high, then dropped the T-shirt on the floor. When he opened his mouth to say something that wasn't related to his thoughts, he found Tyler staring pointedly at the tented front of Dan's shorts. At some point during the struggle with the T-shirt, his fingers had touched skin and that was all his cock needed to wake up.

Fuck. Dan swallowed and tried to sound casual and amused. "Not interested. Got it."

"But you are." Tyler tilted his head back and stared up at him, his eyes speculative. "Given a choice, who do you have sex with?"

"Men," Dan answered without hesitation. He wasn't hiding it ever again, no matter what. "Gay. I've known I was for years. Is that a problem?"

"I think you've found out it doesn't make your life easy, but if you mean is it a problem for me, well, no." Tyler wasn't looking away and until he did, Dan couldn't either. There was a ring of darker gray around Tyler's irises and he had a freckle south of his cheekbone…

He was sure, but it would be nice to hear Tyler say it. "You too?"

The corner of Tyler's mouth quirked up and he nodded. "For complete strangers, we know a lot about each other, don't we?"

Somehow, Dan doubted that he knew anything about Tyler that the rest of the world didn't, but he gave a noncommittal shrug.

Tyler's gaze went back to Dan's insistent erection. "Still not interested. You're not my type."

"You're not mine," Dan said frankly, and wondered how true that was. "Way old and you're big."

That got him a smile. "You still flirting?"

Dan thought he'd lost the ability to blush back on the highway, at the Seven Forks gas station, but maybe he'd found it again. "I meant you're taller. More muscles. Shit, you know what I mean!"

"Yeah." Tyler scratched his chin. "So why the show and tell?"

"The what? Oh!" Dan spread his hands. "I don't know. You're not my type, but you're still, well, you're kinda hot and I wondered if you wanted me to, uh…"

"What? Blow me to say thank you? No thanks."

He flashed on what that would be like and almost wanted to kneel down to feel Tyler's hand stroke his hair with the kindness showing through as it did now, then. "No. Not that. We're even; I don’t need to. You helped me, I'm helping you."

"True enough." Tyler yawned. "I'm dead on my feet here, and so are you. Go and jerk off in the bathroom if you still feel the need—not on the couch—and get some sleep."

If his daddy had said something like that to him Dan would've died on the spot. It was amazing how relaxed he was around Tyler. Relaxed enough he admitted, "I tried that earlier and I couldn't."

Tyler's gaze flicked down and back up to Dan's face. "You don't look like you've got a problem from here."

"I do it solo and I keep thinking—I can't stop thinking about—" He stumbled to a dead halt, his eyes stinging. No. No tears. Not in front of a man who'd fallen off a freaking roof without yelling.

"How many men have there been since you left home?" Tyler sounded mildly curious rather than sympathetic, which kept Dan's tears in his eyes, not on his face.

"Five."

"They hurt you?"

"No. I wouldn't do anything but blow them and most of them were happy enough with that." He grimaced, remembering the stink and heat of sweaty, none too clean flesh in his mouth. "Two wanted more. Told them, sure; I didn't have AIDS and they could fuck me bare, and when I said it I looked at them, like I was picturing them dying, and neither of 'em believed I was clean."

"Clever." Tyler cocked his head. "Are you?"

"Yeah. Never done it bareback in my life; I'm not that stupid." Never done it at all, apart from that one time, but he wasn't telling Tyler that.

"So what would you have done if they'd taken you up on it?"

"Anything I had to that left them on the ground groaning and me running for the hills."

Tyler smiled, a brief, cold twitch of his lips, nothing but approval evident. "Yeah." He pursed his lips. "You need a weapon."

Suspicion hit as Dan opened his mouth to agree. "How do you know I haven't got one?" His voice squeaked high. "You searched me, didn't you? After I'd passed out."

"You think I'd have let you in my home without doing that?" Tyler shook his head. There was a sarcastic inflection to his voice that stung. "I might be way old, but I'm not stupid."

Dan took a deep breath, then let it go. There was no point in arguing over it. Done deal and it wasn't like Tyler had stolen anything.

"I guess not." Dan gave him a tentative smile. "Well, I'll leave you alone then. Unless you want something? Maybe I could bring you a bowl of water and a cloth and you could cool off that way? Sort of a sponge bath?"

Tyler shook his head, then said idly, "You're not hard now."

Weirdest conversation ever. "No." Dan wasn't sure why he had been in the first place, no matter how impressive Tyler's muscles were. He was so tired he could barely stand. "Problem solved, but not the fun way. Again."

"What?"

Dan ran his hand over his cock in an unconscious attempt to reassure himself it was still there, the unwashed stiffness of the new shorts catching at his fingers. "I told you. I remember them, and bang. No joy." He shrugged, too spaced-out to care. He'd worry about it tomorrow, or the next time it happened, if it did. Maybe it wouldn't when he'd had a few more meals and a decent night's sleep. "If I could afford it, I'd get therapy. Since I can't, guess I'll deal. I got off lucky compared to some, I know that. I'm not complaining."

No reason to stand there chattering when Tyler wanted to sleep. Dan shut up before Tyler told him to, nodded a good night, and headed for the door.

"Come here."

"What?" Startled, Dan spun around.

Tyler crooked his finger. "Here."

"Look, I don't know what you had in mind, but—"

"Come here and you'll find out."

Unwillingly, a knot of fear and excitement in his gut, he went back to stand in front of an annoying calm Tyler. Didn't the man ever get emotional? Well, other than angry, anyway.

Tyler put out his un-bandaged hand and drew a single fingertip slowly down Dan's chest, starting at the hollow of his throat and ending at the waistband of his shorts. By the time it was level with his nipples, they were hard and arousal had washed away his fear, a bright, hot sting of it that made his balls ache from being so tight, his cock throb, wanting to be touched.

"I'm not in the mood," Tyler told him, his voice calm and soft. "Even if it's been a while since anyone offered and I said yes. My hand hurts, my ankle's fucking killing me, and my butt's feeling on the tender side. But I figure it'll take thirty seconds to see to you, then we can both get some sleep, because once I have, you get your ass on the couch and you don’t come in here again without being asked. Got that?"

"Yes, sir," Dan blurted out. Okay, now where the fuck was that from?

"So polite," Tyler said, mocking, but kind enough with it that Dan didn't take offense. "Want my hand or my mouth?" He shook his head before Dan could reply. "Let's make it both."

"Oh God," Dan said involuntarily, his hips arching forward.

"Take off those damn shorts," Tyler said. "I've got some standards, and those bunnies hopping all over the place make me go cross-eyed."

Dan slipped them down with hands that didn't seem to be working and was dimly aware of an appreciative hum from Tyler that was gratifying, though his cock wasn’t much to look at. Average by any standards; a soft curl of cock and a bounce of balls when he wasn't hard, and when he was, well, he was usually too busy to take notes.

Tyler closed his hand around Dan’s cock in a loose grip, then tightened his grip to the point where Dan couldn’t thrust up if he'd tried. It didn't hurt surprisingly. Tyler seemed to know how the required pressure to hold Dan in place. He relaxed his fingers and squeezed again. Dan whimpered helplessly because there was nothing else for him to do but that. He doubted Tyler wanted anything in the way of a touch, so he kept his hands still. His legs were on the shaky side, his mouth dry.

He flashed on the last man he'd been with, recalling the ginger bristles sprouting on the guy's chin. Dan had gagged and pulled back to catch his breath, then glanced up to see if the man was angry at the delay. Tyler leaned down and slipped his mouth over the head of Dan's cock, smooth as silk, his tongue busy painting circles and swirls. Tyler peeled his fingers away one by one as he took Dan in deeper, timing it perfectly, a slow downward slide, until he held Dan with a circle of thumb and forefinger and the hollow, hot wetness of his mouth.

"God." Dan closed his eyes, then forced them open again because he didn't want to miss anything. Positioned like this, he couldn't see much with Tyler's head blocking his view, but that had its own appeal. To see someone that close to him, their head at his groin, giving him their mouth to fuck was a rush. Tyler's head, Tyler's mouth, and, yeah, Tyler had done this before.

Tyler pulled back, until nothing but the tip of Dan's cock was in his mouth. He didn't look up at Dan, but he was giving Dan plenty to see now. The clear, precise lines of his mouth weren't set in stern, sad lines now; they were blurred and stretched by Dan's cock. Dan held his breath, then Tyler's other hand, the bandage a soft scrape, cupped his ass and urged him to move with the smallest of pushes.

Dan knew what it was like to be choked by someone's cock, to have his head clamped tightly to stop him pulling away, sickness rising, throat muscles working, nose running, chest tight from lack of air. He didn't want to do that to Tyler, any of it, but Tyler was waiting, his mouth welcoming, his hand still there on Dan's ass.

With a sound more desperate than aroused, he let that hand guide him deeper, and felt the difference it made to move. Tyler met his uncertain thrust calmly, his tongue busy again, his hand still locked around the base of Dan's cock. Dan pushed in again, his confidence growing, because with Tyler's hand there, he couldn't bump the back of Tyler's throat if he tried.

As if he'd heard that thought, the safety net of Tyler's hand moved away. Tyler had both hands on Dan’s ass now, urging him on with an impatience that fed Dan's arousal. Tyler wanted this as much as he did, judging by the painful, perfect dig of his fingers into Dan's ass and the frantic, greedy laps of his tongue.

Dan's body was one strung out, thrumming string, plucked and quivering, singing out a single note. Bug bites, aching muscles, tiredness didn’t matter. Nothing did but this gloriously unimpeded slid in and the pull back, tolerable only because he knew a moment later he'd get that knee-buckling sensation as he went deep again.

The hands on his ass were like part of his skin, as if Tyler's fingerprints would be visible when this was over, perfect whorls and patterns tattooed onto him, indelible marks. His hips described a repeated curve upwards, and his balls were a tight ache craving the soft cradle of Tyler's palm.

Tyler's teeth, careless or planned, grazed the sides of Dan's cock and that was all it took to end it, that small, fleeting reminder of danger. Dan had been moaning, a continuous accompaniment to the softer sounds Tyler was making, but as he came he was silent, every muscle straining, his cock as far in as he could get it, uncaring in that moment, about Tyler, because Tyler's hands were holding him there, not pushing him away.

One last small spurt came out of him in an exhausted, determined bid for freedom and he was done, drained, empty. Shit, ask him to add two and two and he'd have needed a paper and pencil.

Tyler didn't pull away fast, leaving him hanging there, vulnerable and exposed, but he gentled down, giving Dan a place to be without any flickers of his tongue over tender skin. After a few moments, Tyler's hands fell away and Dan stepped back.

Tyler wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, his face flushed, his gaze not meeting Dan's.

Dan knew what he was supposed to do now; turn and walk away, and he would, he'd promised, but he couldn't. Not without something given back.

He went to one knee and put his hand on Tyler's face, then tipped it up so that he could kiss the mouth he'd fucked, nothing more than a touch of his lips. Tyler let him, his eyes startled, then Dan stood and went to the door, closing it behind him without looking back, because Tyler wouldn't appreciate him staring.

 

Chapter Six

Left alone, Tyler gave the door one narrow-eyed look to make sure it stayed closed, then reached into the drawer of the night table for the painkillers. He’d need help sleeping after that. He washed them down with a swallow of water and ran his tongue over his lips to catch the last taste of cum. He'd all but forgotten what it tasted like until that first acrid, alien flood spilled into his mouth, then his mind had supplied a label, along with a bunch of memories, some good, some not, all vivid.

He was out of practice at using his mouth to get a guy off. Either that or Dan’s climax had been more elusive than expected. It'd taken longer than the thirty seconds he'd planned on, that was for sure. Long enough for his jaw to feel stretched, his lips chafed. He could put the blame onto Dan's shoulders. Put it down to the kid’s nerves and inexperience. The honest part of him that never shut up, prevented that with sarcastic comments about him spinning it out because he was desperate. True and he knew it. He'd missed a body close to his, all hot skin, sweat-salted and musky, missed the sounds a man made when he was close to coming, missed the slick, slippery feel of a hard cock against his tongue.

Doing Dan a favor. It had been no more than that. Helping him see he wasn't damaged, only raw around the edges. Dan deserved that; he hadn't whined about what had happened, and if he'd been all kinds of a fool for the way he'd been traveling, the risks he'd taken, well, he still had guts and a certain toughness under the vulnerability. Or maybe it was the other way around. Dan didn't irritate him the way some people did. Well, mostly.

He propped his ankle on a pillow and lay down in the humid darkness, his eyes open. He could hear the creaks the couch made as Dan settled back down, the flat, dull thud of Dan's fist punching the pillow into shape. Used to no human sounds but the ones he made, the interrupted quiet should have had him jumpy and on edge, but instead it took him back to training, when he'd slept in a barracks with men all around him on narrow, hard cots. The men had slept quietly; a trick you learned, but still, there'd been the occasional cough, and rustle of bedding, the soft background of breath taken and released. And sometimes, when the room had settled, someone would jerk off, his face buried in a thin pillow or his mouth gagged by his hand while the other moved in whip-quick strokes, the man's attention focused on his goal. Tyler had listened and known, been aware of others listening too. He'd never allowed his hand to drift down; it'd felt too intrusive, and enduring the ache in his balls appealed to him as a challenge.

God, he'd been so fucking young and innocent. He'd killed by then, three targets at least, and he'd still had that certainty that he was fighting the good fight because the men he'd killed were so far removed from humanity it hadn't struck him as murder. He'd felt worse over killing a fish he'd caught after an exhilarating, splashy struggle lasting twenty minutes or more, his fishing rod jerking hard in his hand, and water flying off the line in miniature prisms, catching the early evening light and making it shine. He'd half wanted to toss that bass back, but the man with him—Jim? Andy?—had launched into ways to cook it and he hadn't wanted to dent his tough guy image by getting sentimental over a fish, the sheen already leaving its eyes as it flapped and flopped, exhausted, in his hands.

The drug slipped into his blood like a whisper in his ear. The sharply defined areas of pain in his ribs, palm, and ankle blurred at the edges, allowing the discomfort to spread out, thin down to bearable levels.

Sleep came without him noticing it, and when he woke, it was daylight, and his body was one bruised, resentful ache.

Fuck. He'd forgotten how much the day after hurt. He got out of bed and scratched his belly, feeling grubby and sticky. Bath. Shower. Something. His stomach growled a reminder he needed to fill it first and he sniffed the air. Coffee and something frying, close to burning. With a sigh, he pulled on the T-shirt he'd worn the day before, his ribs sore, but the discomfort bearable now, and hobble-hopped to the door, using his cane to balance him.

Dan was dressed in a pair of denim shorts, loose enough that Tyler could have slid both hands inside them, the sharp points of Dan's hipbones pressing into his palms, the swell and heat of Dan's cock waiting for the touch of his fingertips as they explored the space between skin and denim. Over them, he wore a T-shirt, faded from its original navy, but hole-free and clean enough. Tyler’s mouth watered from lust and hunger but he swallowed it all down.

"Those eggs aren't going to be fit to eat."

Dan grinned and gave the contents of the frying pan a nonchalant prod with a spatula. "I like them well-done."

"I like mine runny, unless you're scrambling them."

"I'm not. And I wasn't planning on sharing mine." Dan did everything but stick out his tongue impishly. He was in a good mood. Tyler had noticed the bedding on the couch was put away and there was only a faint smell of curry. Dan had done a thorough job of cleaning up the night before. The window was open and the screen door too, allowing a cool morning breeze to drift in.

"You're up early."

"Early?" Dan shook his head. "It's eight; if I'd stayed in bed this late at home, my daddy would've blistered my butt."

Farm boy. Yeah, Dan would be used to seeing the sun rise, wouldn't he? Tyler remembered Basic, when the country boys were the only ones bright-eyed and bushy tailed in the morning. That was until the hell of training turned them into blank faced zombies like everyone else, craving sleep more than food or sex. In time the recruits got a second wind and adjusted—or were kicked out—but years later, Tyler remembered waking from the deepest sleep imaginable by a scream in his ear followed by his ass hitting the cold, hard floor.

Good times.

Tyler sat with his foot propped up on the chair he'd used the night before. Against the cushion, the bandage on the still swollen ankle looked large and clumsy and he sighed. Yesterday, he'd been too busy to waste time castigating himself but he’d have nothing but free time today. Of all the stupid things to do.

"How do you take your coffee?"

"Hmm? Oh black." He didn't like it that way before he enlisted; cream and sugar had suited him better, but he'd gotten used to drinking it black and bitter after years of being in places where milk would sour in an hour and somehow he'd never gone back to pale and sweet.

Coffee, toast, and two eggs that looked edible enough were set in front of him. Dan looked anxious now, as if this was a test he didn't want to fail.

"Looks good," Tyler said because he had to say something with the kid waiting for a pat or a kick.

Dan beamed at him, as sunny as the day. "Want some juice?"

"Sure, why not?"

Dan took out the OJ from the fridge, then hesitated, his hand hovering over the shelf of glasses. "Is it okay if I have some?"

Tyler swallowed a mouthful of toast. "Yes. Eat before your eggs get cold. You could've had yours, then cooked mine, you know."

Daniel poured juice for them and sat at the table with his plate of food. "I don't mind. It's food. I'd eat it if it was stone-cold."

"You didn't cook bacon?" Tyler asked. "There was plenty in the fridge."

Dan looked stricken. "You want some? I can do it." He stood, his fork clattering down on his plate.

"Sit down," Tyler growled, reaching over and grabbing a handful of Dan's T-shirt to use as a way of reinforcing the order. "I usually have cold cereal or coffee so this is plenty for me. I thought you'd want something filling, seeing as you've got all those missed meals to catch up on."

Dan gave him a wary look and took a sip of coffee. "I didn't want to impose."

The old-fashioned phrasing made Tyler want to smile, but he held it back. "I think we need to get a few things straight. You're still planning on staying here for a few days?"

"If that's okay," Dan said hesitantly.

"It works for me and for you, so let's say it is. Fine. In that case, you've got to stop tiptoeing around like this. I'm not used to guests. This is the first place I've ever owned, and you're the first person to spend the night here. I don't plan on being hospitable and all that shit. Act like you live here and help yourself to what you need in the way of food without asking. Anything in that fridge or those cupboards, you go right ahead and use. You can handle the cooking while you're here anyway." He let that sink in and went back to eating.

"You mean that, don't you?"

"You won't have time to get to know me and find out for yourself, but I'll save you the trouble and tell you I've never seen the point in saying something I don't mean." Tyler drank his coffee—too weak, but it'd do--then met Dan's eyes. "One thing. You can poke around the cabin as much as you like; won't take you long because I don't have much, but you stay out of my room, you got that?"

Dan swallowed, his throat working visibly. "I understand. I know you were being kind. I didn't expect—"

"What?" Tyler held up his hand because Dan's stumbled, fumbled words were painful to listen to. "This isn't about what we did in there last night." He shook his head. "I've lived here for two years and I can go weeks without talking to someone. You being here will take some getting used to, even if it is only temporary. I need somewhere you don't go. Somewhere that's mine."

Which was true, but only part of it. His room held a lot Dan didn't need to see, and if it was hidden, that didn't mean Dan couldn't find it.

"I won't. I swear."

"Good. Now go back to the way you were when I walked in, because you're making me itchy being all jumpy and nervous."

"'The way I was'?" Dan repeated. "How was I?"

"Happy," Tyler said without thinking. "You looked happy."

"Oh." Dan stared down at his plate. "I guess I did feel that way."

"Don't worry," Tyler said, chasing the last bite of egg with the corner of his toast. "Picking tomatoes will soon take care of that and you can go back to being miserable."

"I'll pass, thanks."

"On being miserable, I hope, because those tomatoes won't pick themselves."

Dan rolled his eyes, which was all Tyler deserved for a joke as weak as the coffee.

After breakfast, Tyler headed for the bathroom. He sat to piss and stayed there while he brushed his teeth and shaved, the mirror twisted around so he could see what he was doing. Two nicks later, his face was reasonably smooth and sweat prickled his spine from the discomfort of his aches. Shower or bath? Bath. He could prop his foot on the side of the bath since the hot water he planned to soak in wouldn't help the swelling. He turned on the water and put a folded towel where his foot would go.

Dan tapped on the door when the bath was full. "Uh, Tyler? If you're getting in the bath, shouldn't I be there? In case you slip or something?"

"Nope." T-shirt off, bandages unwound from around his chest; he wouldn't need them again, shorts pushed down, hot water calling him, Tyler was in no mood to talk.

"I think you should let me help."

"And I think you should—" The door opened. Shit. He wasn't in the habit of locking or closing it, most of the time. "You know I said my bedroom was the only place off-limits? Let’s add the bathroom when I'm in it."

Dan folded his arms over his chest, stubborn as a goat. "I'll remember that in the future, but I'm not moving until I see you safely in, and I want you to call me when you get out."

Being naked in front of Dan didn't bother him, but being babied and fussed over sure as hell did. "Excuse me?"

Dan nodded at the bath. "Like my eggs, it's getting cold. It won't do the stiffness any good that way and judging by the way you're moving like an old man, I'm guessing you're suffering."

Without sparing Dan another look, Tyler hopped the three steps needed to get him to the side of the bath, then stood with his hand on the tiles, trying not to think how his foot had slipped at the end there. He'd caught himself, but it'd been close.

Dan's arm went around him and gave him something to lean into, but he didn't give into the temptation.

"You are one stubborn man, you know that?" Dan sounded pissed off. "Look, I could care less about your fucking garden. Let the deer have it and buy canned goods like the rest of the world. But I'm supposed to be helping you because you sprained your goddamned ankle, and if you won't let me, then I'm out of here. You don't know me, either, but I don't make threats I won't keep."

Tyler turned his head and looked into blue eyes lit up with annoyance and concern. "You want to go?"

"No," Dan said in a low, fierce whisper that was angrier than his raised voice had been. "I don't. I want you to use me while I'm here to make things easier on you. You're feeding me and you've put clothes on my back and a roof over my head. I need to pay you back and so far I've done nothing but a few dishes. It's not enough."

"I may be stubborn, but you need to learn how to take without needing to give back all the time," Tyler snapped. "No one's balancing the books here."

"I don't take charity."

"Well, let me set you a good example, then." Tyler put his arm around Dan's shoulders. "Hold me steady. Yeah, that's it."

Dan's T-shirt was two shades darker in places by the time Tyler was in the bath, groaning happily at the heat of the water, enough to make his skin pop out in goose bumps, as if it'd been cold water not this side of boiling. He watched Dan pluck the clinging fabric away, then shrug and strip it off. The shorts he was wearing looked indecent now, their downward slide halted by the curve of his ass.

"You're not wearing anything under there, are you?"

Dan grinned self-consciously. "The new shorts itch; I'm going to have to wash them, I think. And I'd look like a fool with them around my waist and these shorts around my—"

"Knees," Tyler supplied and sank a little deeper into the haven of the water. Tight muscles loosened, the pain seeping out into the water. "True. You would." He waved lazily at the door. "Thanks for not drowning me. I'll yell if I need any help getting out."

Dan didn't move.

"I can scrub my back by myself."

"I wasn't offering."

"Then why are you still here?"

Dan smiled, slow and sweet and dirty, a combination that made Tyler's mouth go dry. "You got to see me up close and personal last night. I guess it's my turn now."

"I want to lie here and relax, and if you're staring at me as if I'm a wildebeest and you're a lion, I'll tense up again."

"Is that how I look?" Dan gave that some consideration before shrugging. "Sounds about right, and you do look on the tasty side."

"You need to work on your chat up lines," Tyler told him, more amused than anything now. Christ, how old was he? "Isn't that what you told me? They lack finesse."

"Me, I prefer direct," Dan said. "I like what I see and I'd like to do more than look. After last night, I don't think you're going to freak out over me saying that, even if you're not interested in me."

Was that a smidgen of hurt under the indifference? Tyler spared Dan a sidelong look. For all the bravado of the words, Dan’s mouth was tight and his shoulders were rounded, making him look smaller.

"You're on the young side, that's all. Twenty. Shit, the only time I've fucked someone who was twenty, I was sixteen." Tyler reached for the soap and flannel with his good hand. "Don't take it personally. These days, I'm not having sex with anyone." He draped the flannel over his knee and rubbed the soap across it, then watched the white lather form on the green cloth, tiny bubbles popping as he concentrated on getting the flannel good and soapy.

"Why not?" Dan took a few steps and leaned against the sink, still too far away to touch. Tyler experienced a quiver of unease at how vulnerable he was, naked, trapped in the bath, but Dan didn't seem dangerous somehow. "A body like yours, even with the whole back off, I bite attitude, you won’t get turned down."

"No," Tyler agreed placidly. "I don't. Because I don't offer. And if you think a small town like this is full of men wanting to get their hands on me, well, hate to disappoint you, but it isn't."

Which didn't mean he hadn't had offers, because he had. Furtive hints at quick release with no strings attached. They hadn’t appealed and neither had the men offering.

"You'd tell them no, anyway, same as you're telling me, wouldn't you?"

"Mm-hmm. I most likely would." He set the soap down on the corner of the bath, where it was wide enough that the soap wouldn't immediately fall into the water, and washed himself one-handed.

"And I'm asking why again."

"Ask away, but you're not getting an answer." He gave Dan an exasperated look. "Why are you so goddamned interested in my sex life, anyway?"

"Because you don't have one."

Tyler held up his wet, soap-slicked hand. "Yeah, I do."

"Jerking off doesn't count."

"It's enough for me." And if Dan ever left him alone, he’d prove it. The night before, he'd gotten no more than half-hard with Dan in his mouth, fucking it with an endearing, frustrating care, but pain, fatigue, and the need to make it all about Dan had been the reason. He hadn't wanted to get hard; Dan would have wanted to reciprocate at best, panic at worst, and that wasn't what he'd done it for.

Today, though he wanted to come, tease himself slowly to a climax that leaving him warm and loose, a drowse in the sunlight, not a bolt of lightning, a languid, lazy rock into the cradle of his palm and fingers.

And now he was hard. Shit. He refused to do anything as pointless as draping the flannel over the evidence. Dan had watched his cock harden and the only thing saving Dan was the lack of a grin. Hard to smile with his mouth hanging open.

"Now, are you going to get on the other side of the door?" he inquired, expecting Dan to back away fast, his face as red as Tyler's skin was getting, soaked in hot, hot water.

"Do you see me leaving?" Dan knelt by the side of the bath, at the tap end, and propped his arms on the side. "Go on then."

"What?"

"You said jerking off was better than sex with me." He hadn't. "So I guess maybe I've been doing it wrong, or something, because I like it, God, yes, but it doesn't feel better than being with someone else." Dan's gaze was fixed on Tyler's groin. "So I'll watch what you do—I won't touch, don't worry—and maybe pick up some pointers."

Dan wasn't broken, was he? Anyone who could be this demurely innocent in voice and blatant, brazen with his eyes, after what he'd gone through would make it. Tyler allowed himself a brief moment to be glad before he scooped up a handful of water and threw it into Dan's face.

"Push me and I'll push back."

"Bring it on," Dan said, not troubling to hide his grin as he shook back his wet hair. Droplets clung to his face, caught on the faint darkness of stubble. "Tyler, after last night, I'm not leaving until I've seen what you look like when you come. If you don't want me involved, I'll respect that, but I want to see." He trailed his hand through the water, never quite touching skin. "And we both know you could have made me leave if you'd wanted to.”

"Short of dynamite, I don't see how."

"You could try saying 'please'."

Tyler blew out an impatient breath. "Please would you leave so I can jerk off in peace?"

"Sure." Dan didn't move. He knew it wouldn't be that easy. "You want me to? Because every time I look at your cock, it sort of twitches, like it knows I'm staring. You're hard as fucking rock, man. You like me watching." Dan furrowed his forehead. "You do this before? Circle jerks and all that?"

The memories had to be showing on his face so he didn't bother denying it. "Sometimes. A long time ago. I was younger than you, though. A lot younger."

"Me too, except it was Luke, and I guess two people don't make a circle." Dan looked briefly downcast, but then he brightened. "I always came first."

"You would," Tyler said austerely before asking, "Who's Luke?"

"Huh?" Dan's gaze dropped. "No one. A friend."

"Ah."

"Don't."

"Cuts both ways," Tyler told him with some satisfaction. "You poke and pry at me and I'll do it back at you. Who is he?"

Dan stood so fast he stumbled and had to grab at the sink to steady himself. "No one."

The door slammed behind him, barely missing the T-shirt he'd grabbed as he passed it, clutched in his hand like a security blanket. Tyler stared at the ceiling and let the water lap and slap at his waning erection, idly cupping his balls as he contemplated, not Dan's retreat, which he'd expected, hell, forced, but the regret over his solitude.

 

Chapter Seven

The sun burned the back of his neck through his hair, long enough now to brush the top of his shoulders, but Dan kept working with the bone-deep stubbornness he'd had since childhood driving him. The tomato patch was big for Tyler's use; six rows, each twelve feet long, a mixture of cherry and plum tomatoes, most ripening to red but with a section that was growing some fancy yellow ones, bright, miniature fallen suns against the dry, baked earth.

He dragged the large plastic bucket a few feet along the row and worked on the next bush, his fingers deft and careful, because this was food, and it was wrong to waste it. Though he wanted to grab the biggest, ripest one he could find and throw it hard, so it splashed, seeds and juice going everywhere. Sometimes he pictured Tyler's face as the target, sometimes his father's, sometimes Luke's.

The bucket filled quickly and he set it down in the shade and got another from the shed. He wasn't sure if they were what Tyler used to harvest, but they were clean and the right size; too big and the tomatoes at the bottom would be crushed by the weight of the ones on top of them; too small and he'd be stopping to get another bucket too often.

He did the job properly, checking each tomato. If it was squishy or split, it went into a second bucket for the rejects, Tyler might want them for sauce. He removed the stalks to save time later and dropped them in a third, baby-bear-sized tub. He hadn't found the compost pile yet, but he was sure Tyler had one.

Sweat stung his burned skin. He put his hand on the back of his neck and winced. Ow. Now that he'd stopped it struck him how thirsty he was; how his back ached from bending; how stained his fingers were with juice. He picked one more tomato and tossed it into the bucket before sitting on the bare earth.

Stubbornness only took a man so far and he was there, at the point where he needed to rest. A shadow fell over him and he squinted up at Tyler, dressed now in faded denim shorts, and a short-sleeved shirt in a shade of green that spoke of uniforms and guns.

"I made lunch and you look like you need a break."

"Taking a breather." It figured Tyler would arrive when he set his ass down for a moment. "Still got three rows to do."

"They can wait." Tyler studied the buckets, then glanced over at the two filled ones in the shade. "You're organized, I'll give you that."

"My daddy said there's two ways to do a job and if you don't pick the right one, you might as well not bother."

"Sounds like you were brought up by someone with some firm ideas."

"You can say that again."

"Come and eat," Tyler said in what Dan guessed was the closest he came to a coaxing voice. "I made sandwiches."

"I could've done that," Dan protested. He got to his feet as it didn't sound like Tyler would let him be a martyr and his stomach was growling.

"Sure you could, Cinderella, but last time I looked, I still had the use of my hands." Tyler held up his cut hand. A Band-Aid had replaced the bandage. "See?"

"No tomatoes on the sandwich?"

"Not a one," Tyler promised. He stopped Dan with a hand on Dan's arm, a hand that fell away as soon as Dan paused. "I'll give you all the space you need, if you do the same for me."

Shame had Dan’s face heating. Telling the man he wanted to watch him jerk off? What the hell had he been thinking? Outside in the sunlight, it seemed unthinkable, as it hadn't in the bathroom with the steam curling up and Tyler naked and him close to it. He nodded without meeting Tyler's eyes.

"But if there's something you want to tell me, you can." Tyler grimaced. "Hell if I know how much good I'd be, but I'll listen. And I can guarantee you won't shock me."

"You'd rather I broke your leg than cried on your shoulder, wouldn't you?" Dan said, trying and failing to imagine Tyler in the role of therapist.

Tyler grinned without shame. "Hell, yes. And you start sniffling and I'll probably break it myself to shut you up, but if you can tell me without the waterworks, I can probably take it for half an hour or so."

"Right now, I want to eat." Dan flicked at a dangling tomato. "And finish picking these." He raised his eyebrows. "What do you do with them, anyway?"

"Wash them, freeze them," Tyler said as they began to walk to the kitchen door, the thud of Tyler's cane a dull beat against the ground. "I don't peel them or any of that shit. I lay them on cookie sheets, freeze them, then bag them up the next day. There's a big freezer in the shed behind the cabin."

"It's a lot of vegetables," Dan said, The plot was laid out neatly, but there was nothing regimented about the crops. They grew in a wild riot of green leaves, that earlier in the season would've been dotted with flowers; yellow for the tomatoes, red for the beans, white for the peas. Kinda pretty. Low to the ground were potatoes and onions and off to the side was an herb garden made with round and square earthenware pots, three-quarters buried. Dan recognized a few of the herbs, like mint and parsley, but not all of them. Around the pots the air was aromatic and busy with bees.

"In the winter, it's not always easy to get into town," Tyler said. "You'd be surprised how little is left by spring."

"You should sell some," Dan said. "Put a little stall at the end of the drive."

Tyler snorted. "Sit there all day for the sake of a few dollars? I don't think so."

Dan let it go. Put like that, he couldn't see it himself.

By evening, Dan was tired, but it was a good tiredness, a natural weariness that came with a glow of achievement. The tomatoes were harvested. There'd be more tomorrow, but right now there wasn't a single one on the vine that was ready to eat. He and Tyler had worked until dusk cleaning and freezing them. Tyler had sat at the kitchen table, his ankle resting on a cushion-softened chair, an ice pack over it, twenty minutes on, twenty off, his hands busy. If his injuries troubled him, he didn't mention it.

After supper and a shower, Dan wandered into the main room. Tyler sat in the armchair by the empty fireplace, reading, the soft shush of the turning pages a counterpoint to the tick of the clock on the mantelpiece, his foot up on a stool. He'd changed into loose gray sweatpants and a blindingly white T-shirt that made his tanned arms, feathered with dark hair on the forearms, look darker.

"No TV," Dan said. Tyler smiled without raising his eyes from the book. "What do you do?"

"You can see what I do." Tyler held up the book, but from where he stood, Dan couldn't see the title. "Sometimes I go online."

"Can I?" Dan asked eagerly. No computer at home had made him appreciate any chance he got to use one. He'd been saving up, but it was a near impossible sum to raise.

"Nope." Tyler slanted a gaze at him. "It's password-protected, so don't try."

"It's in your room," Dan pointed out. "I said I wouldn't go in there."

"So you did." Another page was turned.

Dan sighed. "We could play cards?" he offered.

"I'd win."

"Chess?"

"Ditto."

"Thumb-wrestle?"

Tyler's eyes crinkled at the corners. "If you're bored, tell me."

"I'm bored," Dan confessed.

"Get a book."

"I don't read much."

"Then I guess you'd better make friends with boredom."

Dan sat on the couch and gave a gusty sigh.

"Keep doing that and I'll make you stop." Dan opened his mouth to do it again on principle, and Tyler added mildly. "Don't."

"Any jobs need doing?" It was a sign of his desperation. "Or I could go for a walk if you don't need me for anything. Head into town, maybe."

"Sure. It's going to rain in an hour or so, though. There's a storm headed this way."

Dan made an inarticulate sound of pure frustration, but didn't argue. Tyler was right. He'd smelled the rain coming as the hot, dry air turned humid, electric; seen the mackerel clouds red against the darkening sky. "I could take the truck?"

"No. Sorry. For an emergency, yeah, I could've sweet-talked the sheriff into turning a blind eye if he'd pulled us over yesterday, but so you can get a drink and maybe flirt a little? I don't see old Bill being sympathetic to you driving uninsured for that." Tyler put a scrap of paper into his book to mark his place and placed it on the small table beside him. "You ready to move on?"

"Thinking about it," Dan admitted. "But it seems like I don't know where I'm going now I've stopped and caught my breath. I lit out running and since then I've been headed north and I can't seem to think past that."

"Canada. Why there?"

"I don't know." The lie tasted as bitter as the memories.

"Go and get us a beer," Tyler said after a long moment.

Dan grabbed eagerly at the chance to change the subject. "So I can drink and flirt here, instead of in town?"

Tyler grinned. "Flirting is wasted on me, but a beer sounds good."

"Should you? With the pills and all that?"

"I'm not taking them." Tyler wiggled his toes. "Hurts, but not like it did yesterday. I'll maybe take some at bedtime if I can't get to sleep."

The beer, cold and strong, slid into Dan's belly and froze it up, then warmed it through. He drank and ate some popcorn he'd made in the microwave, greasy and light at the same time, the salt making him drink more and lick his fingers clean, craving the fix.

Tyler watched him, the lamp beside him the only one burning. The dim, chancy light of a summer night filled the room. Dan sat on the couch, his bed, in the shadows and waited for Tyler to ask him questions.

When the popcorn had been reduced to a rattle of brown, unpopped kernels in the bottom of an oil-slicked bowl, and they were three sips into their second beer, he realized Tyler wasn't going to, no matter how long they sat there.

"You said you'd give me space."

"Mm." There was no interrogative lilt to the sound; it was agreement, no more.

"Suppose I wanted to know something about you."

"Then I guess you'd have to trade me for it, truth for truth." Tyler didn't sound all that interested. "And I can't promise I'd be all that honest when I answered."

His frankness was shocking. Dan knew people who lied like they breathed, easy and often, but they usually pretended to be sincere. "Why would you lie?"

"Because I don't want to tell you anything." Tyler gestured at the room, the cabin, and, Dan supposed, his life in general. "This look to you like I'm happy with sharing or talking?"

"No." Dan ran a fingertip over the cold, slippery wetness of the bottle's neck, making the glass hum and sing. "If I was to ask you anything, it'd be why that's so, because it's not the way it's always been, has it?" He took a careful look at what he planned to say next and examined it from all angles before he spat it out. "Two years ago, right? That was when you—"

"Who is Luke?" Tyler's face was angles and bone, sharp and painful.

"Oh man." Dan rubbed his thumb over the opening in the bottle, the edge digging into his skin. "I knew you'd go there."

"We don't have to do this." Tyler seemed relieved, as if the escape hatch he offered was one he'd be using first.

"Tell me something else we can do." The beer was doing what beer always did and making him talkative, making him horny. Not that either of those qualities were totally missing when he was sober. "Tell me something I'd need to get naked for, and I'll do it," he added, wanting it clear what he meant.

"You don't get your itch scratched every night, boy, and I'm still not interested."

"Stop calling me that." Dan slugged back a third of the bottle and lowered it to find Tyler's cool, gray gaze turned on him. The rejection irritated him enough to make him realize he'd been counting on a repeat performance, looking forward to it. "Did I look like a boy last night? Like a kid? Because if that's what gets you off, it’s kinda sick."

"Stop right there." The warning was tangible, Dan's reaction visceral. Hairs rose along Dan’s arms in a primitive response to a lurking danger about to pounce, rend, and shred.

"I'm sorry." As apologies went for what he'd said in spite and, yeah, disappointment, because he could have gone for Tyler's mouth on him again, it was pitifully inadequate. Tyler must have thought so too, because all the niceness had gone when he replied, an electrical lead stripped down to bare wire.

"And, yeah, you did. You looked like a lost boy, like a little, lost fucking puppy. You want me to call you that instead? You want me to make you whine and yelp for sex and scraps? I could do that, and you'd let me, fucked up the way you are."

Suffocating heat. He couldn't breathe. A storm was coming, saturating the air with wet and hot and he couldn't catch at the air no matter how deep he drew breath.

"Even like this, I could do it." The rage in Tyler's voice crackled like the lightning would soon, but he wasn't shouting or leaning forward in his chair. "Stop pushing me, Dan. Stop throwing yourself at me when I said I don't want you. Jesus, have some pride."

He got up from the couch, his bottle falling to strike a thick, braided rug, a foam and spill of beer pouring out as the bottle spun around. "Fuck you," he said as distinctly as he could.

Most of what he had was in his pack. Everything he owned in the world, apart from the newly acquired toiletries, and Tyler had bought them, anyway. He shoved his feet into his boots, keeping Tyler in view all the time, because hurt though he was, Tyler posed a threat, then walked over to his pack.

When it was on his back, and Tyler hadn't said or done a single fucking thing to stop him leaving, he turned and gave Tyler a single finger by way of farewell, the crass, crude, ungrateful gesture shaming him as he made it, and left the door open so that Tyler would have to get up to close it.

He wanted Tyler to watch him leave, but he didn't get that minor satisfaction. The rising wind closed the door for him, slamming it before he'd gotten a few yards away, too soon for Tyler to reach it, if he'd even tried.

He made it to the raspberry patch before the rain pattered down on the thirsty leaves and parched earth. He turned his face to the sky, his chest heaving as he fought to hold back the tears. Fuck. A chance to be with someone and he'd spoiled it like always. Thunder rolled across the sky, a low, distant rumble, the trees cutting off any chance to see the lighting and find out where the storm was coming from. He zipped his thin jacket, settled his pack, and picked his way through the clearing to the trail.

This time maybe he'd make it to the road.

 

Chapter Eight

Without Dan in it, the cabin seemed smaller, quieter. Stifling. Tyler waited until his ears had recovered from the slam of the door, then took a careful sip from his beer before putting it down.

Had he ever been that stupidly melodramatic? Probably. He considered what little he knew of Dan and concluded in less than thirty seconds that Dan wasn't likely to return, tail between his legs, bedraggled and apologetic. He'd left home, and hunger and his experiences on the road hadn't turned his steps south again.

Tyler had given him shelter for a day, a few meals, a blow job, and the promise of a week of boredom, hard work, and little else.

No, Dan wouldn't be back. He finished his beer, his thoughts studiously blank, and listened to the rising wind as it played with anything not securely fastened down, batting at them like a curious kitten. His garden could stand some wind, and the rain would be welcome, but a big storm, that could do some damage. He wouldn't be able to tidy up the mess when it'd blown over, the state he was in.

The beer had been a bad idea. He needed to take a leak and he'd have to haul his ass out of bed in the middle of the night too, because he planned on drinking more. Lots more.

When he'd finished in the bathroom, already used to the mechanics of balancing himself against the wall so he could piss standing without making his ankle throb, an unfamiliar splash of color attracted his attention. Dan's toothbrush, neon green, decorated with a blob of lurid blue toothpaste on the handle. Tyler gathered up everything Dan had left in the bathroom, all cheap, all disposable, and put the items into a plastic sandwich bag. He stood in the kitchen, holding the bag in his hand, irresolute and depressed in a way he hadn't been for months now. Throw it away? Keep it in case Dan did show up again, his flash of temper burned out?

Or go after him and give Dan a face-saving chance to spend the night dry and warm, no matter what he did in the morning? Tyler wasn't used to examining his motives for his actions. He did what needed doing and dealt with the fallout, end of story. The situation with Dan didn't require picking to bits to make sense of. He'd fallen for Dan's mix of vulnerability and guts, fallen hard. For all his efforts to keep his distance, Dan was too fucking tempting after two years of nothing but his hand and some memories for company. Not his type, no, Tyler hadn't lied about that, but then, he'd always, pragmatically, gone for what was available and that had never included anyone remotely like Dan before, so who knew.

Rain struck the windows like angrily tapping fingers. Tyler sighed and went in search of his car keys. Time to see if he could drive with his left foot useless.

***

He'd expected to find Dan on the road, headed for the town, but though he drove slowly, scanning the wind-whipped trees for a wet figure sheltering under them, he didn't see Dan. He could've gotten a ride in with someone, but the odds weren't good. Tyler hadn't seen anyone else on the road. His neighbors were safe and dry at home, or checking their property was secured against what was looking to be a wild night.

The rain was coming down hard now, too much for the wipers to handle. Tyler drove around town for ten minutes without seeing Dan. He decided to check the bars when some instinct made him turn around in a spray of dirty water. If Dan was in a bar, he was fine for the moment; if he was still in the woods, he was far from safe.

He got home, the journey longer than usual because the unlit road was barely visible through the streaming glass and he didn't want to end up in the ditch, and took out a flashlight from the glove compartment. It worked; all his flashlights did, like the truck was always kept gassed up and ready to go. Old habits, too much part of his routine for him to give them much thought. Without bothering to do more than fasten his slicker, he got out, took a firm grip on his cane, and turned on the flashlight. He couldn't follow Dan's tracks because there weren't any, only mud and grass and water, but he could see the path that led to the raspberries.

He trained the small circle of light onto the path and, feeling vaguely ridiculous, yelled Dan's name into the shriek of the wind and heard it take the word away. Each repetition of the name was easier, until soon he was calling it every few breaths, every few steps, calling it and almost forgetting to leave a space for Dan to reply, always assuming he was around to hear it and felt like answering.

The thought of Dan hearing it and ignoring him, or, worse yet, hiding from him, was uncomfortable enough that he shoved it away. Besides, he had enough to deal with keeping his footing on the rain-slicked earth, a layer of wet over baked-dry dirt making each step chancy. The bandaged ankle was a fucking pain, the grass catching at it and wet and dirt working their way inside the leather sandals he'd tugged on before leaving the cabin.

Anne would rip him a new one when she saw him next. This didn't qualify as resting.

He came close to falling three times, a spike of adrenaline flooding his system each time. Fear of falling and fear of the dark. He'd never been conscious of either as a child, and he wasn't afraid now; wary and angry, maybe. The dark hid Dan and made finding him more difficult; so would falling, which was why he wanted to avoid it.

Each foot of path he traveled made his objectives narrow to a pinpoint beam, intense and searing. He would find Dan, bring him home, and if fucking Dan or rolling over for him would keep Dan around for a few days, and take that helpless, hopeless look out of his eyes, he'd consider it.

"Would have been simpler to shoot you," he muttered. "Should have gone with my instincts, because God knows, if you do come back, you'll complicate things."

Like they'd been so simple before.

His hood blew back and a trickle of water ran down his spine as the rain found its way past the upturned collar of his coat. Fuck this.

"Dan! Dan."

It took him another ten minutes to find Dan, a miserable, huddled shape sheltering in the overhang of a rock outcropping, half a mile from the cabin. Not far, but Dan's trail had circled around; he'd gotten lost. Luckily for them both, Tyler’s bump of direction was built-in. Dan didn't look up when Tyler reached the rock, the wavering illumination from his flashlight picking out clenched, shaking hands and filthy jeans.

Tyler couldn't squat beside him, not with any certainty of being able to get up again with any grace, and using his cane to poke Dan with seemed rude. He settled for switching off the flashlight to save the battery, and leaned against the rock, his face turned up so the rain could wash away the detritus of leaves and dirt he'd collected during his search.

He gave Dan a minute, then pitched his voice to compete with the waning storm. "I could use some help getting back. The path's washed out in places."

Dan stood without a word, slung his sodden pack onto his shoulder, and gave Tyler a sidelong glance, caught in the renewed light from the flashlight. Tyler couldn't think of a label to hang on his expression, not then, and not during the time that followed, as they made their way through the gradually slackening rain back to the cabin.

He could have made it without using Dan as a crutch, but he didn't. Let Dan see he was needed; it was the only bait Tyler had for the hook he wanted to plant. He let Dan hold the light and slung his arm around the broad shoulders that braced to take his weight. He slipped once and Dan held him upright, his cold hand coming up to grip Tyler's equally chilled hand briefly.

By the time they got to the cabin, Tyler was in a world of pain. His ribs ached and his ankle was a scream of agony that wouldn’t shut up. He found himself chanting ‘fuck’ under his breath, like a mantra, and made himself stop.

Once inside, the dry, warm peace struck like a blow, too much of a change to be comforting in that first moment. Tyler turned to Dan. "I need this off." He pulled at his coat, with fingers made clumsy by the cold. The summer heat had been drained from the world by the storm.

Dan dropped his pack and came to help him, his face still shuttered, his eyes downcast. He hadn't spoken to Tyler who was too tired to force the issue. They were safe and that would do for now.

Dan stripped him down to shorts, his hands guiding clammy, clinging clothes over arms and legs without ceremony. The clothes were left in a heap by the door, a puddle already spreading out, and Dan, his boots discarded, walked, dripping water, to the couch and got the blanket that lay over the back of it.

He held it out to Tyler, who took it and fumbled it around himself, juggling the cane from hand to hand. He was unsure of what to do next. He couldn't go to bed without drying off a lot more and he needed a bath, he supposed, although the thought of getting wet again, even in clean, hot water, didn't appeal. Sitting was out of the question because he wouldn't have the energy to get back up again

He looked over at Dan, standing by the door, still wearing his coat, and realized Dan was waiting for something from him.

"Get out of those wet clothes and take a shower or a bath," he said. "I'll find you some dry clothes to sleep in, then make some coffee." And his would have a slug of whiskey in it.

Dan nodded, a slow dip and rise of his head, as if that small gesture was an effort, and added his clothes to the heap, dragging them off without a trace of self-consciousness until he was naked.

Tyler watched, his throat closed around an ache of longing, all the more intense because he had no intention of acting upon it. Dan's body, muscles shaped by hard work, was marked with nothing more than sunburn, freckles, and the dark silk of hair, faintly shadowed on his chest and a thin vertical strip on his belly. He probably had the scars everyone accumulated on elbows and knees and his farm work might have added to them, but Tyler couldn't see any. His skin was interrupted in half a dozen places by permanent messages from bullets, blades, and that damn bite from a guard dog with entirely too much pit bull in his lineage.

By the time Dan came out of the shower, Tyler had put the wet clothes into the washing machine in the kitchen and brewed coffee. He'd given in and sat on the couch to drink it, having pulled on a sweatshirt and sweatpants. The bandage on his ankle was wet and filthy, forcing him to change it, and his foot hurt more than it had that morning. He’d have to see Anne again and she’d give him hell.

Dan had a towel wrapped around his waist. He still looked on the dazed side, but he'd stopped shivering.

"I put some clothes on my bed for you," Tyler said. "And there's coffee here."

"Why are you being nice to me?"

"Because I'm too damn tired to kick your ass." Tyler put his mug down on the floor and winced as the small movement jarred his ankle. He was reclining on the couch, entirely too comfortable given that he’d have to move soon. "Get dressed before you catch cold."

"Are you kidding?" Dan walked around the couch, into Tyler's line of sight, filling it completely, and gestured at his body, watermarked in scarlet. "I'm boiled. I'm a lobster. Stick a fork in me, I'm done."

"Good thing I'd decided to skip a bath if you've used up all the hot water."

"I didn't use it all." Dan hesitated, then sat on the floor by the couch, leaning against it. The towel stayed wrapped, but his legs, bare and damp, were exposed to mid-thigh. He smelled of rain and soap. "You came after me."

"Yeah."

"I didn't expect you to do that."

Dan turned his hand palm up and without looking at Dan's face, Tyler slid his into Dan’s waiting grip, offering silent reassurance.

"It wasn't on my to-do list," Tyler admitted. "But I don't think I'd have slept well knowing you were out there."

"You shouldn't have been out there," Dan said. "Your ankle—"

"Fucking hurts," Tyler said succinctly. "I'll see Anne tomorrow and she can take a look at it when she's through yelling at me."

"Oh God." Dan pillowed his head against Tyler's thigh and cried, the harsh, shuddering sobs of a man, not a child, wrenched out of him by emotion rather than willingly shed, Tyler guessed. Dan didn't seem like the crying sort. Tyler turned a little, rolling onto his side, and used his free hand to smooth Dan's wet hair in an impulse to comfort. He found himself murmuring the sense-free litany of a mother to a hurt child, which left him profoundly unnerved. He changed, 'it's okay, it'll be okay' as his fingers carded through the thick, slippery hair to a more bracing, 'Stop that. Look at me', his fingers finding Dan's chin and forming a hook to lift it.

Tear-wet eyes met his. "Fuck, I'm sorry." Dan sniffed, then tugged his towel free and used it to scrub his face dry. He dropped it back into his lap, but not before Tyler had seen the flushed, damp curl of Dan's cock. He knew the shape it made when it was hard. Knew what it tasted like. He knew that, and he barely knew Dan at all. Like being given a book to read and told to start at chapter four.

"No need." His hand fitted itself to the angular shape of Dan's jaw without conscious thought or volition, holding Dan's face where he could see it. He didn't mean to kiss him, either, but that happened too, a moment later, the gap between them disappearing as Dan leaned in.

He couldn't link this feeling to a memory. It had been so long since he'd done this—Dan's kiss the night before didn't count—that every kiss he'd ever given had faded to gray. Dan's mouth slid over his with an endearing initial clumsiness that made it real, tying Tyler to the moment. He concentrated on returning the kiss, both of them learning each other quickly, so that in the space of a minute, Tyler had discovered Dan loved having his lower lip bitten gently and taught Dan to lick across his in a slow, hot drag of tongue.

Dan kissed him until Tyler's lips were numb and his ears buzzing and humming with the beat of blood.

"Can we?" Dan said against Tyler's mouth. "Please. Something. God, I want you so bad, Tyler. Please."

Dan was hard; a glance down told Tyler that, because the towel was on the floor now, hiding nothing. He'd known it anyway, from the fever-heat of Dan's skin and the way he was pressing against the edge of the couch, trying to get closer.

There didn't seem to be a single good reason why not, if he ignored the throb in his ankle and the way sleep kept catching at him and making his eyes close for too long to be a blink.

"If you can get me to a bed before I fall asleep, you can do whatever the hell you like," he said recklessly.

Dan rocked back on his heels, then stood, a fluid, graceful movement Tyler didn't have time to admire because he was being hauled to his feet and, once upright, into his bedroom.

With a forethought that got him points, Dan turned down the bed before helping Tyler undress. Naked under the covers, they reached for each other, Tyler cursing the injuries that stopped him from playing more than a passive part in the encounter. He wanted to feel Dan's strength, not his caution, careful, considerate. Not that.

Dan bit down on Tyler's collarbone and made a frustrated mewling sound that went straight to Tyler's cock. The kid was humping up against him, all fire and hunger and need. If he didn't slow down, it’d be over in thirty seconds, with nothing left to show for it but a wet patch on the bed and, with Dan's cock tucked up against Tyler's stomach, on Tyler too.

"Slow down," he whispered against Dan's ear. "Slow the fuck down. I'm awake, I swear it. Slow down."

Dan bit his shoulder. Tyler rolled his eyes and slapped Dan's ass, not hard but hard enough to get his attention. "Wait."

"Uhn."

Was that a word? Tyler shook his head and sent his hand down, forcing Dan to shift back an inch. When he had the solid weight of Dan's cock against his palm, he ran his hand up and down it, fingers curled, jacking him lazily. "Listening now, are you?"

"Don't stop," Dan begged, his hips arching up wantonly, eagerly. Tyler tried to recall a time when he'd been that uninhibited with a virtual stranger and stopped when a few examples came immediately to mind.

"If I don't stop, you'll come."

"I don't have a problem with that."

Dan found Tyler's nipple with his mouth and went to work. Tyler took a handful of Dan's hair and tugged him off before he went from licking it, which was okay, if wet, to biting it, which wasn't. "Doesn't do a thing for me. You want to get me as hot as you are, find something else to chew on."

Dan chuckled, which at least meant he was thinking again. "You mean you aren't? What's that digging a hole in my ribs then?"

He opened his mouth to tell Dan he wasn't that big, when Dan slid down the bed, pushing the covers back as he went. The head of Tyler's cock bumped gently against Dan's ribs and chest, chin and nose, before he stopped. "Roll onto your back," Dan ordered. "I want to blow you."

"I'm not stopping you." He wasn't, either, not once Dan ran the tip of his tongue around the head of Tyler's cock and left it tingling. Tyler grinned. Mint toothpaste.

Dan wasn't the best he'd had at this, but he was new enough to still be trying things out, which made it an interesting experience, and there was nothing to complain about in the way he made soft, happy little moans mixed in with genuine enthusiasm. "God, you taste good," Dan told him, mid-lick. "And you smell good."

Tyler blinked. "Uh, thanks?" He propped himself up on his elbows and watched the dark head bobbing busily, getting a glimpse of his cock disappearing inside Dan's mouth now, then. He moaned himself, arousal temporarily curing every ache and pain, because he felt too good to be hurting. Sweet wet heat wrapped around his cock, a hand cupping his balls snugly, warmly, and, God, yes, a finger, spit-slicked, no more, exploring further back, and making his hole clench in anticipation of a touch.

It didn't arrive. Dan pulled his hand back and put it on his cock, which Tyler couldn't blame him for, though it meant Dan's rhythm was shot to pieces and the onset of Tyler's climax receded. Still, the kid had come into the bed ready to shoot and Tyler knew that feeling. He wished Dan had let him finish.

Oh well. "Dan."

"Mm?"

Tyler allowed himself a moment to appreciate the sensation of that hum against the licked tender skin of his cock, then patted the pillow. "Turn around. I do you, you get back to doing me."

"I was!"

"You were. You stopped."

"Sixty-nine, you mean? I've never done that." Dan looked intrigued. "Seen pictures."

At some point when his balls weren't snugged up tight and high, he’d find out what Dan had done when it came to sex, but right then Tyler was more interested in getting off than talking about it. Dan obligingly twisted around and Tyler eased onto his side. After a relatively short amount of adjustment, with Dan's amusement at their clumsiness evident in the stifled chuckles that tickled Tyler's belly, they were positioned right.

Dan stopped smiling when Tyler's hand slid between his thighs, his intention only to pull Dan closer. Tyler saw the smile vanish and the tension that replaced it, and kept his hand moving until it was curved around Dan's ass.

"This okay?" he asked, giving Dan's ass a pat to make sure Dan knew what he meant.

"Yeah, I guess."

That sounded so much like 'hell, no' that Tyler took his hand back, then let it rest on Dan's thigh. "Never mind. How's this?"

"It's fine, okay?"

Tyler sighed and guided Dan's erection into his mouth, more to shut himself up than anything else. There was a moment when he thought Dan wasn't going to continue, but it passed, with Tyler's tongue being as persuasive as it could be. Dan whimpered and began to fuck Tyler's mouth, his empty until Tyler pointedly nudged him with his knee.

This wasn't Tyler's favorite position; it was too difficult to split his attention between what he was doing and what was being done to him, but he liked the sense of working toward a common goal and the silent communication as Dan copied him and he mirrored Dan. By the time he'd come, spurred by the assiduous application of Dan's tongue against the underside of his shaft, flexing and flicking in the right place three times out of four, which was enough, more than enough, he'd lost any residual irritation with Dan for taking off the way he had.

He gentled his thrusts into Dan's mouth as considerately as he could, given this was the first time he'd done this in years and he was shaking from the intensity of a climax he hadn't brought about himself. He finished Dan off within the space of thirty seconds. He remembered what Dan had liked the night before and built on it, tucking away the knowledge that too much suction wasn't a good idea and a hint of biting made Dan's fingers clutch hard at whatever he was holding.

They rolled apart, panting, and wearing identical grins.

"You know what you're doing, don't you?" Dan wriggled his ass against the bed like a cat in a patch of sunlight. "You blew the top of my head off, there."

"Out of practice," Tyler demurred, and with a rare moment of tact didn't add that Dan was easy to please. Twenty and horny as hell? Anything would work. He put his hand out and ran it along Dan's leg, surprised by a flash of possessiveness. Dan put his hand over Tyler's for a moment, then squirmed around, making the bed rock, and got face to face with Tyler.

"You could have kept your hand where it was."

Tyler knew what he meant. "Yeah? You didn't seem too comfortable." Tyler shook his head. "I'm in no shape to fuck you, if that's what you were worried about."

"I know. And I wasn't worried. I've done it before. Lots of times."

Tried it once with someone who didn't know what they were doing and got hurt, Tyler translated silently. He let the half-truth lie between them unchallenged but unaccepted, and Dan flushed. "I have."

"I don't care. I don't want you taking it into your head to run off again so I won’t ask you any questions. Besides, it isn't any of my business what you've done and who with."

"No, but you're still interested, aren't you?" Dan said, showing a hint of shrewdness.

Tyler shrugged. "I guess I am, but I meant it when I said I wasn't going to ask. Hell, it's all I can do to keep my eyes open."

"So close them, and I'll tell you, and I'll pretend you're asleep."

Cute. Tyler yawned, post-sex lassitude combining with physical weariness. "Sure, if you don't get your feelings hurt when I start snoring." He pulled the covers up and flipped them over Dan as well. "Want to sleep in here tonight?" he offered impulsively. It was a bad idea, given his ankle, which wouldn't take kindly to being jarred, and the implications of sharing a bed for something other than sex, but part of him wanted the company.

Dan answered him by getting out of bed and turning off the light, returning before Tyler’s pang of disappointment had time to register.

In the dark, it was easy to move closer, Tyler on his back, Dan's head resting on his shoulder, his hand on Tyler's stomach. As hugs went, it was lacking, but it was enough. Tyler laced his fingers with Dan's and waited.

"I knew I was gay. Knew what turned me on, and it wasn't the cheerleaders." Dan's breath was a whisper against Tyler's shoulder, but his words were clear. "How about you?"

Tyler resigned himself to a quid pro quo arrangement and cleared his throat. "The same, I guess, though I tried a few cheerleaders before I got it into my head that it wasn't going to work."

"Actual cheerleaders? Or metaphoric ones?"

"Actual," Tyler confessed. "I was a jock; they were a perk."

"I was nobody and the jocks didn't care enough about me to beat me up."

"Well, that sucks," Tyler said. “How dare they be so mean?”

 Dan chuckled drowsily and moved closer. "I know. But I was lucky; small town, sure, but people were mostly okay about it. In fact, one of the jocks was gay, and I'm pretty sure another one was, but he kept it quiet. I could've come out and no one would've given me hell for it at school."

Times had changed. Tyler couldn't imagine what his schooldays would've been like if people had known. "But you didn't?"

"You know I said 'mostly okay'? My dad wasn't. Okay, I mean. He wasn't the kind to get roused up over it and beat people up, but whenever the subject came up, his face got all closed off and he—"

Dan broke off and Tyler waited, giving him time, then, when Dan remained silent, gave him what small comfort he had. "My dad and yours would have gotten along."

"Yeah." Dan rubbed his cheek against Tyler's shoulder. "I bet they would. Anyway, I was doing okay. I dated a few girls to keep him from suspecting and he didn't want me having a social life, anyway. Too much work needed doing on the farm."

"No boys? Only girls?"

Dan sighed. "One boy. Man."

"Luke."

"Yeah." Dan slid his hand free and began to trace light, meaningless patterns on Tyler's stomach with his fingernails. "Luke Carter. Dad took him on to help out in spring and oh God, he was so hot."

"I can imagine," Tyler began to say.

"You can't." Dan's voice was vehement and there was a good six inches between his body and Tyler's now. "He was twenty-five, that's all, six years older, and he didn't seduce me, I chased him."

"Do I look like your fucking father?" Tyler interrupted as Dan's voice rose in volume. "You want to have this argument with him all over again, go out the door and start walking. Or call him up; I don't mind if it's long distance. But don't make me into him."

"I wasn't," Dan muttered.

"Yes, you were. So you and Luke started something and you got caught; was that it?"

Dan nodded, the movement felt rather than seen. "Dad was supposed to be at a poker game. Every month, same thing; he goes into town, plays with his buddies for a few goddamn dollars, and comes back at eleven. So we thought we had time and we didn't, because the truck broke down on the way in and he got a ride back from a neighbor. Sam dropped him off at the end of the road and so we didn't hear him coming."

"Awkward for everyone," Tyler said. "What happened?"

"He went for Luke. Got in two good punches before I stopped him and Luke, well, he's not built like you, but he's strong enough. Things were said and Luke wasn't there in the morning. Left me a note telling me he was headed to Canada and it'd been nice knowing me."

"Ouch," Tyler said. He wasn't unsympathetic but he couldn't see the faceless Luke as being much of a loss either.

"I stuck around for a few weeks, then I couldn't take it anymore. He wouldn't stop talking about it. On and on and fucking on. Said I was sick. Said I'd been influenced by Luke. Said I was doing it to piss him off, get back at him for something. Said every goddamned thing you can imagine except that it was okay, he still loved me, and he'd accept it and move on."

Dan rolled over, his back to Tyler. "I didn't love Luke. We didn't have much in common. But he made me feel good. Not so alone. Not so different."

"So why are you going after him?"

"I'm not." There was a pause, then Dan added, "I mean; Canada's big. It's not like I'm going to cross the border and he'll be on the other side, waiting."

"I wouldn't count on it, no," Tyler agreed.

"But it was somewhere to aim for and it seemed stupid to leave home without a plan."

A plan. God help us, Dan thought that was a plan? Tyler searched for a way to comment without being insulting, and gave up. "Yeah, it would've been." He wasn't sure if Dan wanted anything more from him, but he was wiped. "You ready to go to sleep now?"

"Sure." Dan turned his head, the shape of it all that Tyler could see in the darkness. "You think I'm an idiot, don't you?"

"I think…" Tyler shook his head. "A bit. But being sensible can be overrated. And at least you didn't do what I did when I left home."

"What did you do?"

"Joined up." Tyler grimaced without meaning to. "I was a bigger idiot than you."

"Why?"

"I'm going to sleep now," Tyler told him firmly, shutting down the inevitable questions before they began. "Stop talking."

Dan rolled back over and kissed him. Tyler wasn't sure where Dan had been aiming for, but it landed on his ear. "G'night," Dan said and, as far as Tyler could tell, fell asleep within minutes, his breathing regular and quiet. If he snored later on, Tyler didn't hear him. Sleep took him quickly, dreamless and deep.

 

Chapter Nine

"This is a mess." Dan didn't know why he said it. Tyler could see for himself that his garden was trashed. Maybe it was because Tyler's silence left a hole in need of filling.

Tyler grunted and turned his head. Well, that was responsive. Tyler had been like this all day. They'd spent the morning in town, where the doctor had apparently taken one look at Tyler's ankle and lost her cool completely.

Dan had been in the waiting room, reading a magazine aimed at teenage girls because it was the only thing there and it was that or field the receptionist's questions. Betty scared him. She'd hooked his name out of him within moments and he had no doubt that if he hadn't picked up the magazine she'd have known more about him than Tyler did by the time the doctor had finished Tyler's check-up.

Tyler had emerged from the examination room, his expression infuriated and abashed at the same time. After tiptoeing around him for a while, Dan had changed tactics and asked him how hard it was sitting after the doc had ripped him a new one. Tyler's mouth had thinned to nothing, then twitched in an unexpected grin.

Which didn't mean all was sweetness and light again. The garden looked as if it had been trampled by a giant toddler in a temper. The vegetables previously tied to canes and trellises lay on the ground, mud-splashed and broken, with their supports snapped. Tyler was acting like it was a major disaster, though, which it wasn't. One hell of a lot of work, that was all.

Dan shrugged with the philosophical acceptance any farmer learned early or got ulcers, and turned to Tyler. "Which section do you want me to start re-staking first?"

"Why bother?" Tyler smacked the end of his cane against a mud-mottled green pepper, under-ripe and destined to stay that way, and split it, flat seeds exposed to the sun beating down from a dazzle of sky. "Dig it over."

"What?" Dan shook his head. "No way. You can salvage a lot of this, man. It was one storm and you can see how the rain perked things up."

"Dig it over, or leave it the hell alone. I'm done with it." Tyler sounded dispirited which make no sense at all. The doc had been annoyed with him for going walkabout in the woods, but she hadn't threatened to put him on bed rest or anything; only told him if he did it again, she'd tear his foot off with her bare hands. She wasn't much like any doctor Dan had ever had, but he'd gotten the idea that Tyler and Anne were friends, which made a difference.

"I can fix it," Dan insisted. "You can't waste all this food and the work you put into it."

"I can do what I like."

"What has gotten into you today?" Dan said, his voice cracking with the effort to keep from shouting. "Why are you so pissed off? You grow stuff and sometimes the pests eat it, or the drought withers it, or the rain mildews it, or it's spinach to start with and who the hell wants to eat that, anyway, but that's what happens. It was wind and rain. Nothing here I can't tidy up. Honest."

He walked closer to Tyler than he had done all morning, apart from when he'd been helping the man get in and out of the truck. Trying to help, anyway, as Tyler had glared at him until he stepped back, his hand dropping to his side. Close enough to see the tiredness etched around Tyler's eyes and get a good look at the mouth he had a fondness for. Though he suspected kissing it now would lead to frostbite. "Let me," he said in his softest, most persuasive voice, the one he'd used to get Luke to touch him, kiss him, fuck him, though Luke hadn't needed much persuading. Not that it eased the guilt of costing the man his job. "Come on, Tyler. Or you can listen to me being bored again."

"Or you could get the hell out of here, then I wouldn't have to listen to anything but peace and quiet."

That dig hurt after a night spent breathing in each other's air and waking tangled around each other, both half-hard, though they hadn't done anything about it, not with the way Tyler looked like it hurt him to blink.

"If you want me gone before you're healed up enough to cope alone, say so, and I'll be that swirl of dust on the horizon."

"I always could cope alone," Tyler told him, but there was no rancor in his voice. "Truth be told, I asked you to stay mostly to get Anne off my back and partly because you looked like you needed a breathing space."

"Yeah, I did, but there were probably places in town you could've sent me to that would've given me that. I don't suppose you've got a soup kitchen, but there's usually somewhere to get a meal and a bed as long as you're on your way the next day." Dan put his hands in his pockets before he reached out to touch Tyler the way he wanted to. Tyler was projecting enough hands-off vibes to make him wary at the same time as he was tempted. With every hour they spent together, it was getting more difficult to remember he wasn't anything to Tyler but a pity-fuck, a charity case. "You didn't need to make me your responsibility. You don't owe me anything; I'm the trespasser you caught stealing."

"No, you're the kid I almost shot."

That admission sent a shiver through Dan. Tyler pointing his rifle at him was one of the sharper memories of that day, fogged over with hunger as it was. Cold gray eyes and a finger ready to squeeze a trigger. But he hadn't thought Tyler would do it. Discovering Tyler had seen it as a close call made the memory something to cringe away from.

"You wouldn't have done that." He tried to sound confident.

"You have no idea how close I came." Tyler hunched up his shoulder. "I'd better go in. Anne said I wasn't supposed to stand for long."

"Then sit down," Dan snapped. "There's a bench over there." There was; a rustic one, made of oddly twisted branches and mismatched planks. Dan had tested it out and found it surprisingly comfortable.

Tyler shook his head and turned to walk away.

"You wouldn't have done it," Dan said again. He needed to hear Tyler admit it. "People don't shoot other people. Well, not in broad daylight for no reason, anyway. Not people like you. You'd have to be crazy."

"You think I wouldn't shoot someone?" Mild and cool, Tyler's voice sent a shiver over Dan. "I've shot more people than you've had birthdays." His mouth quirked up in a sour smile. "And, no, that's not an exaggeration."

"When you were in the army, you mean?" Had to be. Tyler wasn't a murderer. Not that it made it right.

"Well, yeah."

"My friend's dad was in the Navy for twenty years and never killed anyone," Dan said. "You must have been somewhere dangerous."

"There's always a war somewhere," Tyler told him. "Look, are we done?"

"How many?" The question was blurted out before his mind could censor it.

He didn't think Tyler would tell him, but he did. "Twenty-three."

Memories of dozens of war movies flooded his brain. "How can you be so sure? I mean, you fire, but it's chaotic, bombs going off and all that."

"You think they sent me out to fight on the front lines like that? Risked me getting hit by friendly fire or being the victim of some idiot officer wanting to make the six-o'clock news?" Tyler chuckled, the sound raw and painful. "I was kept safe until they needed me. Then they took me out, dusted me down, and pointed me at a target. I could kill from so far away I was in another fucking time zone." He pursed his lips. "That's not an exaggeration, either. There was this one time in Lebanon, but if I told you, I'd have to kill you."

The last words, usually said as a joke, were a flat threat, all emotion carved out of the cliché. There was a small part of Dan that still didn't quite believe, but most of him did.

Tyler raised his cane, the muddied tip of it pointed directly at Dan's head. "Bang," Tyler murmured. "You're dead, boy. You're so fucking dead."

Then Tyler's hand shook, the tremors spreading. He slammed the end of the cane against the ground, pivoted on it, and walked away. Dan waited until he heard the door slam, then let himself react, which consisted mostly of muttering "Fuck" under his breath and chewing at a ragged fingernail until he'd reduced it to a thin crescent of white and his finger was sore.

That had been scary. No, that had been fucking terrifying. Dan touched his hand to his face and took it away damp with sweat that had nothing to do with the warmth of the sun.

Okay, he could go. Leave. Get as far away as he could and trust that Tyler wouldn't follow him this time. Except the only reason for doing that would be because he thought that Tyler was dangerous, which was ridiculous. Tyler had fed him and brought him in from the cold, which might make him feel like a stray kitten but didn't make him feel at risk.

Still, there was no getting away from it; the guy had issues. PTSD? Maybe. Probably. Though anyone who took a weapon with him to pick berries, close to his home in an area not known for bears, wasn't freaked out by guns. More likely he felt safer with one close by.

Dan chewed his lip as an alternative to a fingernail. Was anyone looking for Tyler? If he'd killed a bunch of people, he could've made enemies, even if the assassination were government approved. Which he only had Tyler's word for. Tyler, who'd admitted cheerfully that he'd lie without blinking if it suited him.

Dan moaned. Too confusing. Too many fucking ifs and maybes. He looked at the vegetable patch and a measure of calm returned, because no matter what Tyler said, that mess needed clearing up. The vegetables lying on the ground would rot if they weren’t re-staked soon, and the debris needed to be tidied away. Work didn't scare him. Never had.

He didn't bother stopping for lunch. Tyler and he had breakfasted in town at a shabby diner whose breakfast special cost three dollars and left Dan feeling too full to move. Grease, salt, ketchup, and lots of coffee. He was sweating it out of his system now, though. Grit built up under his fingernails and he was sure his face was streaked with it, because he kept wiping the wetness from his forehead with a filthy hand. Tyler would have to turn the hose on him when the day was done, because if he took a bath muddied up like this, he'd clog the drain.

He pictured that; him standing naked out here in the garden, with Tyler playing a cool spray of water over him, his gray eyes warm with appreciation because Dan knew he'd be giving Tyler plenty to look at. His skin tingled imagining it. Tyler's hands would feel so hot on him after the soaking, moving over his skin, the water on Dan's body absorbed by Tyler's clothes as he got in close, making them cling to all those muscles.

Fuck. Squatting down to ease tomatoes free from the dried mud encasing them wasn't all that comfortable will his cock getting harder with every lustful thought. Dan rocked back onto his heels and adjusted himself, which left more dirt smeared on him. Maybe there was a river he could jump into.

By three o'clock, he'd gone from full to empty, his belly growling softly and his head light. He'd snacked on some tomatoes and a few peapods, popping them open and extracting the peas with a dexterous skim of his finger. Raw peas always tasted better than cooked ones, but they'd probably give him a stomachache. There had been no sign of Tyler, who hadn't come to see what he was doing or chase him away. Dan supposed that was a good sign, but he would've appreciated a cool soda and a few words of thanks. He'd gotten a drink from the outside tap, using it to rinse his hands clean, the shock of the water welcome, then slurping at the clear stream, thirst making him appreciate it, despite the rusty aftertaste. He'd drunk from worse since he hit the road.

He straightened, one hand in the small of his back, where the ache was worst, giving a good impression of the Tin Woodman before the oilcan loosened him up. He was used to working, sure, but this kind of cramped, fiddly work, well, not so much. Riding a tractor was easier on his muscles.

"I can't look at you without hating you. What have you turned into? What happened to my son, my Daniel? I used to be proud of you."

Dan turned in the direction of home and spat on the ground, needing some way to express his feelings. A year ago, he might have punched a wall, but he'd learned the hard way that gestures like that were guaranteed to leave him feeling worse, not better. Swollen, bruised knuckles weren't much fun to live with. "Like you had to stop loving me because of that?" The words sounded disconsolate, not hate-filled. He'd given up hating his father somewhere around the fifth day on the road. He needed to leave some space to loathe the men who were using him like he didn't matter, like they'd earned the rights to his mouth by doing no more than letting him ride along with them for an hour or so.

What his daddy had done hadn't been a shock. Dan had known how he'd react, after all. Couldn't hate him too much for the way he'd been raised.

Which didn't mean that he wanted to set eyes on the small-minded, bitter son of a bitch again. Dan bent, scooped up a tomato, ripe, seeds spilling, and lobbed it in the direction of home, watching it fly up, a red streak against the blue sky. It fell short of the trees and landed with an unheard splat in the grass.

"You having fun out here?"

Tomato juice seeped into the raw skin under a popped blister on his palm and stung enough to put an edge on his reply. He'd worked without a break for four hours or more and what did he get? Tyler, looking cool and rested, in clean jeans and a white shirt, hanging open to expose his bare chest, mottled with bruises over his ribs.

"Fun?" He wished he had another tomato. Be kind of funny to see that white shirt get a crazy pattern on it. His gaze slid sideways to the vegetable patch. He could wander over there, casual and slow… "It's been a blast. Drinking beer, catching some rays. A genuine vacation."

"I don't grow them for you to throw them." There was enough of a warning in Tyler's voice for Dan to know Tyler had read his intentions as easily as if they'd been printed up an a board in big, clear letters.

"That one was rotten."

Tyler leaned against one of the porch supports and let his cane swing back and forth in a slow arc. Dan watched it swing, then let his gaze track up from the hand that held it to the wide shoulders. Hard to think about running in any direction but forward now he knew that body better.

"I was expecting you to come after me, wanting to talk." There was a twist of derision in the final words, but as Dan's views on emotional, heart-to-heart talks were that they were best avoided, he didn't mind.

"If I'd gone after you, I'd have punched you out. You were being one aggravating bastard, you know that?"

"And me crippled and helpless."

Dan snorted. "Yeah, right. I get the feeling that breaking both your arms and legs wouldn't slow you down much."

Tyler looked bemused. "I'm not the fucking Terminator. And hand-to-hand isn't something I've done much, outside of training."

"Oh yeah?" Dan bent down again and this time came up with a stone in his hand, the size of an egg. He threw it with an accuracy that would've made him an asset on any baseball team, always assuming anyone chose him, threw it fast and hard at Tyler's head.

The stone smacked into Tyler's hand an instant later, inches away from its target and stayed there for the count of three. Then Tyler tossed it aside, his face unreadable, and turned on his heel.

"Damn you, get back here!" Dan yelled. His head was aching, he was filthy, and he didn't give a goddamn crap if it was honest dirt. If Tyler thought for one fucking minute that he'd intended that stone to hit… He'd known damn well Tyler would catch it. "I've worked my fucking ass off in your garden and the least you could do is look at it."

Tyler paused on the threshold without looking back. "I told you to leave it."

"Yeah, well, I don't always listen to people telling me what to do."

"Why does that not surprise me?" Tyler glanced over his shoulder. "You'd better listen to this. I've told you what I am. What I did. I'm not likely to go nuts and blow your head off your shoulders while you're here, but don't fool yourself that you can put a smile on my face by wiggling your cute ass at me and doing some chores." The cane was banged down hard against the wooden floor, providing a period to the conversation, and Dan stood in the sunlight, with no one to vent his rising temper on.

He thought of tearing up everything he'd replanted, wiping out hours of labor in a few satisfying moments of destruction. He could do it. Tyler wouldn't be able to stop him, supposing he noticed what was going on and came to take a look. Like Tyler fucking cared about the plants, anyway. Dan felt protective toward them, as if they, like him, were a victim of Tyler's ingratitude and frankly fucking pissy attitude. He ended up in the shade, slumped against the rain barrel, the curved wood cool and damp, his gaze fixed on the neat rows of vegetables a few yards away, restlessly shredding a piece of vine between his fingers. The sap was pungent and sticky but he barely noticed. Green and red… stop and go… What did Tyler want him to do? They'd slept together last night, but Dan couldn't see that happening again. He wasn't sure he wanted to. Tyler was touchy as hell, all guilt and bitterness, and Dan didn't need that crap in his life.

He couldn't forget the Tyler who'd fed him soup, though, and carried him through the woods. The Tyler who'd seen what he needed and given it to him without hesitation, his mouth hot and sweet.

Lost in thought, half asleep in the intense drowse of the late afternoon, the small thud of Tyler's cane was as much background noise as the birdsong, but he roused as Tyler came around the corner of the cabin, some instinct making him want to get to his feet. He ignored it. Unless he stood on top of the rain barrel, Tyler was always going to be taller.

"You need to eat," Tyler said finally, breaking the silence Dan had built. "I made supper."

"Thought that was my job."

"Yeah, it is, but seeing as you were out here, and hopping on one foot I'm capable of getting food out of the freezer and nuking it in the microwave, I went ahead. I'm reckless like that. I did garlic bread to go with the chili."

Chili on a blazing hot day shouldn't have sounded good, but it did. Garlic bread dripping with butter and a cold beer sounded even better.

"I need to shower."

"We can eat outside," Tyler said. "And after, I'll take you to the stream behind the cabin and you can scrub off the top layers in there. I dammed it last year and made a pool. It's not deep, but you can sit in it and it'll come up to your chest. Shouldn't be cold on a day like this. It's in full sun all afternoon."

"That your way of apologizing?" Dan stared up at Tyler, who looked like a chunk of mountain, dark against the sky.

"No." Tyler nodded at the vegetable plot. "This is: it looks good. Thank you."

Peace, mellow and golden, washed away the last of Dan's anger. Somehow, he didn't think Tyler apologized often, but that would do.

"I'll stand outside, and you pass out the food," he said and stood, his stomach a hollow waiting to be filled.

 

Chapter Ten

The path to the stream was a good one; the previous owners had made it, and as it began and ended on his property, Tyler kept it clear and wide, unlike the access road. He used his cane and leaned on Dan, in what was an unspoken apology all of its own, and they arrived at the stream within a few minutes. Birdsong, an agitated chatter of it, announced them. Once, Tyler would have been able to move through an open wood like this without disturbing as much as an ant. Off his game.

"Wow." Dan gave the small glade an appreciative look as they left the path to walk on ground covered with calf-high grass and studded with wildflowers Tyler had learned the names of the summer before, with the help of a book from the town library. "Real pretty."

It was, although with dusk approaching the mosquitoes would soon eat them alive. Tyler sat on the blanket Dan spread at the water's edge, his back against a rock, and sighed, replete and relaxed. Above his head, leaves hung without movement, captured in the syrup-heavy heat, and at his feet the stream, rain-fed and high, tumbled over rocks and sand on its way to join the river that wound through Carlyle. The pool he'd created was full and more clouded with silt than usual, but it looked tempting. It was dammed with rocks, the gaps between them chinked with mud and moss and smaller pebbles, and it was ten feet wide and three deep. It was meant to soak, not swim in, and he often did, a beer in hand and his skin crisping cool and fresh as the water lapped around him. In late spring or early fall, he finished the beer on the walk back because the water was too cold to sit in for long, but at the height of summer, it was perfect.

"Man, oh man." Tyler watched lazily as Dan undressed, his earth-stained clothing hitting the ground. "My sweat is sweating."

"Hot day." The line of Dan's spine was a hollowed-out groove a thumbprint wide, a tongue's lick narrow. Tyler watched Dan's wiry muscles flex and stored the sight of him in his memories, to take out and consider sometime in the future, when this pool was iced over and Dan long since gone. Dan shucked off his shorts and stood, bare and brown, his ass and the top of his thighs the only places on him not burned tan.

Dan snorted and transferred his gaze from the pool to Tyler. The ardor in his eyes was for the prospect of a cool dip, Tyler told himself. "Hot chili, you mean. You like to spice it up, don't you?"

"If your second helping hadn't been bigger than your first, I might think you didn't like it." Tyler grinned. "It's been in the freezer for a month; you'd think that would have cooled it off some."

"I think it concentrated the heat." Dan blew upwards over his flushed face. "Whew."

Dan didn't seem concerned about standing there naked and carrying on a conversation. Tyler gave into the temptation to tease and let his gaze drop and a knowing smile curl his lips. On cue, Dan's dick stiffened, but Dan only glanced down, grinned cheerfully, and patted it.

Tyler had cleared away all the stones on the bottom of the pool, not wanting to slip on a coating of green algae. Dan peered in, saw the sandy bottom and stepped in and sat in one smooth motion, letting out a whoop as the cold water struck heated flesh.

"Oh God, oh God, cold, cold… You told me it would be warm!"

Tyler chuckled heartlessly, and ducked out of the way as Dan's flailing sent water spraying out, glittering in the leaf-filtered sunlight. "It usually is, but the storm means the water in there isn't getting the chance to settle and warm."

"Bastard," Dan said, without heat, and settled back. "Feels good now I'm numb all over."

Tyler smiled, wishing he could slide in next to Dan and get his hands on cool, slippery skin. He'd warm them both up. "Yeah, it does." He took off the running shoes he was wearing over bare feet, then peeled the bandage off his ankle. The water met his skin, cool enough to burn, then numb, the rush of it like a gentle massage against the swollen, bruised ankle. Dan was right; it felt good.

They sat there for a while, Tyler not inclined to speak and, for which he was thankful, Dan picking up on that and staying quiet, his eyes half-closed, his body floating, swayed back and forth by the water. It couldn't last, though. Silence didn't seem to come naturally to Dan.

"Why did you pick here to live? You from around here?"

Tyler's accent was as neutral as he could make it and if needed he could broaden it to pass for a native of a dozen states. An expert might have been able to pinpoint his birthplace, but most people accepted whatever he told them without suspicion. "No."

"This is the farthest I've ever been from home," Dan told him, giving back more than he'd received, but then, he didn't have any secrets, did he? "Never seen the ocean. I'd like to, though."

"It's not that far away," Tyler said. "Three hundred, four hundred miles, depending on if you're heading for a city or not. You can do it in a day, easy."

"A day there, a day to look around, a day back." Dan slapped his hand down flat on the water with an emphatic smack. "Too many days away when there's work to be done."

He wasn't sure why he said it, but the words came out of him like breath, impossible to hold back. "We can go tomorrow if you like."

"What?" Dan gaped at him, his jaw sagging. Tyler shook his head, amused by the kid's shock. "You're crazy."

"Only alternate Fridays." Tyler picked up a stone, flat and dark, streaked with white. It fit snugly into his palm and he weighed it for a moment, then sent it skimming down the stream, one hop, skip, jump, until it sank, lost. "Damn. Three. I'm off my game."

"The water's too rough." Dan gave him a sidelong glance. "Tomorrow's not a good idea. Your ankle hurts and if we went there I'd want us to be able to do stuff, you know?"

"If you like, when you leave I can drive you over there and you can pick up your journey from the coast. Might be easier to get rides; lots of tourists."

"They never stop; too scared and their cars are full of kids and suitcases." Dan's face had lost the startled glow it had held a minute earlier. "Maybe. I'll think about it. Thanks."

The chopped-off jerky words sounded hurt. Tyler ran through what he'd said in his head and couldn't find anything to upset Dan, unless it was the reference to him leaving. The implications of that weren't hard to work out. Fuck. He'd been stupid, his guilt-fueled impulse to help someone he felt sorry for, someone he'd come close to shooting no kindness if it'd left Dan feeling tied to him. Tyler held few illusions about himself and he'd seen the horror in Dan's eyes when he'd told him what his job had been. Dan hadn't been thrilled or impressed; he'd been scared. Given that reaction, Dan's willingness to stick around had to be rooted in something that was, from Tyler's point of view, worse.

Because however brief Dan's attraction to him was, it should never have happened.

You fed him, fucked him, tracked him down in a storm; what the hell did you expect? a voice jeered in his head. You're a big fucking hero, aren't you?

Oh yeah. A hero. He had a medal somewhere to prove it.

And to prove heroes could be selfish, stupid jerks, he pulled his feet out of the water and went over to Dan, going down to his knees and leaning over to kiss him.

Judas kiss. Because he wasn't an option for Dan and making Dan think he was counted as cruelty.

Dan's tongue flickered against his and wet, cold hands left cool patches on Tyler's face and neck and back as Dan, on his stomach now, hung onto him. God, he needed this. Months, years of loneliness, had been stored in a space too small to hold them. Dan had opened the lid and they'd poured out. Pandora's fucking box, but Tyler didn't fool himself that there was any hope lurking at the bottom.

"Wish you could fuck me," Dan whispered against his mouth. "Before I go. I wish you would."

"That’s not a good idea."

"I've done it before," Dan assured him. "With Luke. It hurt, yeah, but I want to."

"It wouldn't hurt if I did it," Tyler told him, without conceit but with a sharp stab of anger at the absent Luke, who'd been in a hurry, and hadn't cared enough to make it good for Dan. "Well, not much. Doesn't have to hurt."

"I figured that out," Dan told him and let go. He sank under the water, then surfaced to shake himself like a dog, droplets flying. "Mosquitoes are coming out. Want to head back?"

"Sure," Tyler said and wondered what had happened, and what he'd committed himself to in the space of a few words and a couple of kisses. "Let's go home."

***

They played cards until it got to a reasonable time for two adult men to go to bed. They didn't need to wait. Tyler got the impression that Dan would've been happy to have had sex as soon after walking through the door as was reasonably possible, but Tyler wasn't a fan of fast and impulsive. He'd once spent a month watching a target he could have taken out a dozen times, so that when it came time to make the kill, the exact, precise angle at which the man's head tilted when he swallowed the final mouthful of his wine was locked in his mind.

The red wine had spilled out like blood from the man's mouth, trickling down to splash and stain the white, crisp shirt a bullet had ripped apart. The blood and wine stains had met and mixed, but he'd known which was which. The wine glass had dropped, broken in an icy tinkle, like sleigh bells. He hadn't heard them, but they'd chimed in his head for hours and stopped him sleeping. The next target had been his last. He couldn't shoot with shaking hands and Tyler, who'd prided himself on needing one shot, clean through the heart, had slaughtered the man, pumping bullets into him until he'd stopped twitching; arms, head, chest, leaving him a rag doll torn apart by a dog.

They were uneasy memories to endure sitting across from Dan at the kitchen table, playing poker for matchsticks, Dan's fast, sloppy shuffling reflected in his play. Dan knew all the rules and had a certain feel for the cards, but he didn't remember what had been played the way Tyler did. The pile of matchsticks in front of Tyler was proof of that.

Tyler was also far from willing to take Dan at his word and fuck him. There was no rush on that, either. He liked fucking and being fucked, with the right partner, but Dan was so raw and jumpy he'd have to be careful. He didn't like being careful. He used sex to get off and forget. Careful meant he had to think too much. He didn't want to watch his dick sink deep into Dan's ass, as obscene and sweet a sight as it got, and think about anything but the tight squeeze of Dan's body around him. He was used to partners who could deal with what he handed out, or let him know if it was too much, or they wanted more, without hesitation. Dan wouldn't take rejection well, which made him feel irritable in spite of the buzz of arousal. He didn't want to hurt Dan's feelings, and if that meant going along with Dan's plans, well, was that such a chore?

Shit, why couldn't he make up his mind? It should've been a simple choice, to fuck or not to fuck, but life had stopped being simple from the moment he'd met Dan.

When Dan went to get a bowl of chips to soak up the beer, Tyler prodded his ribs cautiously. Tender, yes, but as long as Dan didn't have his weight on him, Tyler thought he could manage something more energetic than they'd done so far. The cut on his hand was healing well, the edges of the gash held together by Anne's careful stitches. Tyler always had bounced back fast from injuries; that hadn't changed.

He watched Dan as they played another hand. Salty lips from the chips, bright eyes from the beer, perched on the edge of his chair, his body language told Tyler he had a good hand as clearly as if Dan had laid the cards out on the table, face-up. Tyler's cards weren't bad, but he wouldn't have folded if the best he held was eight high; he wanted to see Dan's expression blossom into a grin when he won big.

When it came, it was worth losing some thirty matchsticks. Dan whooped, slammed his hand on the table, and looked delighted and smug, which was cute enough on him that all Tyler could do was shake his head ruefully, feeling an indulgent smile spreading over his face like butter on hot toast.

"I got you that time!" Dan crowed. "Read 'em and weep."

Dan's complete lack of anything resembling a poker face was enough to make Tyler feel like shedding a tear or two, but he kept that to himself. "I'm crushed. Of course, as it's the only hand you've won all night…"

"I was lulling you."

"Lulling. Right."

Dan winked at him, counting his winnings aloud. Tyler rolled his eyes and tossed the empty box across the table. "When you've finished gloating over them, put them back into the box. I don't think my nerves will stand another hand."

"Wise move. Because I was all set to clear you out."

Tyler stood and ruffled Dan's hair as he passed him. "In your dreams."

He didn't miss the way Dan pushed into the caress like a cat wanting to be stroked, but he kept moving toward the bathroom. He was able to walk around the house without his cane now, which made him feel less helpless, although his ankle was still weak. He supposed if he wanted to keep Dan with him, he should exaggerate his injuries, not downplay them, but it wasn't in his nature to do that. He was ready to admit he'd like it if Dan stuck around, but if Dan had his heart set on seeing the world after spending his life on a farm in the middle of nowhere, Tyler wouldn’t stop him.

He brushed his teeth with unnecessary vehemence and by the time he'd spat out the foam and rinsed his mouth, he'd made up his mind. His job had taught him to value life, even as he took it away from people his government had deemed unworthy. He appreciated each breath he took, each day he survived. He'd been resting here, hiding away, and he wasn't ever going back to his old life, but it didn't mean he had to live like he was already in the ground. Dan wasn't a solution to his problems, any more than he was an option for Dan, but it didn't mean the two of them couldn't enjoy some friendly fucking and, yeah, a trip to the ocean. If Dan winning a hand was cute, Dan seeing the vast blue sparkle of the Pacific laid out in front of him, misted over in an early morning haze would be a sight to remember.

So he wouldn't say anything to make Dan feel he'd worn out his welcome or do or say anything to make him feel tied down.

Full of good intentions, he got into bed naked and smiled at Dan when he walked in, wearing nothing but one of his ridiculous pairs of shorts. Pink hearts. Worse than the rabbits. "Tell me you're planning to take those off before you get into bed."

Dan hooked his thumbs in the waistband. "Off?" he said, all innocence. "You mean you want me naked?"

Tyler narrowed his eyes as Dan widened his in a wholly unconvincing attempt to look shocked at the idea. "Put it this way; if the shorts stay on, I'll be asleep inside of thirty seconds as a way of saving my sanity along with my eyesight."

"And if they come off?" Dan did a shimmy and the shorts slid down an inch or two, revealing a flat stomach and, as Dan was already hard—God bless the teenage libido—the head of his dick, peeking out tantalizingly. "Think you can stay awake for ooh, five minutes or so?"

"Five minutes." Tyler gave that some consideration, dragging his gaze up to Dan's face with an effort, then nodded. "Yeah, I guess you naked would be interesting enough to keep my eyes open that long. Ten might be pushing it, though."

Dan sucked in a breath and shook his head. "You're going to regret saying that. Maybe I'll be the one to fall asleep at five minutes no matter what we're doing. Leave you high and fucking dry, man."

Tyler kept his face straight. "Maybe I won't notice and I'll keep on hammering into you."

The shorts slid south another inch. "If I didn't know better, I'd say you were confessing to being under-equipped, because it seems to me that a man should notice something like that going on."

"You'll notice," Tyler promised him, breaking down first and grinning. "Now get your bare ass over here, will you?"

"Sir, yes, sir." Dan glanced down as he said it, and kicked his way free of the shorts, which was good, as it gave Tyler a chance to get the smile back on his face before Dan noticed the grimace that had replaced it. Fuck, way to bring back bad memories. Even said jokingly, those three words were enough to make his skin crawl.

Drop and give me twenty.

Sir, yes, sir.

See that hill on the horizon? Jog around and back, full kit, and if it takes you more than thirty minutes, you're scrubbing toilets with a toothbrush.

Sir, yes, sir.

Get your mouth on me, soldier, suck me nice and slow. No one's going to interrupt us.

 Sir, yes—

Did I ask you to fucking talk?

Kill that man. No, he's not a kid; he's old enough to hold a gun, kill him before he takes out one of your buddies or worse yet, me. Shoot the little fucker and that's an order.

Sir, yes, sir…

Dan crawled in next to him, the light from the bedside lamp more than enough for him to appreciate the wicked grin that was all Dan wore, and he stopped thinking about the past.

"Are we going to do this?" Dan asked as they lay facing each other. He wasn't quite touching Tyler, but the space between them was small enough that it was less of a barrier than an extension of their skin, as if Tyler could move his fingers, currently resting against his thigh, and Dan would shudder, shiver, smile.

"If you still want to." He wasn't going to push for it. After the famine of the last few years, Tyler was happy with anything that had him coming with a warm, friendly body beside him. "It's not a problem if you don't."

"And you never say it if you don't mean it." There was a skeptical edge to Dan's voice. "You're hard, you know. And I'm thinking you wouldn't like it if I backed down now."

Tyler sighed and rolled to his back, ignoring the twinge of pain from his ribs. "I'm in bed with you and we're naked; of course I'm hard. I know what you feel like, what you smell and taste like. I know how you sound when you're a heartbeat away from coming. I've got all that in my head, and you seriously think I wouldn't be hard?"

"Hmm." Dan shifted closer and put his hand on Tyler's chest, high enough up that it didn't hurt. One of his fingers, the middle one, was directly over Tyler's nipple, which rose, yearning for more than the uncomplicated, accidental contact, needing to be licked, bitten, pinched this side of pain with an answering jolt of arousal in his cock. Dan's caress was restless, light, and Tyler bit back unbalanced words, not sure if they would have emerged as plea or demand. "When you put it like that…"

"Right now, you could get me off by touching me. I won’t complain if I don't get to fuck your ass when I'm this close.”

"Hmm." This time it was thoughtful. Dan skimming his hand over bruised skin and paused again, this time on Tyler's stomach. His muscles contracted sharply and Dan pressed down, maintaining contact. The heel of Dan's hand was inches away from the head of Tyler's cock, a small gap, tiny, but it felt vast to Tyler, impossible to breach. He lay still and let Dan explore him, the sheets thrown back to drape over their legs, his body displayed. If he had to describe his state, it’d be anxious and wanton, two emotions that didn't mix well.

"You are so fucking hot." Dan's words exuded sincerity and his fingers, drifting, stroking, touched Tyler with a reverence Tyler didn't think he deserved. "You make me feel… Fuck, I say 'safe' and it's going to sound weird, isn't it?"

"Considering what I told you I did, yeah." He'd been waiting for Dan to bring it up, dreading it, and now he'd done it himself. Dan's hand stopped moving, not abruptly, but slowly, as if Dan's focus had shifted from the supposed hotness of Tyler's body to what it was capable of, beside the bestowal of mind-blowing orgasms.

"I was almost wondering if that was real, or something you told me to scare me off." There was something in Dan's voice that made Tyler wonder if a lie would be a kindness, but he couldn't do it.

"It's real. And it wasn't illegal. Well, put it another way, it was government sanctioned, but I shouldn't have told you. Talk about it and we'll end up in a world of trouble."

"I worked that out myself." Dan used a thumbnail, tracing the hollow at Tyler's hip with enough force behind it that the skin sang and thrummed, shocks of pleasure radiating out. God, he loved someone finding the places on his body that made him pliant, sweet, and he hated that he'd never trusted anyone enough to tell them where they were or let them see how good it felt. "I won’t tell you it doesn't freak me out, because it does. Big time."

"As long as it doesn't turn you on." He'd known people it did; the snipers themselves, and the people they rutted with afterwards. He'd never accepted that it was life-affirming, or any of that shit. Escaping death; yeah, that could leave a person charged up and ready to go, but taking a life? No. Blood didn't make good lube, real or metaphoric.

"You have got to be fucking kidding me." The flat disgust in Dan's voice was reassuring. "I like an action movie as much as the next guy, but when it's real… God, no."

"If it helps, they were all—" He ground to a halt. Evil? Deserved to die? He'd thought so at the time, but he'd only had the data he'd been spoon-fed. For all he knew, for some of them, their main crime had been that they were in the way of a plan, an objective, a valuable piece of oil-rich real estate. He turned his head away from Dan, his arousal dying, then, needing to hide the way his hands shook. He rolled to his side, his back to Dan, his hands in fists. They still shook.

"Hey." The lamp was clicked off, the sudden darkness welcome as a place to hide in. Tyler tried to control himself enough to ask Dan to go, but before he spoke, Dan spooned up behind him. His arm came around to give Tyler a hesitant hug, as if Dan expected him to lash out at any contact. "Hey."

And that was all he said. Tyler allowed the hug, because he didn't have the strength to pull away. He let Dan drop gentle kisses onto his shoulder, let Dan rock him, his wiry arms stronger than Tyler had expected. Didn't let Dan turn him so that they were face to face, because his cheeks weren't wet, but he thought that one more piece of undeserved kindness and they might be.

The shaking was usually the start of it; he'd end up shivering, his teeth chattering so violently he'd once bitten his tongue deeply enough that he'd choked on blood. He could stay like that for hours, in a waking nightmare, the world around him shadowed and gray, peopled with ghosts. With Dan holding onto him, holding his body still, the trembling gradually eased off. He waited to be sure it had, unable to feel relieved, still tense, waiting for it to strike at him again with a redoubled force.

Dan patted his shoulder, gave a satisfied murmur, then pulled back enough to let Tyler choose a position to lie in. Tyler made it to his back, and lay there, staring up at the ceiling, the beams dimly visible. Dan's hand found his and held it loosely. He let his fingers curl around Dan's for a moment, then drew his hand away. He couldn't get used to this. Couldn't rely on Dan for comfort, for sex, for anything.

He thought he heard Dan sigh, but it could've been the sound of him settling down to sleep. He didn't want to follow him. He might have escaped the worst of the physical reactions to what he'd done, but he didn't fool himself that his dreams would be safe. Dan couldn't follow him there and anchor him to the present.

Sleep came anyway, the moment when it struck lost, as ever, impossible to remember or pinpoint. He was dreaming, but it didn't make it less frightening because everything in his dream had happened. Years ago, but still, it was real. No monsters, only men, no demons but the old-fashioned kind, with labels like 'guilt' and 'regret' hung around their necks.

He shouldn't have thought about that last job. This, all of it, was inevitable once he let those thoughts in.

Sunshine and the smell of cut grass and roses. Summer smells. Children laughing, shrieking, their light, high-pitched voices carrying to him across the space separating him from their world. They're in the pool, out of sight, and his target is busy in the garden. It's an affectation; a hobby. The grounds are huge, kept trim and tidy by at least three people, working full-time, but every Wednesday, Victor spends an hour, no more, no less, rain or shine, wandering around, a trowel in his hand or some pruning shears, making a mess the staff he pays will tidy up with a quiet efficiency afterwards.

He watches the man through the scope and walks into Victor's world. Sees the clean sweat on the thin neck, sees the gloved hands poke and prod at soft, tilled earth. Sees the blaze of scarlet petals of a flower calmed by the glossy dark green leaves surrounding it. Feels his finger resting against the trigger, waiting to squeeze off the shot.

And all this is familiar, all this he's done before, and he knows what will happen and he's distracted by that knowledge. He will fire; Victor will die. The leaves will be dotted with blood and the man will die, alone, quietly, to be found at the end of the hour, because no one is allowed to interrupt him.

He's allowed Victor ten minutes to touch the earth with his neatly gloved hands. That gives him fifty minutes to get far away. Plenty of time.

Victor will die.

He watches Victor shake his head over something Tyler can't see; a withered leaf, a bug? He should do it now. Soothe the frown away with the gift of oblivion, ease every worry, large and small.

Like the question of how many millions of dollars Victor wants to send this week to support a terrorist group whose original intentions have long been lost in the heady rush of power from destroying buildings and lives. People like Victor use them as their own personal strike force. It's amazing how a few blocks of C-4 strategically placed can influence stocks and shares and votes of confidence. Amazing.

Taking out Victor won't stop the terrorists, of course, but they're someone else's assignment. Tyler's too good at this to be risked on infiltration. His myriad identities have never been questioned and neither has he. He's invisible, unnamed. Hush-hush.

Hush, Victor, hush…

He doesn't know why he lets the minutes tick by. He's not interested in this thin, balding man with the pot-belly and the cold eyes. Not at all interested in the flowers, none of which he can identify by name, because they're all roses, sure, but he knows they have names, pretty names. One is called 'Peace' and he wants to find some, for himself, for Victor, for the screwed-up, fucked-up country that pays him to do this and won't look him in the eye when they hand over the money.

Ten minutes left before people come to find Victor and worry him with questions, chatter, demands, the way all important men are badgered and harassed.

Is he cutting it this close to add a spice of danger? No. He's too professional for that. Boring is good. Safe is good. They mean he doesn't get caught.

Ah, fuck it. He pulls the trigger without conscious thought and he's on target, he is, he has been the whole time, tracking, adjusting, endless small corrections.

He misses. Not the heart, the spine, and Victor's flopping on the ground, graceless, comical, screaming and he shoots again and—

"Tyler! Fuck!"

He sucked in a ragged, panting breath. The sheet beneath him was damp with sweat and his heart was hammering wildly. Dan's face filled his vision, and he blinked against the blaze of light from the lamp and the concern in Dan's eyes.

"You with me?" Dan demanded. Dan was straddling him, sitting on his legs, his hands pressing down on Tyler's shoulders. "Shit, Tyler, are you awake?"

He moved his head in an attempt at a nod and Dan's hands relaxed. "You scared the shit out of me, man."

"Bad dream." Saying it helped. Dream. Not real. Though it had happened like that, exactly like that.

"Stay with me." Dan shook his head, the dark, straight hair falling over his face. "Don't make me slap your face or something."

"You do and I'll fucking slap back."

Dan grinned, a quick twist of his mouth. "That's better. Okay, no slapping."

"No slapping," Tyler agreed. "Can you get off me now?"

"What? Oh…" Dan glanced down. "Am I too heavy?"

"Right now, a kitten would be too much. Get off." He couldn't fucking breathe. Couldn't move. Panic clawed at him, and his throat closed up.

"I'm gone," Dan said, sounding irritated. He moved to the side and Tyler struggled up until he was sitting with his back against the headboard, a pillow wedged behind him.

"Sorry. I don't deal well with being held down when I'm like this."

"'S'okay." Dan pushed his pillow up and leaned back against the headboard too, giving Tyler the illusion of not being watched, though he was aware of the sidelong glances Dan was sneaking. "I have dreams like that too. They're fucking scary, you know? It's not real, it's a memory, but it doesn’t seem that way." He shook his head. "It's worse when it's real. I'd sooner dream about ghosts with chainsaws coming after me than one of those guys who picked me up."

Grateful Dan understood, however imperfectly, Tyler nodded.

"So what was it?"

Gratitude died a quick death. Tyler was damned if he spilled his guts in the middle of the night. "I don't want to talk about it."

"You should." Dan said it quietly enough, without much emphasis, but it rang out like an order. "Tell it and it loses its power. Share it and it sounds empty, hollow. That's what my grandmother used to tell me when I woke up crying after my mom died."

"No offense to her, but I'm not interested in sharing."

Dan took his hand. "Tell me so we can both go back to sleep."

"When you ask so politely…" Dan chuckled unrepentantly and Tyler gave in, which was something he seemed to do a lot around Dan. "Okay. God, it's stupid. Two years ago now. More. My last assignment. I made a mess of it. Missed. Left my shot too late. Fucked up."

"You got caught?"

"What? No. If I had, his guards would've killed me on the spot. They weren't the sort of people who called 911. It got messy. People came running when they heard him screaming. A maid, a guard…"

"You didn't, God, you didn't shoot them too, did you?" There was horror in Dan's voice, and Tyler welcomed it. He wanted Dan shocked, disgusted. He deserved to be looked at that way.

"No. If they'd blocked the target, maybe, but they didn't. They were running out of the house and the target was still in my sights, but he wouldn't fucking die! I was shooting blind by then, pulling the trigger over and over." He swallowed, his throat convulsing painfully. "One of his grandchildren came running up, wet from the pool, this little girl in a pink swimsuit with Barbie on it. I saw her. I saw her through my scope. I must have been fucking aiming at her, or I couldn't have seen her." He was crushing Dan's hand. He felt the pain as if it were his hand being squeezed. He had to keep squeezing until he'd finished, or he'd fly apart, explode. "I blew the top of his head off and the blood got on her and she screamed and screamed. Fuck, I can hear her now if I listen."

He was crying. Tears he hadn't shed at the time, or in the mandatory therapy sessions when they'd tried to glue him back together again. Tears that made his eyes sting, his nose run, his head ache. Tears that left his face a wet mess, salted with shame and regret.

Maybe he'd been waiting for a time when he could cry and have someone there to hold him, because when Dan turned and hugged him to his body in silence, gave Tyler's face something to hide against, the tears came down like rain.

He was talking too, broken, gasped words that were meant to be 'sorry', one word, repeated, because he was sorry for so many things. Sorry for being good at putting a slug of metal anywhere he wanted it to go, sorry for being good at following orders, sorry for feeling proud, those first few times, of what he'd done.

Cauterizing a wound. That's what they'd called it. One bullet from him and so many lives saved, soldiers and civilians. He was a hero. And he'd believed them until the weight of the years he'd taken from people began to push down on him, until he couldn't fucking breathe.

They'd killed people like that once. Pressing, it was called. Piling stones on them slowly, crushing the life out of them. Twenty-three stones for him. One more and he thought he would have put a bullet in his head to silence the sound of the little girl screaming.

God, he was so sorry. His commanding officer had called him tired, then broken, then weak, adding pressure when Tyler had insisted on leaving. They couldn't stop him. And he'd held it together well enough to avoid being locked away in a hospital somewhere, drugged into vacant silence.

It didn't mean he thought they'd let him walk away. He wasn't hiding here in this lonely cabin, in this quiet place; they knew where he was. He was telling them he wasn't a danger, wasn't a risk. Keeping his head down.

And that was another reason Dan shouldn't stick around. One day someone would decide Tyler was a loose end in need of snipping and send someone else to do it. One day, he'd be picking raspberries and feel that itch on the back of his neck or watch the red light dance across his chest as that someone lined up the muzzle of a rifle with his heart and blew out the light, all the lights, with one gentle, remorseless squeeze of a finger.

He stopped crying, the unfamiliar action exhausting, and abruptly unsatisfying. It wasn't what he wanted to do. It had been, and he'd done it, and now he wanted—God what did he want?

Dan pushed some tissues into his hand and he took them, used them, and tossed them away, not bothering to track where they landed. His head felt huge, light, a balloon ready to be popped, and his throat was as scratchy as if he had screamed his lungs out.

"You look like crap," Dan told him and wiped Tyler's tears and snot off his shoulder with another tissue destined to hit the floor. "Feel better?"

"Define 'better'." His voice was unrecognizable, a rasped-out mutter.

Dan's shoulders lifted in a shrug. "Has to help getting that all out in the open. Anything else you want to tell me while we're doing this?"

Tyler reached over and picked up the bottle of water on the nightstand. When half of it was inside him, he tried talking again, relieved to discover he sounded normal again. "Maybe. I don't know. Why do you want to listen?"

"Not sure." Dan took the bottle from him and took a swallow without wiping the top first, something Tyler would never have done, from force of habit. He supposed it made sense given the relationship they were in. "I like you and you're fucked-up, and I want to help, maybe. And maybe because I'm so fucking sick of secrets. You know all of mine, I swear it. You know what happened before I left home and why I don't want to go back. Compared to yours, they're nothing secrets, but I told you. And now you've told me yours, and it's kind of cool that you did, though they're—" Dan swept his hand up high. "You know? Huge?"

"Yeah." God, he was tired. "Huge."

"So?" Dan prompted.

"What? Oh. Nothing much. Ex-sniper, nerve gone, probably on a hit list myself, days numbered." Tears were worse than Pentothal. "You should probably head out. Not the safest place you could be, you know."

"Is that what you want me to do?"

"No. I want you to stay." Yeah, forget the drugs; they should make people cry and give them a shoulder to cry on and let the tape record all the truth between the tears. Fuck.

"Stay?" Dan's eyes, as blue as the ocean he hadn't seen yet, were hard to look away from.

"Yes. No!" Tyler shook his head, and tried to clear away the muzziness. "Not safe."

"It's been over two years," Dan pointed out. "If they were going to do something, why wait? The longer they leave it, the more chance of you shooting your mouth off. No pun intended. I think they've forgotten you."

Obscurely annoyed by that idea, though he had to admit it was preferable to being the focus of attention, Tyler shrugged. "Could be. But staying? Forget it. You've got places to be."

"I could hang around for a while," Dan said with a nonchalance that didn't fool Tyler for a second, because he heard the eagerness underlying it. "No strings, right? I want to go, I go; you want me gone, say so."

Tyler opened his mouth to protest, argue, something and Dan added, "But you're going to have to give me something to do at night beside read, man. What do I have to do to get some computer time?"

"I don't know. You could ask me nicely."

Dan smiled and moved so Tyler was holding him, naked and warm and hard in his arms, Dan's mouth finding places to kiss on Tyler's chest and throat. "Please," Dan said, punctuating each word with a kiss, "can I play time-wasting, brain-rotting games on your kick-ass computer until my eyeballs bleed and my fingers are numb?"

Tyler lay back and pulled Dan on top of him. He was light as a feather now, wriggling down to kiss Tyler's nipples; squirming back up to plant a hard, stinging kiss on his mouth. "You can do whatever the hell you want, boy."

Dan bit his shoulder. "Dan."

"Whatever the hell you want…boy."

Dan growled and bit him again, harder.

"Boy," Tyler repeated. "Boy, boy, boy— Ah God, yes…"

Daniel kept biting him, bites that left Tyler's skin marked and throbbing. If it was meant to teach him a lesson, Tyler planned on being a slow learner.

 

Chapter Eleven

"Is it supposed to do this?" Dan called out, his gaze fixed on the heaving, roiling mass in the heavy pan. Where the fuck was Tyler? He'd promised he'd walk Dan through this first batch.

"Doing what?" Now Tyler wasn't using the cane, he moved too quietly for Dan to hear him and the voice in his ear made him jump, even as the absentminded caress of the back of his neck got him jittery for another reason. The kind of reason that had him wanting to lean back against Tyler's chest and tilt his head so Tyler could give him one of those kisses that started slow and left him with a grinding ache of lust low down, tightening his balls as if Tyler's hand was on them.

If Tyler didn't fuck him soon, though, he’d bend over the couch naked and stay there until the man got the message that yes, he was ready and no, he didn't want to wait. It wasn't that Tyler's mouth on him, sweet and fierce and teasing, wasn't good, because it was. Dan had spent the last week falling in love with Tyler's mouth to the point where if he'd had the money, he'd have bought it flowers and candy. Knowing how good Tyler could make him feel that way, or by lying there, all hard muscles and smooth skin and letting Dan rub off on him, well, he wanted to know what that would feel like too.

Tyler had told him matter-of-factly if Dan wanted to, he could fuck Tyler, and he'd come close the night before, his cock sliding back and forth along the crease of Tyler's ass, skating on the massage oil he'd been using to work the knots out of Tyler's shoulders. He'd done that, and made a good job of it, but they'd both known where it was going and when he'd poured the oil over Tyler's ass, Tyler had groaned, deep and low, and spread his legs wider, inviting something Dan wasn't sure he had the balls to try. If he hurt Tyler…

The rocking thrusts and the way Tyler was moving had split Tyler's ass until Dan's cock was riding a tight channel of smooth, hot skin. All he had to do was reach over and grab a condom and he could have been balls-deep in Tyler a few minutes later.

He'd told himself his hands were too slippery from the oil, but it was an excuse; Tyler's were clean and he would have done it for him, opening the package, rolling it down over Dan's dick and making it feel like foreplay. Tyler had arched up, the muscles in his shoulders bunching, rippling as he raised his chest off the bed, and glanced back at him, his eyes wild and hungry. Dan had come moments later, fumbling for Tyler's cock, writing dots and dashes on Tyler's ass and back in spunk.

"Doing this," Dan replied, waving at the jam with the wooden spoon he'd been using to stir it. "It's spitting at me like it's angry. Should I maybe turn the heat down?"

"Nope. Boil it for three minutes." Tyler reached over and tapped a red mark on Dan's hand where some scalding-hot jam had landed. "Got you good there, didn't it? Put something on it when you're done."

"It's fine." Dan sniffed. "It smells good."

All those berries and a small mountain of sugar and they'd turned to this red lava. He'd expected it to be more complicated, but Tyler had shaken his head and told him to weigh the raspberries, and add the same amount of sugar to the pan.

He'd missed out the lethal splatters when it came to the boil.

"Tastes better. Wait until you try it on some of my bread." Tyler moved away and to empty the boiling water out of the glass jars waiting to be filled with jam.

"Ten, nine…" Dan counted down, waving the sticky spoon to the beat.

Tyler sniffed the air, his forehead wrinkling thoughtfully. "It smells done. Take it off."

Dan moved the heavy pan off the burner and sighed in relief as the jam spat once more, then subsided sulkily. "What now?"

"I put it in these jars and you get to wash the pan before the jam sets on the bottom."

"Why do I get all the fun jobs?" The raspberry seeds would be a bitch to scrub off.

Tyler patted his ass, then nudged him out of the way. "Because you don't have stitches in your hand?"

"Anne took the stitches out two days ago. You can wash dishes again now, now that you have."

"I hate doing dishes." Tyler dipped up a small jug of jam and poured it into a jar with less mess than Dan anticipated. "And I get a kick out of taking advantage of you."

Dan grinned and leaned back against the counter as Tyler worked. "I noticed. Do it some more."

Tyler gave him an amused glance, but didn't reply. Dan had the feeling Tyler knew exactly what he was doing to him with the whole going slow, no rush deal and was enjoying Dan's reaction. He didn't like being this transparent, but it wasn't as if he had much choice. He could close his mouth on the begging, pleading words he wanted to say and he could keep his arousal off his face, but the rest of his body gave him away every time.

Fuck, look at him now; half-hard from that touch on the back of his neck and from watching Tyler move, his hands sure and steady, his attention focused.

Jam. The man was making jam and it was as sexy as a striptease. Dan drank a glass of water with his back turned to Tyler. Tonight, he planned to get fucked. He'd come right out with it and tell Tyler what he wanted.

"I'm going out later,” Tyler said. “Think you can avoid burning the place down while I'm gone?"

"Huh?" He put the glass down and turned. Tyler was fitting tops to the jars, a dishcloth shielding his hand from their heat. "Out? Where?"

"How does 'none of your business' work as an answer?"

"Fuck you." Hurt welled up, but he ignored it in favor of getting angry. He hadn't snapped the question at Tyler, he'd asked it, and as the guy, to date, had zero social life it was reasonable for him to show some curiosity when that changed.

"I'll take it that means it doesn’t."

"You don't have to tell me anything," Dan said, "but it's called a fucking conversation, okay? If you say you're going out, and I ask where, it's not me being nosy, it's me being interested. There's a difference, and if you get your head out of your ass and look at me, not the fucking jam, you'll see I'm pissed because of what you said, not because you're going off and leaving me to spend the night watching the trees grow or something equally fucking thrilling."

"Stop swearing so much," Tyler said. "And yeah, okay. Sorry. I was out of line there." He rubbed the side of his nose, then grimaced. "Fuck. Jam all over me."

Dan snickered. "Yeah. There's some on your chin too."

"Brat." Tyler used the dishcloth on his face, then shrugged resignedly. "I'll wash it off." He glanced over at Dan. "I'm not used to it. Accounting for anything I do. But it's not a secret. I'm going out for supper with Anne, that's all. I'll be back around eleven; we've booked a table at that new place in Bridge Falls."

"Oh." Daniel knew the restaurant Tyler meant. He'd read an article about it in the local newspaper while Tyler's stitches were removed. It was upscale and fancy, set next to the modest waterfall in the neighboring town, with some cabins scattered around the grounds, tucked away in the trees and luxurious enough to tempt honeymooners.

He didn't have the slightest inclination to go there himself, but he couldn't help feeling it would've been nice if Tyler had once suggested the two of them went and grabbed a pizza or saw a movie. Dan didn't mind staying in if that was what Tyler always did, although he was getting cabin fever, but if Tyler could go off to wine and dine people—Anne—then Dan didn't see why—

"I can hear you thinking." Tyler capped the last jar and walked over to him. "I take Anne out, or she takes me, every so often. It's been a while, so when she was dealing with my hand, she suggested we tried the Rendezvous. It's not a date, it's two friends spending time together."

"Does she know? About you and why you came here?" One day, he'd learn to think before he opened his mouth. One day.

Tyler's face darkened. "No," he said tersely.

"Save it," Dan muttered and pushed past him. "I won’t say anything. I told you I wouldn't, and you can trust me. Seems like it's a hard concept for you to get."

He went out into the sunlight and headed for the woodpile. Chopping logs for the winter was destructive enough to appeal right then, and useful enough he could enjoy it without guilt.

And he could pretend the logs were Tyler and he was knocking some sense into him.

***

By the time Anne arrived, Dan had worked himself into a sulk he admitted was childish. Tyler had disappeared into his bedroom and shut the door, which Dan had learned meant Tyler wanted some alone time and wouldn't react well to being disturbed. That had left Dan with nothing to do but read. He was making some headway with a Tom Clancy he'd picked up because he'd seen the movie, when Tyler emerged, only to head straight for the bathroom with no more than a grunt of acknowledgement for Dan.

And from there, smelling clean, chin shaved, and his hair brushed, he'd gone back into his bedroom to dress, leaving Dan with an afterimage of a naked, damp Tyler lying in wait every time he closed his eyes.

Tyler looked good in a suit and tie. Too damn good. Dan stared at him, openly hostile, and Tyler grinned, his good humor restored. "What's the matter? Didn't think I owned anything but jeans?"

Dan looked away from the dazzling sight of Tyler in a charcoal suit, dark enough to look black, a cobalt blue shirt, and a silk tie like a spill of moonlight. Too much class for anywhere in this town, but he supposed it was right for a place where the starters cost as much as a meal. Fifteen bucks for a bowl of soup. Un-fucking-believable, but the article had included a menu and Dan doubted it'd been a typo given the rest of the prices. He yawned and turned a page, refusing to compliment Tyler because the man had a mirror and had to know he looked stunning. That was mostly because Tyler didn't look at all dressed up, but relaxed and natural. "Can't say as I gave it much thought. Don't mind if I don't wait up. And don't bother waking me because I'm not in the mood."

Tyler rolled his eyes. "That makes a first. You're wearing me out."

"Is that so?" He was all set to enlarge on the theme, once he'd gotten his teeth ungritted and his jaw unclenched at least, but Tyler moved away to peer out of the window at the sound of a car approaching, clearly losing interest in the spat they were having. He stayed there, his body shielded by the wall, until the engine had been turned off.

"Anne," he said as the car door slammed. "Okay, be good and I guess you can use the computer, but if I find it clogged up with porn, you’re in trouble."

"Bite me." It'd been once and hell, that was what the net was for.

Anne came in, all smiles, directed as much at Dan as Tyler. He got to his feet, the manners he'd had drummed into him as a child not allowing him to be rude without cause. He was pissed as hell with Tyler, but Anne, from the little he'd seen of her, seemed nice.

She shook his hand and looked him over with a frankly professional assessment. "You look better with more color in your cheeks. Tyler's cooking must suit you."

"I guess," he mumbled.

Anne glanced at Tyler, who was standing patiently waiting, his face expressionless. "My, my, my."

Dan couldn't help laughing. Her throaty purr, overdone enough to make it clear she didn't want to drag Tyler off by his tie and ravish him, was the perfect icebreaker.

"I feel like Cinderella before the fairy godmother arrived," she went on, with a rueful glance down.

"You look good," Dan told her sincerely. Her short-sleeved dress was navy, scattered with white flowers, and if it didn't scream expensive the way Tyler's suit did, it still suited her. He tried not to be glad it wasn't a sexy dress by any standards and managed it, more or less. "Tyler's showing off."

Tyler cleared his throat and managed to make it sound ominous. "Anne, you always look good. Dan, remember what I said and behave." He held open the door and gestured Anne through it. "Shall we?"

Dan got an impish grin from Anne and a fulminating glare from Tyler, then the door closed and he was left alone.

He blew out a long breath. Unless a stomach full of good food and a few glasses of wine mellowed him, Tyler would come home ripe and ready for a fight. That didn't make him feel as uneasy as it had when he'd been waiting for his father to return and vent his anger over one of his shortcomings. It didn't mean there wasn't a tinge of apprehension mixed in with his amusement, and some regret, though. Tyler had looked uncomfortable with them both teasing him and somehow Dan didn't like that, not if this was a treat for Tyler, something he only got to do now and then.

"Fuck," he said to the empty room, to shatter the silence, and went to get himself a beer.

Two hours later, he was itchy and restless. The cabin without Tyler in it was a small, creaky, spooky place and the computer wasn't holding his interest. He'd skirted around the 'no porn' prohibition as closely as he dared, which had got him buzzing, half-hard, then, to calm himself down, he'd succumbed to a twinge of homesickness and called up the local newspaper of his hometown.

Look at that; nothing had happened since he'd left. Shit, sometimes he wondered how they managed to fill the pages. There was a search feature on the page and he typed in his name. Getting a hit made his stomach clench with nerves, but it was the graduation photo of his year, names all listed in alphabetical order. He stared at his photograph and barely recognized himself. Shy smile, nervous eyes, hair a lot shorter. He'd been standing next to Billy, technically his best friend. Except Billy hadn’t been happy about the whole gay deal and without saying it, had backed off by degrees until by the time Luke showed up, it'd been weeks since the two of them shared some sneaked beer as they fished, talking about anything and everything.

Dan clicked the page closed and drummed his fingers on the desk. Fuck it. He was going to bed. It was still early, but so what? He didn't allow the thought that the bed smelled comfortingly of Tyler to do more than flicker across his mind.

He reached out to shut the computer down, then frowned as a low sound rang out. Incoming mail. What the hell? Tyler's e-mail was a separate program to his browser and it was password protected. He'd given Dan the password to be able to surf, but not to the e-mail, and he'd always made a point of closing the e-mail down before he'd let Dan anywhere near the computer. For Tyler to have left it up and running was a sign he'd been distracted.

Click. Okay, he hadn't meant to do that. The e-mail screen came up, the inbox stark and empty apart from the new message. Dan swallowed and took his hand off the mouse before he did anything he would regret. The message was weird; no subject and the sender's name was a string of numbers. Something caught his eye. Embedded in the middle was his birth date: 0907. He'd seen another number recently with those four digits within it; one of those meaningless coincidences that was barely worth mentioning.

Except he'd kind of liked seeing the date there on Tyler's dog tags, which had been tangled up with the lube in the night table drawer. When he'd pointed the numbers out to Tyler, Tyler had smiled as if he liked it, holding the tags for a moment before tossing them back into the drawer, then dragging Dan close.

He stood, went over to the drawer, and took out the tags. The metal was cool in his hand and lighter than he would've expected them to be, given how much symbolic weight was attached to them. It took only a moment to confirm the number on them—Tyler's social security number—matched the one in the e-mail.

He put the tags back and chewed the inside of his cheek. Weird. Some sort of veterans' club maybe? Nothing he could do about it, and he wasn't planning on mentioning it in case Tyler thought he'd snooped, but it left him feeling unsettled. He turned the computer off, torn between curiosity and the same respect for Tyler's privacy that had stopped him from going anywhere near the boxes stacked in Tyler's closet. He'd given his word he wouldn't poke around. For all he knew, Tyler had ways of knowing if he had, but that wasn't the reason he'd kept his curiosity banked down.

Though Tyler hadn't returned the favor. A casual comment a few days ago about how loaded Tyler's computer was had made Tyler grin. "It's ancient. Two years old. More."

"It's got more bells and whistles than any I've seen." Dan patted the monitor admiringly. "What did you need it for anyway?"

Tyler shrugged. "Work."

"Huh? How come?" Dan poked him in the arm when Mr. Monosyllable didn't reply. "Tell me. I know all the bad stuff already and I'm still here, right? I don't want it to be something I'm scared to mention or there was no point in you telling me."

The look he got was half bemused, half fond. "I suppose that's one way of looking at it. Okay, then. When I got an assignment, the first thing I did was research them. I could get everything from their shoe size to their tax returns, to the name of their lover's pet poodle."

"You were a hacker? Wow."

"Not so much. It was more that I had access to everything. Not now, of course; my security clearance got pulled." Tyler cleared his throat. "I can still find out about most people if I need to, though."

There was something in the way he said it that made Dan tense up and eye him warily. "Yeah? Like who? Shit, me. You did me, didn't you?"

Tyler gave him a small nod, his expression guarded as if he was waiting for the explosion. "That first day, when you were passed out on the couch."

"You—" Dan fell silent, sheer indignation choking him. Words like 'invasion of privacy' or a more direct 'you've got a fucking nerve' wanted to get out but as he stared at Tyler and saw the tired expectancy in his eyes, he swallowed them back. Hard to blame Tyler for being cautious given the way he lived. Tyler had to know a gun in every room and a bumpy, overgrown driveway wouldn’t do much if an enemy came calling, but if they made him feel more secure that was something.

A thought occurred to him and he sat upright, a smile spreading. "Fuck, did you think I was, like, an assassin or something? A spy? How cool is that?"

Tyler gaped at him, then laughed, a chuckle becoming a full-out belly laugh. Dan had left the room to shut him up. It wasn't that funny.

"Bedtime," Dan said aloud, his voice echoing in the quietness. He got ready, intending to go to sleep. In the end, though, he curled up on the couch, not the bed, a lamp burning and his book in his hand. He'd wait up for Tyler. And if Anne came inside for a drink or something, well, he'd make himself scarce.

Except Anne might not know about him and Tyler and that would look strange. The hell with it. He turned the page without reading it and kept on doing that until the print blurred.

 

Chapter Twelve

"So is he?"

Tyler took a final bite of Brie-smothered cracker and raised his eyebrows as he chewed. "Is who what?"

"Is Dan gay?" Anne captured a chocolate-dipped strawberry that was the only healthy part of her sinfully rich dessert. "Gotcha."

Tyler smiled. "That's not what you want to know."

"It isn't?"

He shook his head and sat back in his chair, pleasantly full and mellowed by the three glasses of wine he'd had with dinner. Around them, people in similar states of gastronomic bliss were talking, laughing, and generally enjoying themselves. Tyler hoped the size of the bill wouldn't give them indigestion. He and Anne always split the bill evenly, without discussion or quibbling, something he found refreshing.

"You want to know if we're fucking," he said, relying on the buzz of conversation around them and the well-spaced tables to cover his choice of words.

She choked on a sip of water. "Tyler, I did not!" She paused, then grinned. "Okay, yes, I did."

"I'll give you an honest answer," he said blandly. "None of your business."

It was the second time he'd said that today, but Anne took it better than Dan had. "It isn't, of course," she admitted. "I'm not being nosy, though. He's still with you when you don't need his help, and so—"

"I never needed it," he interrupted. "A sprained ankle? Please! I let him use that as an excuse because charity was the last thing he wanted, but I think we all know I could have managed without him."

"But you like having him around?"

He pushed his plate away, knowing it would bring an attentive waiter over, which would provide a diversion. "Sure. He's a nice kid. Mouthy from time to time, but he's not a brat." He reconsidered. "Not all the time, anyway."

"Mm-hmm." Her lips curved up in a knowing smile. "Thanks for answering."

"I didn't."

"You can't see your face when you talk about him." Their waiter arrived to clear the table and Tyler was left with no option but to give her a narrow-eyed stare that made her smile turn into a grin.

***

He always left a light on in the cabin on the rare occasions he went out at night, but there was something comforting in the knowledge the light wasn't illuminating empty rooms. Dan was in there, bad mood and all, though Tyler hoped Dan was over that. Faced with the prospect of apologizing to get Dan to smile at him, he was more than willing. He wasn't sure what they'd been fighting about, but it didn't seem important. Three glasses of wine, and he was sentimental and horny.

He waved to Anne, who raised her hand in farewell, and waited until her taillights had disappeared before opening the front door. He slipped through it quietly, in case Dan had gone to bed, and closed and locked it.

Dan lay on the couch, fast asleep, a book on the floor beside him. He didn't look as if he'd planned to sleep there, since he hadn't gotten out pillows or a sleeping bag; more likely he'd dozed off. He wasn't snoring, but he was breathing audibly, with his mouth open. He was wearing the rabbit shorts again, but as that was all he was wearing, Tyler had plenty to distract him from the lurid, bouncing bunnies.

In less than two weeks, Dan had gone from being not his type to exactly what he wanted because he wanted more than the body. Tyler allowed himself the luxury of staring from far enough away to see the big picture without needing to school his face to indifference. God, he was hard from this, his cock filling and demanding space to grow. From looking at a skinny young man, all arms and legs and potential. Anne was right; Dan did look better. Maybe not so skinny now, and the work he'd been doing around the place had developed wiry muscles into something more defined. The wide shoulders and narrow hips looked sleek not scrawny.

He'd never had much of a sweet tooth, but Dan made his mouth water. He didn't care if Dan was still sulking; hell, he almost hoped he was. He wanted to do things to coax him happy; wanted to kiss him until Dan's mouth was soft, smiling, swollen. Wanted to put his mouth on him, set his teeth gently into Dan's skin and bite down. Wanted to push his fingers into Dan's mouth and feel them get sucked and nibbled, then move them down Dan's body and slide them, wet with spit, into Dan's ass and swallow the small cry Dan would make with another kiss.

He took off his jacket and shoes and loosened his tie. Then he went to his knees by the couch and waited for Dan to wake up and see him. It didn't take long; as if Dan could feel the weight of Tyler's regard, his eyes opened in a stuttering sweep of his lashes and focused on Tyler. Before he woke up the whole way, he smiled, a drowsy, unthinking response to seeing Tyler that made Tyler feel a painful, poignant stab of emotion. Nice to be looked at that way.

"Hey," Dan murmured, his voice thick with sleep. "You're back."

"Mm." Tyler propped his arms on the couch and leaned in to brush a kiss over Dan's mouth. He paused before their lips touched. "Are we still fighting?"

Dan's eyes became more alert. "Yeah." There was a moment when Tyler almost believed him, but it passed. Dan was staying close, his breathing even and his body relaxed. Dan sat up, swung around, and trapped Tyler's hips between his legs. Tyler let him do it, curious, his arousal increasing. Dan undid the knot on Tyler's tie and took hold of the ends of it, seesawing them back and forth so the silk rubbed Tyler's neck through his shirt and set up a burn in his skin.

When it got uncomfortable, Dan stopped and used his grip on the tie to slowly pull Tyler in closer, shortening the length by wrapping the fabric around his fingers. The tie was suffering and so was Tyler's trapped dick. "So kiss and make up."

"Happy to," Tyler managed to say before their mouths collided in a kiss that was all teeth and spit and hunger. Dan's bare legs were wrapped around him, holding him in place with his erection pushed up against the edge of the couch, and his neck was bent back awkwardly, but he didn't care.

"Ow," Dan said, breaking off the kiss. His eyes were half-closed again. "You pack a mean punch. Guess we'd better stop this before someone gets hurt."

"You want to stop?" He wasn't teasing now. He wanted to know.

Dan caught his lower lip between his teeth, the amusement gone from his face, and shook his head. "Don't want to stop. Not this right now, not whatever it is we're doing." He shifted forward and let go of one end of the tie, his hand working its way between the couch and Tyler's body. His knuckles caressed the head of Tyler's cock, not gently, and Tyler grunted, sparks showering down against the blackness behind his eyes, closed because he couldn't deal with both the touch and the need in Dan's eyes.

"I want this in me," Dan finished.

Tyler took Dan's hand, brought it up and forced the loose end of his tie into Dan's fingers. Dan frowned, but accepted it, and gave Tyler a questioning look.

Tyler put his hands over Dan's, knuckles against his palms, and tugged down, once. He needed Dan to have this before he fucked him. Dan's breath caught, surprise showing on his face, then comprehension. He drew Tyler's head down until Tyler's face was against cheap cotton and his mouth was pressed against the precise point where Dan's cock met his balls, hardness above, a soft swell of flesh below. Letting Dan guide him, he mouthed and licked at the fabric, wetting it down until it clung to skin, kneeling by choice, giving Dan what he wanted, without bargaining, without price.

He loved doing this. Loved feeling the self-imposed frustration build, deepening the intensity of his arousal, as he was denied the direct taste and feel of Dan's cock, loved the small gasps Dan was giving as Tyler worked him hard, harder, solid. Loved the way the tie was a band of pressure across the back of his neck, holding him down, so he was sure Dan wanted it, without a doubt. Holding him down, but in a way that freed him.

"Suck me, suck me," Dan chanted, his hips jerking up, bumping Tyler's nose with his cock. "God, Tyler, you're fucking killing me here."

He planned on it. Suck Dan, get him on the verge of coming, then fuck him while he was boneless with lust. Of course, the first item on the list was getting him so hot he might come doing it, which would delay things a bit.

He reached up and hooked his fingers under the tie, then pulled it free of the shirt collar and over his head, leaving Dan holding it, a loose dangle of silk. He put out his hand and Dan placed the twisted, creased silk in it, warm from being held.

"You looked so good when you walked out of here," Dan told him, the words earnest. "I should have told you that."

Nonplussed by the compliment as much as the timing, Tyler shrugged. "Thanks." He undid the top two buttons on his shirt. "Not all that comfortable, though."

Dan lay back on the couch, sprawled out, his shorts far enough down on his hips that the tip of his cock was visible, a bluntly rounded shape. He looked debauched and the slow, wicked grin on his face only added to that impression. As Tyler watched, Dan dragged the fingers of both hands over the front of his shorts, framing his cock but never touching it. Each downward pass of his hands bared more skin; each upward stroke veiled it again.

Tyler swallowed dryly, his gaze locked on the show.

"I bet you walked into that place and had everyone staring." Dan's voice was matter-of-fact, idle. "Men and women. I would have stared."

"Most people were too busy eating to notice me," Tyler said. He smiled. "I could invent a flirtation with the waiter, if you'd like."

Dan raised his eyebrows. "You're on your knees; if you want to confess, go for it."

Tyler chuckled. "Nothing to confess, unless you count a goodnight kiss when I left Anne."

"Where did you kiss her?" It was flirtatious, not accusatory.

Tyler leaned in and brushed his mouth against Dan's cheek. "Right there." He tilted his head and put the next one on Dan's mouth, remembering how much he'd wanted to do this earlier, when it was fixed in a sullen, sulky pout. "Not there… not there, either… and most definitely not here."

Dan's breath quickened as Tyler's kisses migrated south, his lips brushing over nipples hardened to points, and the smooth, stretched taut skin of an exposed hipbone. "Oh man… you'd better not have. Only me, okay? You only get to kiss me in those places."

"I can do that."

It was as close as he could get to a promise and given the state of his love life it wasn't a difficult promise to make.

The wine hadn't made him drunk exactly, not three lousy glasses, but it had left him feeling a little wild, a little loose. Uninhibited. He curled his tongue into Dan's mouth, tasting toothpaste and licking the mint away until he could only taste Dan. The tie slithered to the floor, forgotten.

"Bed," he said against Dan's mouth. "Now."

They stood beside the bed a few moments later, wrapped around each other, the heat from Dan's skin striking through Tyler's shirt, as tangible as spilled liquid would have been. Tyler pulled away reluctantly, the need to get naked and feel that heat directly trumping the desire to stay like that, holding and being held. Dan watched him in silence, his chest rising and falling quickly, and timed the removal of his shorts so when Tyler kicked his pants out of the way, he looked up to find Dan naked.

The room was lit only by moonlight and the glow of the forgotten lamp still burning in the main room and Tyler decided to keep it that way. There was enough light for him to see what he was doing and enough darkness for Dan to feel less on display. Somewhere in the kissing and the talking and the relocation, the sharp edge of his desire had been rubbed down a little, so while he was still hard, balls full and screaming messages to his brain, he could think again. That was a good thing, though he missed the hazy, comfortable lust that had made him contemplate doing Dan over the back of the couch.

He pointed at the bed. "Lie down."

"Since you ask so nicely," Dan muttered and made the bed bounce as he got onto it, springs squeaking. Tyler put the lube where he could reach it and a condom, the package ripped open because he always forgot to do that before his fingers were slicked up, always.

Then he got onto the bed and on top of Dan, his weight braced on his forearms.

"You're going to ask me if I'm sure, aren't you?"

"No. You said you want it and that's fine by me. It's not like I don't want to fuck you, you know. I do. And like I said, you're more than welcome to do me. I was…"

"What?" Dan demanded.

Tyler shivered, slipping back into a state where thinking was difficult. Every time he moved, the head of his cock slid on Dan's stomach, a maddeningly not-enough friction eased by what was leaking out of the tip; his brains, probably. "I don't know. It seemed like a good idea at the fucking time, okay? I was enjoying what we were doing, and—"

"So was I." Dan's tongue flickered across his lips. "God, yes. I wanted to try this with you. Last time, with…well, it seemed like it should have been good, you know?"

"Going to drive you crazy first," Tyler said, abandoning subtlety because they didn't have time for it. "You okay with that?" He shifted his weight and cupped Dan's face with his hand.

Dan turned his head, captured and bit Tyler's thumb. "Already am, but sure."

Sweet. He could've slid down and got busy, but he didn't. Not when he was enjoying this so much, the slow kisses that kept turning dirty-sweet, the way he was the one close to coming, but Dan was the one making all the noise, helpless, throaty murmurs, muttering Tyler's name and making it sound like a plea, like a command, like a prayer. He ended up with his fingers and Dan's interlocked, pressing Dan's captured hands above his head into the pillow, holding him down with his weight and riding out the bucking, writhing squirming going on as Dan tried to rub off on his hip and his belly.

"Slow down. I'm not going anywhere." He bit down on the crook of Dan's neck, then reconsidered and chose a place that would be hidden by a T-shirt; the top of Dan's shoulder. The skin there was too thin to take a mark as easily, but it was a good place to bite and suck and something told him he wasn't going to be tasting Dan's cum, but wearing it. So good like this, with Dan eager and pushy and pinned down. He accepted his temporary captivity in a way Tyler would never have been able to do. Any guilt was wiped away because Dan was so clearly enjoying it, without any deeper thought showing on his face than that he liked knowing Tyler wanted him.

It was like a ball being volleyed between them; he tried to give Dan something and Dan took it, held it, smiled, and lobbed it back for Tyler to catch and keep. Right now, Tyler was giving himself blue balls trying not to come until he could do it with his dick high and tight in Dan's ass and Dan was making it difficult.

Tyler went back up on his elbows and knees, so the only skin his dick was touching was his belly from time to time, and gazed down at Dan with something like affection, which he'd admit to more or less willingly, and a little like love, which he wouldn't. Dan smiled back, with him in a way Tyler could never remember another lover being, whether casual or serious. Dan fingered the bite mark and bit down on his lip as he did it, a deliberate tease that threatened to send Tyler over. "Going to leave a mark."

"Already did." The skin wasn't broken and it wouldn't be more than a red mark now and a pale shadow of a bruise by morning, but it was enough to make Tyler's dick harden. Christ, he had to move this along. He put the flat of his hand over the rigid, quivering column and rubbed it, his thumb swirling over the glossy, slick head when it was in reach. Tyler licked his thumb reflectively, then pushed it, wet and reasonably clean, into Dan's mouth, obeying an instinct he didn't want to analyze. Dan sucked it, his teeth digging in, then said, "Do it. Now," without letting go, the words emerging plainly enough.

Tyler tugged his thumb free, collecting a scrape across it because Dan didn't ease up much with his teeth, and sat back on his heels. He didn’t ask Dan how he wanted it. Making it easy meant not asking Dan to make choices. They'd do it the way he chose this time and get fancy later. Unless Dan still didn't like it, in which case this was the only chance he’d get.

But no pressure.

He put Dan flat on his stomach and grabbed a pillow. "Lift up."

Dan eased up enough for Tyler to slip the pillow under his hips, then reached under to settle his cock into a more comfortable position. "If I come all over this pillow…"

"You'll wash it tomorrow and use one from the chest for tonight," Tyler told him. "Don't worry; there are worse things than cum to clean up." He put his hand on Dan's back. "Relax. It'll make it easier."

"If I was any more relaxed, I'd drip off the bed." Dan wiggled his ass at Tyler. "Come on. In me."

He put a slap on Dan's ass for that, light enough that it wouldn't have popped a soap bubble, and got an unrepentant chuckle back. Dan's nervousness seemed to have dissipated; he sure as hell wasn't flinching now when Tyler's hand strayed near his ass. Tyler found himself liking that show of trust and he smiled at the back of Dan's head, letting himself relax, as it seemed like he was the only tense one in the bed.

Tyler took a moment to roll a condom on, taking care not to do anything to make his cock think it was time to party, sweating with the effort because he was so close and the way Dan was squirming restlessly wasn't helping. Then he lay beside Dan, one hand stroking Dan's hair, the other, fingers lube-slick, moving in gentle passes over Dan's balls and the strip of smooth skin leading up to his hole. When he slid one finger inside, with no more warning than a kiss against the shoulder he'd bitten, Dan moaned, low and sweet, and arched his hips up to take more.

"Do you like this?" Tyler murmured, his finger gliding, slipping, in and out. He did. The silky tight clutch around his finger reminded him of Dan's mouth on him and it hadn't been that long since he'd done this that he'd forgotten what it would feel like when his cock was in there. There was no resistance beyond the natural flex of muscle; Dan was making it easy, adjusting his position instinctively.

"God." Dan's voice was choked and husky. "Yeah, don't stop. I could do this all night."

He sounded like he meant it. Tyler contemplated doing some online shopping for a plug to take the place of his finger. He could see himself getting off on the idea of knowing Dan was wearing it around the cabin in the day, but he didn't share the thought. Baby steps. He wasn't huge, hell, no, but his dick was bigger than a finger; because Dan liked this didn't mean he’d feel the same way in a minute or two.

His balls were tight and heavy, lust and longing roiling in his gut. Make that thirty seconds or so.

He used lube lavishly on his cock and gave Dan a single, slow thrust with two fingers, both of them dripping wet, then knelt behind him. "This hurts, hell, even if it doesn't, but you want to stop, you tell me, do you hear me?" He put one hand on Dan's hip and took hold of his slippery cock in the other. "I'll stop. Doesn't matter when. I'll stop."

Dan growled something that probably wasn't meant to be comprehensible, then said clearly, "Thanks. Appreciate it. Now fucking do it before I—uhn!"

Tyler grinned, eased out the inch or two he'd gone in, then pushed forward, repeating the action, gaining more ground each time as he did. He had both hands free now, and he used them to keep Dan still when his words didn't work. Finally, he administered another slap, harder this time. "You rush me and it'll hurt and you won't want to do it again for a while. And if you go at my ass like a bull at a gate, I can fucking guarantee you won't get the chance again."

Dan banged his head against the pillow he was clutching, then glanced back over his shoulder. His eyes were glazed and his face was flushed. "Okay. Okay. I—" He broke off to moan again, the sound trickling over Tyler like ice water on a hot day.

He brushed his hand over the faint, fading mark his palm had left. "I know."

By the time he was as sure as he could be that Dan was open and used to him, he was shaking, his fingers tight on Dan's hips. He pulled out most of the way, tipped another dollop of lube onto his cock, and gingerly smoothed it around. For good measure, he applied some to the stretched, taut hole he was fucking, which led to Dan making some interesting sounds and stretched his self-control to breaking point.

Enough. One final, testing ease in and out, Dan's breath a sob of need, his harsh in his ears, then he took what Dan was offering and gave him what he was demanding. He had to close his eyes by the third stroke. Watching the way Dan was riding his cock, anticipating each strong, forceful thrust and meeting it with an eagerness that verged on hunger, was too much. If this was to last long, he had to block out sight. The feel of Dan's skin dragging against his palms as Dan moved within his light hold, the ripe scent of their sweat; they were more than enough to cut this short, if he'd let that happen.

He slid his hand around and clawed at air, then the stiffness of Dan's cock, damp and hot and hard. Dan grunted in protest, as if the touch was too much, but when Tyler let his hand fall away to hover a few inches below, Dan adjusted his position, so his cock rubbed against Tyler's waiting, cupped hand.

Tyler closed his fingers tightly enough to give Dan something to fuck and went back to what he'd been doing, relishing each stroke because he could almost hear a timer counting down. His climax was waiting, gathering strength, ready to pounce with a snarl and a ruthless strength that would beat down every barrier he'd built, but he'd stopped caring.

He'd told Dan he could stop any time; he'd been lying.

He couldn't stop now. He wasn't in control of his body now; he wasn't sure of anything, but he was sure of that. Beneath him, ass high, hands kneading the quilt convulsively, Dan was as lost as he was.

From somewhere, he rediscovered the ability to speak and when he came he was saying Dan's name, holding onto that thought as hard as he was holding onto Dan. Habit and necessity let him deal with stripping off the condom and giving them both a perfunctory wipe down where they needed it, but after he lay in the shadowed room, his arms around Dan and let sleep come without fighting it.

 

Chapter Thirteen

"I'm going to use the computer for a while," Tyler told Dan on his way to the bedroom. "I won't be long. If someone was to make me a sandwich for lunch, I might show my gratitude by taking him into town later on and introducing him to the nightlife. And when that crowded five minutes is over, I suppose we can find something to do."

Dan heart’s lurched as he returned Tyler's easy, happy smile. He swallowed. The e-mail. God, would Tyler know he'd seen it? Well, not seen it, because he hadn't looked, but… The glow from being well and truly fucked the night before and woken by Tyler's mouth on his, sweet and slow kisses as Tyler's hand stroked over his stomach and down, faded to a cold apprehension.

It had been so damn good for such a short fucking time, but every instinct for trouble that Dan had developed on the road was screaming at him that the e-mail was bad news.

He found himself thinking it wasn't fair, in a show of self-pity he wanted to wallow in, as he'd spent the morning luxuriating in Tyler's good mood. Man, they'd both been smiling until their faces ached, kissing, groping, playing around. It was as if the fight, then that bone-meltingly good sex had combined to put them on solid ground and now they were walking on quicksand and sinking fast.

He knew the moment Tyler saw the e-mail. From where he lay on the couch, his book forgotten, he heard Tyler's tuneless hum cut off abruptly. He stood, registering dully that his ass wasn't as tender as it had been when he woke and half missing the throb that reminded him of how it'd gotten that way, and went to the kitchen.

He'd cut and buttered some bread when Tyler came out of the bedroom and dumped a packed carry-on bag onto the kitchen table. No way he'd had time to pack it; it must have been sitting ready in the closet. "Get your stuff together," Tyler said, his face washed-out and his eyes dead. "All of it."

If it hadn't been for the bag on the table, Dan would have thought Tyler was kicking him out, but it looked like whatever Tyler had planned was something they'd do together.

"Okay," he said cautiously. "Uh, mind if I ask where we're going?"

"Yes."

He opened his mouth to protest, because he wasn't another piece of luggage for Tyler to toss in the truck, but he saw the way Tyler's gaze was flickering around the room as if he was looking for something.

Shit, Tyler thought they were being bugged? He caught Tyler's eye, grimaced and tugged at his ear, then lifted his eyebrows in a question. The distant expression on Tyler's face softened for a moment, making Dan feel less alone, then Tyler hunched up one shoulder and jerked his thumb.

I don't know. Maybe. Hurry.

He scrabbled together the little he had and took time out to pee. He treated himself to a minor meltdown in the bathroom, a silent one that lasted all of fifteen seconds before Tyler banged on the door. "You done?"

Dan stared at himself in the mirror, all wide-eyed and scared. That wouldn't do. He made himself grin at his reflection, jaunty, casual, then opened the door. "Yeah, I'm ready."

Tyler looked at him, a muscle jumping in his cheek. Dan wanted to put his fingers against it and make it stop, but Tyler didn't look remotely approachable.

He did it anyway. The scratch of stubble that had left his chin tingling when Tyler had kissed him earlier had been shaved away to a glassy smoothness that wouldn't last long. He cupped Tyler's face in his hand and they stood there for a moment, linked, but separated by space. Tyler brought his hand up, covered Dan's for a moment, then gently pulled it off him.

They drove away from the locked cabin in silence, the familiar jolting as they drove down the driveway worse than usual because Tyler was going fast. A rabbit hopped across the trail and Tyler swore, braked sharply, and gave its disappearing tail a disgusted glare.

Dan rubbed at his shoulder, where his seat belt had bitten in, and carefully said nothing. He carried on saying nothing as they drove through town without stopping, Tyler's gaze seemingly everywhere apart from the road ahead as he went through two lights that had turned red before the truck entered the intersection.

Maybe that wasn't a mistake, though.

Once on the road out of town, Tyler put his foot down and the truck took off, the engine running smoother than Dan would've expected, given its age, the speed gauge climbing.

"Uh, Tyler…"

"I can let you off wherever you want," Tyler said quietly, without looking at him. "You'd be better off putting some distance between yourself and the cabin first, but it's your choice."

"Tell me where we're going." No fucking way was he leaving Tyler alone, not when he was in this mood.

The corner of Tyler's mouth quirked up. "As far as we can until we hit water."

"The coast? We're going to the ocean?" Dan grinned, a bubble of excitement displacing his concern. "You'll have to throw me out of the truck if you don't want me to come with you." He poked Tyler's leg. "That was a figure of speech, so we're clear."

"I got that."

"Do you think… can we, you know… is it safe?" Okay, talking cryptically was harder than he'd thought. "Can we talk?"

Tyler sighed and relaxed back against his seat, his foot easing up on the gas. "Yeah."

"You don't think they've bugged the truck?" It was funny, but Tyler calming down made him feel as if he had to take over being worried.

"'They'." Tyler shook his head. "Shit, you don't have a clue. No, they haven't." He leaned forward and tapped a small box hidden under the dash. "That would be beeping if they had."

"Maybe they disabled it." Dan gulped. "Maybe there's a bomb under the fucking truck and they're gonna blow us up."

"Maybe the aliens are landing and the moon's made of cheese." Tyler patted his leg. "They want me back, Dan; they're not trying to kill me. And I doubt they bugged the cabin or the truck; I was…"

"Panicking?"

"Yeah. Panicking." Tyler's knuckles were pale, the skin tight over them as he gripped the wheel. "Except when they trained me it probably had a fancier name like responding quickly to a crisis situation."

"That e-mail…" Dan hesitated. "It came in last night. I didn't read it, but I saw it."

"You did what?" The steel in Tyler's voice and the lurch as the car swerved had Dan closing his eyes. If he couldn't see it, it wasn't there. It worked for ostriches, didn't it?

"I told you." He opened his eyes again. "Watch the fucking road and get down off your high horse, okay? You'd left your e-mail window open and this message popped up. I clicked on the window. I wasn't thinking. And I saw the number and it was the same as the one on your dog tags but that is it, man, that is it." He snuck a look at Tyler, who was staring forward, mouth clamped tight. Scary. "Use your brains."

"What?"

Okay, snarls were better than silence. "Something in that e-mail freaked you out. Look at you. Freaked. Do you think if I'd read it, I'd have let you fuck me and tuck me into bed? Let you spend the morning playing kissy-face with me? I'd have told you about it last night, Tyler! I'm not an idiot."

"No, but I guess I am." Tyler hit the brakes and brought the truck to a juddering halt. "Out. Here. Start walking."

"No."

"Don't make me throw you out."

"You put your hands on me to hurt me and I'll kick you in the fucking balls." He watched Tyler's hand move, flipping back the jacket he wore and sliding into the small of his back, a leather harness showing. "Pull that gun on me and I'm gone for good, I mean it. You don't do that, do you hear me? You don't fucking do that to someone you—"

Tyler put his hands back on the wheel. He looked exhausted and his hands looked like they were only steady because they had something to hold on to. "Someone you what? Someone I've fucked? Think again. I've done worse than that to men I've known longer than you."

"Well, you might have had a reason to with them, but you don't with me." Dan’s face heated, hurt and anger boiling inside him. "I haven't done a damn thing wrong and I'm not getting out until you tell me what that message said. They want you back? Is that it? Fuck, of course they do! You were good at what you did, and it's not like there're a lot of men like you out there."

"Assassins? You'd be surprised."

"Marksmen they can trust," Dan said, keeping his voice level. "You're not a murderer. Have you ever killed anyone they didn't point you at?"

"Yes." Tyler gave him a sidelong glance. "Sometimes I had to, to get at my target or defend myself. No one who wasn't involved, you know? But the way you mean; killing for the hell of it, or for money, no. I haven't done that."

"I believe you. I do. You don't scare me. I know what you've done and it doesn't matter. You don't scare me."

"I should." Tyler turned the key and silenced the engine. A truck went by with a roar, shaking the vehicle, then the quiet seeped back. The road was bordered by trees, green and dark and the sky was a deep blue scattered with cotton wool scraps of clouds. Peaceful and familiar, all of it. "I should terrify you and you should be begging me to let you go, not trying to stay."

"Why would I beg for that? If I wanted to go, you wouldn't stop me. Like you're not lifting a finger to keep me. Do you want me to stay?"

"Oh yeah." The words were said so quietly Dan had to fight to hear them, a whisper in a gale. "I want you to stay." His voice strengthened. "But I don't want you mixed up in whatever's coming."

"Such as?" Dan asked bluntly. "Will you tell me what they said?"

"Nothing much." Tyler bit at his thumb, worrying a shred of loose skin with his teeth, then frowned at himself and stopped. "It was from Cole, my old boss."

"What, like a general or something?"

"No." Tyler shook his head. "I started out in the army, but by the time I left, well, I'd been—" He ground to a halt. "It's hard to explain. They take you, and they transfer you, and they hide you. One man. Big army. It's not difficult. I was technically still enlisted, but I was taking out targets for a whole bunch of organizations with alphabet soup for names."

"CIA? FBI?" Dan guessed, a little hazy on the details.

"Sure, sometimes. Look, that's not important. Cole was nudging me, I guess. He didn't say they were bringing me back in and he didn't threaten me. But out of the blue like that, after two years of silence…"

Dan thought, but didn't say, that if something so trivial sent Tyler running, there was no way he was fit for duty again. Pity swept away his anger, accompanied by an impulse to protect that seemed laughable on the surface. Tyler could probably kill someone with a matchstick or, hell, by looking at him right. Dan had been in a couple of fistfights and ended up bloody and bruised.

"Tell him you don't want to. Be nice, sure, but tell him no."

"You make it sound so simple," Tyler muttered.

"That's because it is." Dan rubbed at his face, the tension of the last hour hitting him hard. "Do you want to go back?"

Tyler gave that as much consideration as a vegetarian would give a steak. "No. I want to see the ocean."

It was a measure of how weird the day had become that those two sentences made perfect sense. "Then let's go." Dan settled himself back in his seat. "Hey."

Tyler turned the key. "Yeah?"

"Are you going to keep on driving like you're being chased by a bear or something?"

The truck peeled out in a screech of rubber and a spray of gravel. "Hell, yes."

***

By the time the sky was beginning to turn pink and gold, Dan was starving, cramped, and wondering if the ocean was worth it. He didn't complain. Tyler was still in an introspective mood, although he'd answered any comments Dan had made amiably enough and let Dan put the radio on for a while. When he'd reached over in the middle of a song and snapped it off, Dan hadn't protested, but he'd rolled his eyes and gone back to staring out at fields and farms and trees. Same old, same old.

"We won’t get there before dark," Tyler said abruptly. There was no map out, so Dan didn't have a clue where they were. He had offered to navigate and Tyler had shrugged and said he knew the way. "I've been backtracking, not going direct. Let’s find somewhere to stay for the night and finish the journey tomorrow."

"Could we eat, as well?" Dan asked hopefully.

Tyler chuckled, which made something inside Dan ease a little. "I've been listening to your stomach rumble the last fifty miles, so I guess we'd better."

"Have you made this trip before?"

"Sometimes I couldn't stand being in that cabin another minute," Tyler answered obliquely.

"So where do you usually stop?" Dan scanned the road ahead and saw a smudge on the horizon that might have been a small town coming up.

"I don't." Tyler put his foot down and the truck surged forward, the needle creeping up. "This is how I usually drive and I don't care if I get there in the dark because I know what it looks like." He eased off and Dan sighed with relief.

"You're lucky you never got pulled over," he said severely.

"Yes, Officer," Tyler mocked. "I do sometimes, but I can tell when there's a cop around and I slow down." He nodded as they passed a sign telling them Gilmore was two miles ahead. "This place coming up isn't huge, but there's a motel or two and places we can get food."

They found a motel on the outskirts of town, small but cheerful-looking, with well-watered planters in the parking lot overflowing with red and white flowers matching the checked curtains in the windows of the rooms.

"Do you want me to wait here?" Dan asked as Tyler turned off the engine.

"Why?"

"Well, two guys, one room. Unless you want to get two. I mean, I've got some money…" Dan found himself floundering, aware of how dependent he was on Tyler and how much Tyler gave him. He met Tyler's eyes and saw understanding in them and a little pity.

"I want one room, but not because it's cheaper," Tyler said gently. "I want you sleeping with me. I've gotten used to the way you drool on me."

"I do not drool!"

"And if the manager has a problem with that, which I doubt, I'll deal with it." Tyler ran a finger down Dan's nose. "You think too much, Dan. You don't have to. I know you've got no money, but anything I give you isn’t important."

"You shouldn't have to pay for everything," Dan said. "I need to get a job."

Tyler opened his mouth, then closed it again. When he did speak, he seemed to be choosing his words carefully. "Yeah, you do. And I'm not stupid; I know there's nothing for you to do in Carlyle and you're bored hanging around the cabin all the time. I know what we've got going here is temporary, but right now, let it go, okay? We're on vacation and we'll deal with it all later."

Temporary? Dan focused on that single word and it chilled him. Everything Tyler had said was true, but none of it mattered when the thought of turning his back on Tyler made him feel cold and sick.

"Come on," Tyler said. "We'll get a room, then go and eat."

The woman who rented them the room was as skinny as a straw with tinted silver hair that seemed to be purple in some lights. Dan was fascinated by it. Did she know it looked purple? Did she care? She took Tyler's credit card with one eye on them and the other on the TV which was showing an ancient episode of Dallas.

"One room?"

Tyler nodded.

"Two doubles or one king-size?"

Dan tensed when Tyler chose the second option, but her indifferent expression didn't alter. She pushed over two keys and gave the TV her undivided attention after a murmured wish for them to enjoy their stay.

The room lived up to the parking lot; Dan had been expecting something on the bleak or tacky side, reeking of smoke and other people, but the screened window was open wide, letting in the warm, flower-scented air, and the small sign telling people not to smoke seemed to have been obeyed. The red and white theme was present, but the carpet was dark green which offset it. Dan kicked off his shoes and lay down on the wide bed, the white pillowcase smooth against his face, the red and white striped comforter soft. "Oh yeah, this feels good."

Tyler returned from the small bathroom. "Nice place. Clean."

"Nice bed. Soft."

Tyler leaned against the wall and folded his arms across his chest, which did things to Dan; made his mouth dry and yet watering, made his cock stir, made his mind sharp and clear when it came to getting Tyler naked and close enough to touch and fuzzy on everything else.

"Thought you were hungry."

"Hungry? Try starving." Dan licked his lips. If Tyler didn't get the message from the way he was staring at him like a cat at a canary, ready to pounce, he was prepared to spell it out explicitly, but something told him he wouldn't need to.

"I can see that."

Fuck, that voice; amused, yes, but as husky with pure want as his had been. Tyler might like being cajoled into sex and Dan didn't mind doing it, but when it came down to it, Tyler wanted it as much as Dan did, and he didn't hide it. It made Dan feel good about himself in a way being desired never had before, not even with Luke. Tyler looked at him and saw all of him, not a mouth to take, an ass to fuck.

"God, I love you," he said, the words involuntary, and heard the room go quiet, go still.

"Probably not a good idea," Tyler said eventually. The warmth and amusement had gone from his voice, replaced by a flat weariness.

"It's not?" Red and white stripes wavered in front of his eyes as he stared down at the bed. "Sorry."

The bed creaked and he looked up to see Tyler sitting close enough to touch but with enough tension around him to make Dan think if he did the air would crackle and spit. "I know where Luke is," Tyler told him.

The words made no sense at first, thrown into the conversation as they had been. He rearranged them in his head in a few combinations until he was back to the original order. "Luke?"

Tyler jerked his chin in an acknowledgement of all the questions that lay behind Dan's startled echo. "You told me his name and age. Finding him was easy. He's working in a coffee shop in Vancouver and he lives in an apartment with two other men. It's a dive, going off the address and the rent, but it's cheap, and I don't suppose he cares because he's too busy enjoying the big city. You could be enjoying it with him."

"Luke? Luke isn't—" Dan swallowed. "I don't give a fuck about Luke," he said. He sat up and reached past all the barriers Tyler had around him, the way he always had since day one, minute one, and stabbed his finger into the rock-solid muscle of Tyler's chest. He'd kissed that spot, licked it wet, laid his face against it and listened to the muted thud of Tyler's heart. He knew it. He fucking owned it. "Did you hear me? I don't give a fuck. I care about you. If I went to Vancouver—"

"Do you want to?"

"What?" Dan shook his head, derailed again by the quiet interjection. "Maybe? Sure, one day. If you wanted to, then, yes, tomorrow, shit, tonight, if you let me drive when you got tired."

"Not a chance."

"I'd go anywhere with you." He said it and knew it was true as he heard the words spoken and not in his head. "Out into the big, wild world or back to the cabin. I know it's too soon and shit, we hardly know each other. No, scratch that, we haven't known each other long, but I can't see me walking away from you. I don't want to do it."

Tyler nodded slowly. "You're right."

"I am?"

"It's too soon." Tyler stood. "Come on. Let's eat."

"Lost my appetite."

Tyler sighed and looked off to the side. "I'm sorry. But I can't give you what you want right now and I can give you a meal, so I'm going with that, because it's the best I can do."

"Fine." Dan got off the bed. "But if you think we're done discussing this, you're wrong."

"Even if I throw in dessert?"

"Oh well, dessert…" Dan said, and let the sarcasm coat his reply as thickly as frosting on a cake.

 

Chapter Fourteen

Gilmore was small. Tyler thought if he lived here, his brain would have been atrophied within the week. Carlyle was smaller, but there was a pulse of energy running through it that this town didn't have. He and Dan walked two blocks to a restaurant, ate steak and fries, and shared a Caesar salad. They washed it down with beer in frosted glasses, and no conversation.

Watching Dan toy with a fry, dipping it into an excessively large pool of ketchup and dragging it around, desultory and distant, was painful. He'd done that to him, Tyler knew, with the way he'd received Dan's announcement, but, hell, what else had he been supposed to do? They'd known each other a couple of weeks. Weeks. Whatever he felt for Dan he'd planned to keep to himself, but Dan wouldn’t let that happen.

"You say stuff, don't you?"

"What?" Dan studied the limp fry, ketchup-thick, and dropped it onto his plate. "Oh. Yeah, I guess I do now. Why not?"

Because it fucks with people's heads, you idiot.

He didn't say it, because he wasn't Dan. "It's not always a good idea."

"Got that loud and fucking clear," Dan told him, a little too loudly. A waitress old enough to be Tyler's grandmother sucked in a sharp breath and leaned over to murmur into a customer's ear.

"Keep your voice down, okay?" It came out harsher than he'd expected but Dan didn't back down.

"Been doing that all my life. I kind of like not doing it now, so if it's all the same to you, I'll tell you that you're all kinds of an asshole, but I still love you."

Tyler closed his eyes. "I didn't ask for this. I didn't ask for any of this."

"I don't suppose you did. What the hell difference does it make?" Tyler opened his eyes again and Dan was still there, eying him in an annoyed way that made him look older. "What happened?" Dan asked. "I thought we'd decided we were taking this trip, then going back to the cabin. Why have you flipped out?"

Tyler noted Dan hadn't called the cabin 'home' and wondered if that was because he didn't think of it that way, or if Dan had thought it sounded too pushy to claim it like that. Maybe a little of both.

"You know what happened. It was what you said." This wasn't the kind of discussion he wanted to have here, in this harshly lit restaurant, with the worn seats and the inquisitive stares.

"It blew your mind that much?" Dan rolled his eyes. "Grow up."

"Coming from the man who's been giving an impression of a toddler denied a treat, that's rich," Tyler snapped. He stood and headed for the bathroom, not looking back, needing a space of time when he wasn't close enough to Dan he could smell the frustration and need pouring off him. Sex… yeah, he could have given Dan that on the clean, pretty bed he was lying on, could have gotten that bed rumpled and used, could have shut out the setting sun and made it dark in there, could have done things to Dan that would have had him making those broken, begging, exultant sounds.

Love. God, no. He could admit to himself he felt something for Dan, but to have it returned was never something he'd expected, or wanted. Dan would be with him for a while, move on, and become a memory for Tyler to take out and smile over. It wasn't that he didn't think he deserved to be loved; he wasn't that fucked-up. He didn't feel capable of normal, and Dan, for all he'd gone through in the last few months, pretty much defined the word.

Luke, well, yeah, he probably wasn't a good bet, either, but if a list existed of men Dan would be happy with, long-term, Tyler knew his name wasn't on it. He'd given him a refuge, out of guilt and attraction and necessity and that was it. Stupid for either of them to make it more than that.

He'd take Dan to the ocean and leave him there with enough cash to tide him over until he got a job. Okay, if Dan picked a town or city he wanted to start over in, he'd drive him there, if it wasn't too far. Maybe help him find a place, a job, a—Fuck. What the hell was he doing?

The bathroom door opened and he realized he'd taken a leak and washed his hands without noticing and was standing with his hands under a hot air blower that had long since turned off. He brushed past the man who'd walked in and was giving him a frankly curious stare and went back into the restaurant.

Dan had gone.

Tyler made himself sit down and wait for the bill to arrive. Made himself walk at a normal pace back to the motel. Made himself believe the whole way that he'd find Dan in there, waiting for him, angry, sure, but there, because it was the only way he could stop himself running and his ankle wasn't ready for a two-block sprint.

The door to the room swung open and he saw what he'd known he would.

Fuck.

***

He didn't check out, but he left a ten-dollar bill in the room for the key in case he never returned it. Dan couldn't have gotten far and there was only one road out of town; he'd find him in minutes, which was what made Dan's gesture that; a pointless, stupid, childish act.

When he'd driven five miles without seeing him, it occurred to him Dan might not be continuing toward the ocean, but heading back for the farmlands he knew. He turned the truck around as soon as he could and retraced his steps, barreling through town and out the other side until an itch on the back of his neck made him stop. No sign of him and it didn't feel right.

Which meant Dan had faked him out and stayed in town, or he'd gotten a ride. Tyler slammed his fist against the wheel and contemplated a third option; that Dan had been arrested for soliciting or something. He could give a not-so-gentle yank at strings and get that wiped off Dan's record, calling in favors that went back years, but he didn't want to.

He couldn't waste time by pulling over to think, but he had to start using his head, because he was flailing around in the dark. Two fucking years and it had come to this; he couldn't find a man he'd last seen forty minutes ago in a town with one main road running out of it. Unbelievable.

Taking three slow breaths, he stopped thinking of Dan as a friend he'd lost and made him a target. It helped, but part of him shrank from doing that because in Tyler's world, 'target' meant 'dead'.

He'd left the restaurant and walked back to the motel. If Dan had taken the road leading west, toward the coast, he would have kept on going after he'd picked up his backpack, maintaining his head start of… Tyler worked it out. Fifteen minutes, twenty maybe if Dan had run back to the motel and left the restaurant as soon as the bathroom door had closed behind Tyler.

Twenty minutes. Why the hell had he waited for that woman to fuss and fret over the fucking bill? He could have tossed over some cash and maybe caught up to Dan at the motel.

He stopped wasting time on what ifs. As he'd walked back to their room, a couple of trucks had passed. He called up an image of them in his head, large, lumbering behemoths driven by men who might be glad of some company to keep them awake as they drove through the night. He didn't assume someone who'd picked Dan up would necessarily be a danger to him There were plenty of decent drivers out there, who'd feel some pity toward him, maybe spot him a meal. It didn't help. He'd watched Dan struggle in his sleep, fighting off demons.

Two trucks. One white under a layer of grime, one blue? Or black? And that was all he could remember, though when he saw them, he might be able to recognize them.

"Some agent you are," he said aloud. "And Cole wants me back?"

The summer night was falling now and in the glare of his headlights, the road stretched out endlessly. Easy to miss one man walking, so he didn't dare go too fast, but the trucks would be speeding along and he couldn't let them get away from him. Choices, decisions Once, he would have made them without hesitation, his brain cold, clear, shuffling odds and probabilities like cards, deftly, precisely. Now his brain was clogged with fuzz.

And that was what being in love did to you. It slowed you down, held you back.

Why was he doing this, anyway? When he caught up to Dan, what would he say? Dan had brought their inevitable parting forward by a few weeks and made it less amicable than Tyler would have chosen. He should accept Dan's decision to walk away, turn the truck around and head back home.

And go back to hiding.

The irony was that Tyler was bored of the cabin himself. The interruption of his stay there had exposed it; not a peaceful lifestyle but a self-imposed prison sentence. He'd put himself in solitary confinement and turned the key in the door. He liked the cabin. He'd enjoyed the quiet and he was enough of a loner that the solitude hadn't troubled him, but he'd fooled himself into thinking it was permanent, when it wasn't and never could be.

The blue truck, the one that had passed by second, appeared in his headlights and Tyler’s nostrils flared in an unthinking, primal response at seeing his prey. His civilized self was a veneer.

He passed the truck easily on the quiet road and glanced up at the driver, but the angle was all wrong, and he glimpsed a hairy arm and not much more. Okay. He got in front of it and adjusted the distance between them until he could catch a look at the driver's cab in his rear view mirror. One person. Dan could have recognized Tyler's truck and ducked out of sight, of course, but the driver, from the fleeting glances Tyler could spare, didn't seem to be puzzled, or questioning the odd behavior of his passenger. Tyler took off like a man in a hurry, and as soon as the road curved to hide him, put the brakes on, slowing down considerably. When the truck came around the bend, he was ready for it, accelerating away as he didn't want to be rear-ended, but able to get another look. Still only the driver visible, who gave Tyler an up-thrust finger and a long blast on his horn.

Tyler didn't blame him; he was driving like an idiot, but it couldn't be helped. Rational thought seemed to have left the building. He could tell himself this was for the best; he could remind himself that once Dan settled somewhere, he could find him, but reason wasn't cutting it right then. He continued along the road, straining to see the white truck. When he did, his breath hissed out in exasperation and fury because it was parked by the side of the road, tucked into a passing place sheltered by overhanging trees.

His training clicked into place, because it was more useful than instinct and a small, coldly logical place in his head knew that. He slowed, let the blue truck come close, and slid in behind the white truck, killed the engine, and opened his door, all of it covered by the roar of the truck as it passed with a second, infuriated hoot of its horn. Without closing his door, he got out, and walked toward the side of the truck facing the woods. When he heard the rasp of metal on metal as a zipper came down—or went up; fuck, was he too late?—he pulled his gun from its holster and held it down by his side, safety still on.

He rounded the side of the truck and saw a burly man with a satisfied smile on his face, his hand on his zipper.

"You son of a bitch."

"Huh?" The man turned his head fully, startled, and Tyler took a step back and made his gun disappear, tucking it into the small of his back as he raised his empty hand in a distracting, placating gesture.

No Dan in sight and a tree trunk with urine splattered over it…

"Sorry. I thought you were someone else." He put both hands up, and pasted a reassuring smile on his face.

"Yeah?" The man was all beer gut and muscle, but he looked puzzled, not threatening. "Like who?"

Tyler was debating the value of giving the man a description of Dan when the passenger door opened. "Me." Dan swung his legs around, his backpack in his lap. "He's looking for me, Larry."

"Is that so?" Larry hawked and spat. Tyler didn't flinch; it wasn’t aimed at him. "Well, if you don't want to be found, stay where you are. You're safe enough there." He jerked his chin at Tyler. "You try anything, and you'll regret it, mister. I don't know what you want with him, but I won’t stand for any trouble."

"I want him to come home," Tyler said. "He's not in any trouble."

Larry's eyebrows, thick and as luxuriant as his moustache, knitted together. "Home?" He gave them both a dubious look. "You're family? You look too young to be his daddy."

"He's my stepfather," Dan said, contriving to sound sullen and resigned, but not intimidated. "Is Mom okay?"

Reminding himself once he had Dan to himself, he could make him pay for forcing this charade onto him, Tyler played along. "Your momma is crying her eyes out over your worthless hide and if I know her, she's making your favorite supper as she does it." He shook his head. "Running away isn't going to solve your problems, son." He gave Larry a rueful look. "Him and his best buddy took a joyride and ended up crashing Billy's dad's car. Took out a fence and hit a tree."

"Drunk?" Larry asked, his voice sharp.

Tyler laughed, deep and easy. "No, but Billy's one piss-poor driver." He met Dan's eyes. "Billy's told everyone how you tried to make him stop. He's grounded for the rest of his life, or until his daddy gets over it, but I guess I can cut you a break seeing as how you didn't try and push it all onto him." He shook his head. "Kids."

"Got two of my own," Larry said. "Hell-raisers, both of them." He looked up at Dan. "Well, boy? Get your ass down here and get back home with you."

"Yes, sir," Dan said meekly and scrambled down to stand beside Tyler. He didn't meet Tyler's eyes until after Larry, waving off a thank you from both of them, had climbed back into his rig and driven away.

"You lie good," Tyler said, watching the taillights fade away. "Don't try it with me."

"You do too," Dan pointed out. "And I only did once, when I lied about my name. I swear I never have since then." Tyler grunted in acknowledgement of something he knew to be simple fact, and Dan said reflectively, "So, what is my favorite supper?"

"I can open a can of whup ass for you," Tyler said mildly.

Dan chuckled. "Yeah, right." Tyler kept his face unsmiling and watched Dan's amusement die away. "You pissed at me?"

Tyler sighed. "No. But I wish you'd stick around so we could have an argument. Chasing after you is hell on my nerves."

"I didn't think you'd come after me this time."

Tyler shook his head and pulled Dan in close. "Boy, you knew damn well I would," he said against Dan's hair and let himself smile as Dan dropped his pack and hugged him back, fierce and tight.

 

Chapter Fifteen

Dan turned back to Tyler who grinned and waved him on. "I'll find somewhere to put the cooler; you paddle."

Paddle. Dan wasn't sure about that. The ocean looked huge, an endless stretch of hazy blue ending where the sky curved down to meet it. He'd smelled it before he'd seen it, a wild, salty tang to the air, mixed in with sun-baked sand and seaweed. It had called to him, terrified him, enchanted him. He'd helped Tyler take out towels and the cooler from the truck, then he'd walked through the sand dunes toward the source of the smell and the noise. God, that rush and surge was like nothing he'd ever heard before.

His fist sight of it had dragged a whoop from him. "Tyler! God, look at it!"

"I see it." Tyler sounded indulgent, but there had been some of the awe Dan felt in there too. "It's something, isn't it?"

"It's beautiful." He walked forward, drawn to it. "And it’s huge."

And now here he was on the wet sand, with the waves breaking at his bare feet. His shoes and socks were way back, abandoned on his journey toward the water. A warm breeze whipped at his hair and plastered his T-shirt to his chest. Sand clung to his calves and his shorts were destined to get wet real soon because he was going into that rush of foam right now.

"Ow! Fuck! Cold!" There was no one close enough to hear him. The beach wasn't deserted, but the only people visible were a group of surfers a quarter-mile away. It was past nine in the morning, mid-week, and the rough water meant this wasn't a place families used. Tyler had warned Dan swimming was probably not a great idea and promised to take him to a more sheltered bay later on.

"I want you to see it as it should be seen," he'd said. "You and the water."

Dan danced out of the way of the next wave, his numb toes tingling, his face split in a grin. The wave receded, sucking the sand from between his toes, which tickled, then a new one came, bigger than the last, and splashed him.

With a wild yell, he charged at it and ended up submerged, soaked, and still grinning. Spitting out a mouthful of seawater, he struggled to his feet, shivering violently, and waved at Tyler, who waved back. Dan was willing to bet Tyler wouldn't take his eyes off him the whole time he was in the water. It felt good knowing someone had his back.

By the time he'd discovered sand on wet skin was impossible to get off and itched, Tyler had set up a camp in a sheltered space made by rocks and driftwood, silver-gray and twisted, and had dry clothes and a towel waiting. Dan stripped, with an ear open for anyone approaching, and toweled off, which spread the wet sand around a bit more.

"Sand."

"I see it." Tyler's lips twitched in a consoling smile. "When it dries, you can brush it off."

"For real?"

"In theory, but no. It sticks like glue. Worth it, though?"

"Oh man." Dan rolled his eyes, lost for words. "This is unbelievable." He pushed his damp hair out of his eyes and gave Tyler a kiss that landed somewhere near his ear because he was too buzzed to get it on target. "Did I say thank you yet?"

"For bringing you here?" Tyler shook his head. "No need. I wanted to come here myself. I miss it. I grew up near the ocean."

Dan waited for some specifics, but it seemed like that was all he was getting. "No. For all of it, you know. Thanks."

Tyler smiled at him. "I should be saying that to you."

"We're getting mushy," Dan decided. "Give me a beer."

"It's before ten in the morning," Tyler objected.

"And you woke me at six; it's practically lunchtime."

He'd woken with the click of the motel door echoing in his ears as Tyler left. He'd rolled over, panicked, lost, and discovered a note on the pillow. Reading it with sleep-blurred eyes hadn't been easy as the letters kept jumping around, but it didn't take too long for him to get the message: Gone out to get coffee. Back in twenty.

And because this was Tyler, he'd signed it with the time, not his name, so Dan would know exactly when Tyler would return.

"I'll split it with you," Tyler said.

The beer wasn't cold, but it tasted like summer and Dan swallowed deeply before handing it over to Tyler who studied what was left, rolled his eyes, and finished it. Dan leaned in and kissed Tyler before he could wipe his mouth dry, this time getting the kiss where he wanted it to be. Tyler let him do it, his hand curved around Dan's jaw, his tongue sliding into Dan's mouth, slow and sure.

They hadn't made love the night before. Dan had come out of the shower, a red towel wrapped around his hips, and found Tyler sitting on the bed, staring down at his hands, clenched in his lap. The broad, powerful shoulders had been slumped, muscles lax, and Dan had made a small sound of protest because it was his fault Tyler looked like that, and gone to him, falling to his knees and putting his head on those hands until they parted and cradled him, held him, anchored him.

Tyler had needed to give out comfort as much as Dan had needed to get it; Dan wasn't sure of much, but he was sure of that. By the time he'd finished shaking, because he'd thought he'd lost Tyler once he'd climbed into that rig, each mile, each passing minute, making it more certain, Tyler was himself again. His hands had stroked Dan's hair and face and back, offering reassurance, no more. Dan had fallen asleep with the sound of soft, calm words in his head and Tyler beside him, between him and the door, which made him feel protected, not trapped.

Tyler ended the kiss, patted Dan's face, and leaned back against the log he was using as support. "So," he said, with a question wrapped around it. "I guess we need to talk."

A gull flew over them, white wings spread wide. Dan tracked it until it landed on the beach and began pecking at something he was glad he couldn't see closely. "Okay," he said when he was sure Tyler wasn't going to add anything to that. "About us?"

"Well, I wasn't planning on discussing the weather." Tyler scooped up a handful of sand and let it trickle through his fingers. "What do you see happening?"

Dan shrugged. "I don't know. But speaking of the weather, there was no rain forecast, and you didn't arrange for anyone to water the garden."

Tyler gave him a perplexed look. "So?"

"So, short-term, we have to go home in the next few days, or everything will be withering."

"You're worrying about the garden?"

Dan sat up straight. "I'm not worrying, I'm pointing out that plants need water and as I worked damn hard saving it after the storm, I don't plan on letting it die."

Tyler still looked bemused, but he nodded. "Okay, we go back and see to the garden."

"And you need to answer that e-mail," Dan said. "You're going to tell Cole no?"

"I don't have a choice," Tyler said. "I can't do it. I don't want to do it. I'll make him see that." He traced a pattern in the spilled, heaped sand. "Do you want us to go somewhere? Close up the cabin and head out? Because we can. Pick a country, pick a place, and I'll take you there. Money isn’t an issue."

"Wow." Dan let himself consider that, because it was tempting. Seeing the world solo, scared, and always with the sense he was on the outside looking in didn't compare to seeing it with Tyler at his side. "I bet you've traveled a lot, haven't you?"

"Been to a lot of places," Tyler admitted, "but I never had time to relax or do all the tourist-type things you're supposed to do. There are some places I'd like to go back to. Places I'd like to show you." He smiled. "I got a real kick out of the look on your face today when you saw the ocean."

"Do you want to know what I'd like to do?" Dan said. He didn't wait for Tyler's nod to continue. "I want to go back to the cabin and settle down. Get a job in town, maybe, so we're not in each other's face all the time, get to know you. Spend the winter with you." He couldn't work out how Tyler was reacting to his proposal; his face was neutral, still. "Then, by spring, if we're still together, we decide."

"Decide what?"

Dan met Tyler's eyes, gray, cool eyes, in an immobile, watchful face. "Whether to plant the garden again, or pack our bags and head out."

"You think you'll still be with me by then?"

Dan shrugged. "I don't know," he said, giving Tyler honesty, because he'd earned it. "I want to be. I want it to work between us. But I can't promise, any more than you can promise you'll still want me around. I guess we'll have to try it and see." He slid his hand into Tyler's and felt the grit of sand and the controlled strength that drew him to Tyler as much as the man's vulnerability did. "I swear I won't run away again, though. If I have to go, or if you ask me to, I'll walk away after saying good bye."

Tyler's fingers closed around his. "Walk slowly," he said. "So I can catch up with you."