They're sitting on the fence of the holding pen, waiting for Uncle X and their mother to get back from lunch, when Elena decides to be nosy.
"Who have you been texting all day?" she asks, chasing a bead of melted popsicle down her thumb.
"No one," Chris mutters. His comm is new and the keyboard is different; he has to watch his fingers while he's typing.
"You've sent like twenty messages since this morning," she says. "Yes, he did, Dylan! He's a crazy boy," she adds, talking to the red-and-white collie, who raises his graying chin from the dust to listen. She scratches him behind an ear with her boot until the blue merle puppy scampers over in jealousy.
"Not that many." Chris has only sent twelve. He would have sent more, but his mother shears too quickly and he has to keep grabbing sheep to hand off to her.
"Close to that many," Elena counters. The full-grown merle has followed his progeny over and Elena switches her popsicle to the other hand to pet him, too. "What are all those messages about, anyway?"
"Stuff," Chris says. The comm pings to notify him of a new text and he quickly toggles over to read it.
"Uh huh." Elena inhales the last clump of her popsicle and flicks the stick over to the compost chute. "Oh wow, look where it landed!" she says.
Chris looks up but there's nothing to see, just a distraction so Elena can snatch the comm from his hand and boil over the fence, hopping over a pile of dung.
The dogs follow her, slinking sharp-nosed under the bottom rail. The sheep inside the pen consider being startled, then reconsider and continue eating.
"Laney, GIVE THAT BACK," Chris yells. He bangs his leg against the rail trying to get over. The sinews are still stretching themselves to fit the prosthetic patella, so his left knee won't bend enough.
"Seriously?" Elena says, eyebrows annoyingly high as she looks at the screen. The dogs bumble around her. "Woah, down, Dylan. Down Skittle. Walpole!" she snaps when the whelp darts between her legs. She glares and points until he settles, tail thumping the haystrewn earth. With that business sorted out, she holds out the comm. "Chris, this person claims they like your hair," she says incredulously.
"A lot of people like my hair," Chris grumbles. The dye didn't come out the way it looked on the box but he still likes it. Elena doesn't need to sound so shocked.
"They must have fond memories of ketchup," she says.
Chris finally clears the fence and lands wobbly on the left leg, but it holds and doesn't hurt. "Shut up," he says, stomping over to her and grabbing for the phone.
She quick-steps around him and pinwheels over the fence again. The dogs slither after her but Chris stays on this side, fuming and alone. Even Dylan is unusually spry today and won't hang back to keep him company. The sheep don't count because they're stupid.
"Sean McCormick," Elena reads off the screen. "Local kid?"
"Yeah." Chris goes easy up to the fence, like Dylan being sneaky with the sheep before he got arthritis.
Elena shoots him a look that says how stupid do you think I am? but holds her ground. "Does he owe you money?"
"No, she doesn't," Chris says. He hoists his leg over the fence again, slowly, like Elena won't notice.
She drifts further down but doesn't vault over again so Chris straddles, waiting for her move. Elena's eyebrows are being annoying again. "Sean's a girl, huh? Do you like her?"
It isn't any of her business, of course, but Chris doesn't actually know. Sean makes him laugh and she's cute but they don't know each other very well yet. He shrugs.
"Don't worry, I'll figure it out," Elena says, like she somehow knows how to do everything just because she's in college now. "How about I take a look at what you guys have been saying to each other, hmm?"
She starts poking at the buttons. Chris waits until she's distracted to leap off the fence. She dodges him easily enough but Walpole gets underfoot and the three of them go down in a pile. Elena tucks the puppy into her chest and rolls over to shove him out of the tussle. Chris darts forward to grab the comm, which she's only holding with the crook of her elbow since her hands are busy with Walpole, but she curls up like an armadillo and Chris has to wedge his hand into her belly to get at it, scraping his knuckles against her belt buckle. She starts throwing her shoulders back-- he's going to get a split lip if he's not careful--but she's not kicking or trying to flip him the way she would have six months ago, before he fell off the horse.
That pisses Chris off. He jams her face into the ground and kidney punches her until she knocks him dizzy with the back of her head, elbows him in the stomach, and kicks his shin hard enough to bruise and maybe cut the skin through the denim. He tries to wrestle through the haze but she rolls him over and into a headlock anyway. He could break the lock by flipping her but she has her feet planted on either side of him and he can't do anything but scratch the hell out of her arms trying to pry them off.
Elena clamps her hand over his mouth and nose.
He scrabbles his feet uselessly against the ground, spooking Walpole (overeager idiot is still trying to join the fight) and nearly clipping Skittle in the nose, which would serve him right for advancing on them in a working crouch, eyeballing them like they're errant sheep. Chris doesn't have a bead on Dylan; he still doesn't have a bead on the comm, either, and realizes with a pang of frustration that his new skin for it is textured rubber, like a chew toy.
"You crazy son of a bitch, tap out," Elena hisses. His vision's starting to go white at the edges so maybe, just this once, she has some good advice.
Chris goes limp and slaps weakly at her hands.
She lets go of his nose immediately. Her arms release more slowly, but instead of falling away they circle his chest in a loose clasp. When he looks down Chris realizes that her shirt-cuff has a button missing. The fabric has random warps in it and maybe some of the fibers are stuck beneath his fingernails, or else it's dirt.
He takes in big gulps of air. It was a short fight but even so he was winded before she started to smother him; his conditioning is all shot to hell and he can't run from the house to the holding pen without needing to stop for a rest.
"You've been so freaking aggro lately," Elena says, and starts picking the hay out of his hair.
Instead of answering, Chris grabs the whelp and rolls him over. Walpole mouths at the hand holding him down, kicks at the wrist and scatters dirt with every wag of his tail. Skittle doesn't have a lick of paternal interest, apparently. He flumps to the ground nearby, satisfied that the humans are behaving themselves.
Still no sign of Dylan or the comm.
Elena pats him right above the heart. "Alright, get off me."
Chris releases Walpole and gets himself up in stages, first to the knees and then to the feet, and shakes off Elena's hand when she tries to help.
"Suit yourself," she says. "Oh, fuck." She grabs her lower back suddenly and shoots Chris a glare that probably took off a few layers of skin. Or it would, if the side of her face weren't covered in dirt. "You little fucker," she says. "I don't care what the doctor says; I'm not going easy on you anymore."
Chris grins without intending to.
Elena considers him for a long moment, ferreting something out, before shaking her head like this is all just too crazy to deal with anymore. "Whatever," she mutters. She staggers off to scrub her face under the spigot and snag some antiseptic wipes from the first-aid box mounted on the fence.
"You know what I miss about college?" she says as she dabs at the parallel scrapes on her arm. "There's no shit all over the place."
It's the third time she's said that this summer so Chris just gives her a courtesy snort. It's more than she deserves, actually, because she didn't laugh at the joke he made at breakfast.
Elena doesn't seem offended. "So, are you going to ask Sean out?" she asks.
Chris is caught off guard, busy looking around for Dylan, so he snaps, "What? No!"
"Uh huh," says Elena, in the most aggravating tone ever.
Chris squares his shoulders defensively. "I don't even know if she likes me."
Elena laughs. "Oh, she likes you, definitely."
There's a glint of orange under some hay so Chris kills some time nudging at it, disappointed but not at all surprised when it turns out to be a carrot instead of his comm. Elena's looking at him expectantly when he turns around, so Chris bites. "How do you know?"
"Um, she said she likes your hair?" Elena says, like that explains everything. Chris gives her the blank look she hates. "It's basic logic," she says in exasperation. "Either she's telling the truth, in which case she's messed up in the head exactly the same way you are, or she's lying, which means she's willing to compromise her moral integrity to make you happy." Elena puts her hands on her hips and says loftily, "That's the kind of girl you need to snatch up before anyone else does."
"Wow," says Chris. "That's really heartwarming."
"Shut up," says Elena.
"You should drop out of college and just write greeting cards for a living." Chris uses his nicest smile for this helpful suggestion, but all it gets him is a smack on the head.
Elena opens her mouth, probably to wax poetic about her noble dedication to her sisterly duties and the tragic pain of his rank ingratitude, but just then Dylan comes trotting by the pen with a gay tail, proud as punch of the comm he's got clamped in his mouth.
Chris comes out of the ensuing struggle victorious (though Elena did help somewhat) and the comm is mostly intact. The skin's a loss, of course, but Chris can get an identical one for cheap and Uncle X doesn't need to find out. Elena's solid; she won't snitch.
While Chris is scrubbing the slobber from the screen, he wonders if Uncle X would let him invite Sean over to the ranch tomorrow, like to bottle-feed a lamb or something.
Girls like that stuff, right?